This week, I received a press release about a new web-based art technology venture. It noted, among other things, that the founder of the company was “a very smart girl.” The woman in question has three degrees from two of the most prestigious schools in the country, including a Ph.D. in applied mathematics, and spent three years managing investment portfolios at one of the most prestigious hedge funds in the world.
She's not a “smart girl” — she's an über-successful math genius-turned entrepreneur (what in the world she's doing in the art-tech startup world is a different article for a different time).
Compare this to, say, 25-year old Artsy CEO Carter Cleveland who is almost young enough to be called a “smart boy,” but is mostly just known for being what he is, “a computer science engineer from Princeton University with a passion for fine art.” Once, I saw a description of him as “fresh-faced.”
Despite the strides women have made over the last century — equality on paper — there still exist pockets of deep-seated sexism that refuse to die. This really hit home this week when Der Spiegel published an instantaneously infamous interview with Georg Baselitz in which he declares that women cannot paint. And even if they can paint they are not good artists:
Baselitz: Oh God! Women simply don't pass the test.
SPIEGEL: What test?
Baselitz: The market test, the value test.
Later, the interviewer joined in:
Women certainly aren't as loud and obtrusive when it comes to how they present themselves. With its desire for the sensational, the market isn't very forgiving of that.
This is a ridiculous stereotype of female artists, and isn’t remotely true. Remember Marina Abramovic’s nudes-under-skeletons performance at the 2011 MOCA dinner? Has there been anything more loud and obtrusive in the last few years? Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party was one of the more sensational works of the last half-century. Few contemporary painters push my buttons quite like Marlene Dumas.
I can’t help but laugh — Baselitz blasts women for not pushing the envelope in a way that makes me think he’s been asleep for the last 50 years. I imagine him sitting around with Mad Men's Roger Sterling, drinking and smoking at a club that still doesn’t allow women, nostalgic for the good old days. It’s like he didn’t get the memo about the realities of the 21st century.
What he said about women would be slightly less infuriating if he had a real argument, but he doesn’t. The only concrete evidence he can muster of his lesser opinion of female artists is that their work is not as valuable in the market. This is, of course, not at all true if you look at relative, rather than absolute, art market values. (By the way, have you heard that Baselitz’s secondary market had an extremely rough year in 2012, and few collectors seem interested in anything he painted after 1970?)
The most expensive artwork bought at auction is Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” which went for $120 million last year. The record for a female artist, Natalia Goncharova’s “Les Fleurs,” sold in 2008, is $10.9 million — less than 10 percent of the Munch record. But that’s an effect of historical discrimination. The Munch was an absolute icon — the product of 150 years of art history and a lot of luck. The push for women to be elevated to the same status has really only taken off in the last 40 years. Women haven’t yet had the time to catch up, but the gap is closing.
There has been a distinctive generational shift in attitudes towards women (a generation younger than Mr. Baselitz, I suppose), but it hasn’t occurred without opposition — to be crass, the older generation isn’t dead yet and there aren’t yet enough of the younger generation who have $80 million laying around to spend on a painting. Baselitz is not alone in his assessment: art critic Brian Sewell also stirred this particular pot in 2008 when he declared, “There has never been a first-rank woman artist. Only men are capable of aesthetic greatness.” It’s jarring to hear this sort of thing today, but also worth noting that both Sewell and Baselitz are white men over the age of 70, seemingly unable to let go of their antiquated biases.
Female artists are only in the last decade or two building momentum in the market, so of course they are behind. The important point is that they are catching up. In the realm of photography, less traditional in the fine art world, a Cindy Sherman work held the record for the most expensive photograph ever sold when “Untitled #96” went for $3.89 million at Christie’s (the record has since been displaced by Andreas Gursky).
The same momentum argument goes for the next generation of female businesswomen (and collectors) who may step in to send the prices of work by the likes of the already well-respected female masters — Louise Bourgeois, Joan Mitchell, Sherman, and Cady Noland to name a few — skyrocketing to price parity with their male peers over the next few decades. Sheikha Mayassa Al Thani is rumored to be the buyer of many of the record-breaking works by female artists over the last few years. She’s 30, and money doesn’t seem to be an issue for her — how much would she pay for a Sherman if there were a couple more female billionaires bidding in the room?
Two decades from now, the landscape of the art market will be very different. And it’s very likely that work by those women mentioned above will be worth a lot more than the average Baselitz painting.