For a long time in art, the only representation of women came through their depictions by men; although there have always been women artists, it was only women muses that garnered any attention. In a new campaign, online art seller Saatchi Art is turning this way of doing things on its head.
Saatchi Art is an online gallery space, giving fine art purveyors the opportunity to search the works of Saatchi-represented artists from all over the globe. In taking the confines of the physical gallery space out of the picture, more artists are able to get the visibility they deserve. And, with this power, the gallery is making space for artists who have been systematically underrepresented in the art world. Last month, it spotlighted its favorite Black artists in a catalog for Black History Month, and now, it's doing the same for women.
The catalog, aptly titled Refuse to Be the Muse, spotlights a wide array of women artists of all backgrounds and identities, who are making their own work in the industry. "From Titian's 'Venus' to Picasso's nudes, women have more often been the subject of artworks, than had their own works displayed and celebrated in museums and galleries," says Rebecca Wilson, the catalog's curator.
And now, Wilson says, the company is taking steps to make sure women and artists of color are given equal footing in the industry that they've been shut out of professionally. "There is no shortage of outstanding work by these groups who have been under-served by the art world," she notes, "so it is now a question of making sure that they are equally displayed in museums and galleries, and that every effort is made for the art world to reflect the society we live in."
The issue of sexism in art is pervasive and self-sustaining: Because more male artists are shown and sold, their work fetches a higher price, inflating its inherent value, and making collectors feel like it's the better investment. But Wilson notes that Saatchi's art buyers do buy art made by women when it is actually made accessible to them. "We represent as many women artists as men, and our clients are very happy to buy works by women," she says. "In 2018, more than half of our sales by U.S.-based artists were works by women." So the bottom line is, as long as women artists get promoted, their work will be sold, valued accordingly, and a positive cycle will be established.
Below, we chatted with six of the artists featured in Saatchi Art's all-women catalog.
Armstrong notes that so many, if not all, of the "creative geniuses" who are celebrated in the art world have been men—and it's not because they're intrinsically better artists. "So few female artists were given the opportunity to break through the 'boys club' and achieve the same level of success and notoriety as their male counterparts—unless they were a 'muse,'" says Armstrong. "It is important to provide recognition and give a voice to women artists who are behind the canvas creating the work. It proves that women actually have a lot more to contribute than just being objectified as a man's subject."
Armstrong's work is quite abstract in nature, drawing upon the foundational genre of portraiture to depict "not a person or sitter, [but] an atmosphere or sensation expressed inside the formal qualities of human shapes." The uncertainty of the subject is intentional, and it reflects her identity as a woman. "My focus is to capture what it feels like to be alive today through the lens of a woman; a woman who is growing up in a time of great change."
Barlow's voice is vital to the art world as a lesbian woman of color. She tells us that shifting the narrative to include more representation of women and people of color is necessary to allow art to reach its full potential as an "authentic reflection of our time."
"The narratives and legacy of our time must include the forgotten, and these neglected voices are often people of color and women due to longstanding power dynamics in the art world," she continues. "The art world has a shameful legacy of creating false narratives, which has created domino effects on nearly every aspect of our culture. Representation can shift the accuracy and equity of our lived experiences, which leads to spiritual, economic, political and social prosperity."
As for her identity, she says that "being a woman informs so much of my existence," so her artistic decisions are made in order to overthrow a dominant narrative of women perpetuated by men. "[Our] power doesn't have to be placed in a passive position," she says. "Women are fully capable of writing their own stories, taking in the world and disseminating into glorious works of art. They don't need anyone to dilute, misrepresent, fabricate, or rewrite their truths."
Hymas believes that women are not given the ability to be fully confident in their roles as artists, especially not to the point that men are. "Even though attitudes are changing, we are still expected to take the main role in the family, so it can be hard to focus solely on your work without feeling guilty or selfish," she points out. "Women have always been involved in making art, however, many talented women have been excluded from art history with only a few gaining recognition as successful fine artists."
The only way to counteract this is to put women artists on an equal playing field as men. "It is so important for women in art to be represented and for women to sell their work on an equal level with men," says Hymas. Agreed.
As a woman drawing women, Krannichfeld actively works against the positioning of women as merely a muse. "Generally, it's a disservice to humanity to pigeonhole a group of people into just serving one use," she says. "Women have long been valued solely for their inspirational beauty, often over-emphasized in the art, film, and entertainment industries."
Krannichfeld finds power in the ability to sell her art online, saying that being an artist is a more accessible career with the help of online art sellers. "I can say that as a young female artist working outside the traditional art metropolis cities, I have a lot of odds against me at making a living as a full-time artist," she says. And, not only does this allow more artists to sell their art, but it also allows more people to be able to see themselves in the art that is sold. "[Art] should not only be accessible to everyone but also have the potential to connect with people from all walks of life," she continues. "Diverse representation in the creators of art is key in doing this; for too long has art been controlled by and catered to a just a small demographic."
Instead of simply using women for their beauty, then, she uses it to empower them. "My greatest joy has always come from drawing and painting women, and my current body of work takes that joy and mixes it with the passion to further the sense of power and confidence women have in themselves," she says. "In some pieces, I intentionally cut off the faces of the figures I paint to allow female-identifying people to see themselves in the work."
Marijah Bac Cam
For so long, women have only been able to see themselves as the subject, and not the creator, of art. Giving a platform to women artists is powerful because it "helps to change our view of the place of women in art, [who are] often confined to the role of muse or inspirer, and to present models in which everyone can recognize themselves."
But, Bac Cam says that, even when women are given the opportunity to advance in the art world as the artists, they are still confined to specific creative mediums. Her work goes against that, and she hopes that it "breaks the codes and stereotypes that suggest that a woman artist must be limited in her colors, subjects, format, and technique."
Hunt is aware that women have been making amazing art throughout history, but that they have only been given the chance to be recognized for it for a small portion of it. "The time has come for the art world to catch up and give recognition to the reality that woman have always made significant, substantial, and monumental contributions as artists," she says. We need to make up for lost time.