Women Are Great and Wise Artists, Too

By Arzie Umali

Image from Flickr.com

Happy New Year!  We are almost one full week into 2011 and many people by now have firmly secured their resolutions and goals for the New Year. In fact, some may have already thrown in the towel and realized they had set their sights too high. Whatever we do at this time of year, whether it is strategically listing a set of goals complete with deadlines and measureable outcomes, or just continuing with our current Modus Operandi, many of us do take this time at the start of a brand new year to do some reflection and evaluation; and, most often, we do this with our best intentions at heart.

So, I’m wondering what the intensions were of a recent Wall Street Journal article that listed the “Cultural Resolutions” of some of whom they claimed to be the top writers, artists, and musicians of today.  The article included a sampling of artists from around the world sharing their hopes and goals for the New Year. What first appears to be a rather arbitrary selection of individuals (from Oprah to former Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash) to me, also appears to be an extremely sexist list of who the WSJ considers to be the wisest of the cultural icons of today. In the print version of the article, a full-page layout for the article on the cover of the “Friday Journal” section lists quotes from 10 creative individuals – only one, fashion designer, Nanette Lepore, is female. The article covers two more full pages with resolutions and goals of various artists. 37 people are included in total, of which only 9 are women. The on-line version of the article is slightly different and includes a large image of architect, Richard Meier, whose goal is to design more global works. If Meier’s image at the top of this article is any indication of how the WSJ regards the greatness of artists, then they have shown their readers that great art and wisdom comes from men. The rest of the article on-line lists 55 other artists in various disciplines, of which only 11 are women.

The problem with this article, aside from its haphazard mix of artists, is that the message it sends to readers is that men still outnumber women in the arts; therefore, men are more important and are still better at it. Articles like this that quote the wisdom of individuals selected by reputable media sources, assign values that then inform its audiences’ interpretation and perspective on the arts as well. If the WSJ says that these are the top artists, then they must be. And because men dominate this list, then they just must be better. This is not true. And I am disappointed in the WSJ for not being more responsible and doing their due diligence to provide a more gender balanced article.

Women have had a long history of being devalued and excluded from the arts. Shakespeare’s female roles were once performed by men, many art academies in Europe did not allow women, and many symphonies and orchestras have been hostile to female musicians.  Women historically, have had to struggle to be seen, heard, and recognized as legitimate artists. The good news is that, in recent decades, the number of women working in the arts has increased and in many fields women have reached equity in numbers, if not surpassed their male counterparts. Reports from the National Endowment for the Arts confirm this. However, how we as a society value the art produced by these women is still based on the masculine definitions of art established in the past. This becomes a challenge for women emerging onto the arts scene who have their own style and aesthetics, that are different from men, but just as valuable. The problem here is that, most of the time, we act on the impulse that anything different from what we have been conditioned to understand as the best, then is not the best, and we, thus, reject it.

It is time that society release the definition of great art, great music, and great performances from its sexist, homogeneity and recognize the value and richness that adding some gender diversity to these definitions can bring. The media, including the WSJ, then has a responsibility to stop perpetuate the myth of male domination in the arts and to help raise the awareness of its audience to the gender diversity that actually exists in the arts. Brilliant, creative, and innovative women are out there in the art world in numbers and greatness equal to men, but if the media doesn’t let you know who they are, then who will?

The Her Art Project at the UMKC Women’s Center is addressing this problem head on, by collaborating across campus and throughout the Kansas City area with other arts organizations to create programs and services that raise awareness to the contributions of women in the arts and to address the challenges that women working in the arts still face. This spring several events including workshops, lectures and exhibits are planned to support women in the arts in Kansas City.  Visit the Her Art Project website for more information.