Women in the Arts
As an English major, I quickly became familiar with the western literary canon (the classics) and the issues surrounding it. Throughout college, I read Shakespeare, Donne, Wilde, Emerson, Poe, Thoreau, Conrad and so on. What do the names on this list have in common?
The most influential works in literary history, the ones we consider to be “classics,” are, more often than not, written by white men. The western literary canon has effectively erased, hidden, and discredited works by women and people of color. And that is just the thing, these works exist, and have always existed. Men and women of every color have created art, inventions and literature throughout history. The very first novel written in English is the subject of some debate. Wikipedia has a list of “claimed first novels in English.” Oroonoko (1688), by Aphra Behn, is considered to be one of the first novels ever written in English. Yet, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) is also on this list and is far more popular.
So why is that? First of all, Oroonoko is written by a woman and Robinson Crusoe is written by a man. Second, the subject matter of each text is markedly different. Oroonoko is considered by many to be progressive for its time; it details the tragic story of a beautiful, articulate, skilled African Prince. The white man is depicted as savage and the book calls attention to the horrors of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Robinson Crusoe, on the other hand, chronicles the story of a white man who discovers new land. There, Crusoe meets Friday, a man native to the island. Crusoe teaches Friday English and converts him to Christianity, so essentially it is a tale of small-scale colonization.
This phenomenon is not an issue exclusive to the 1700s, nor is it an issue exclusive to literature.
The art world is a beautiful place. Both creating and viewing art opens a window to creativity, expression, emotion, social change and history. But, it is also riddled with sexism, racism, ageism and ableism — among other isms. In 2019, Smithsonian Magazine published an article stating “an analysis of more than 40,000 works of art detailed in 18 major U.S. museums’ online catalogues found that 85 percent of artists featured are white, and 87 percent are men.” Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous group of female artists fighting racism and sexism in the art world, have been pointing out this inequality since 1985.
Throughout history, works by women were ignored, deemed as lesser, or considered to be too “emotional” or “inappropriate.” The study, “Is Gender in the Eye of the Beholder? Identifying Cultural Attitudes with Art Auction Prices” determined that “women’s art appears to sell for less because it is made by women.” It is evident that art made by women is underrepresented in museums, and sells for less.
If 85 percent of artists featured are white, and 87 percent are men, what does this mean for women of color? Of course, women are no less talented or creative than men. Instead, many lack the resources. Others lack the representation and respect, typically reserved for men, to gain proper recognition. Throughout time, women have been at a disadvantage in the creative world (as well as all other worlds); consider that all three Brontë sisters published under pseudonyms, Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily) and Acton (Anne) Bell. It was not uncommon for women to publish under men’s names or gender-ambiguous names in an attempt to be taken seriously. Clearly a necessary tactic. Middlemarch, one of the most famous novels ever written, is still listed as being authored by George Eliot, the male pseudonym adopted by Mary Ann Evans. It would not be surprising to find out that many of the most incredible works of art have actually been created by women.