Monday, May 02, 2005

Neither Science Nor Art?

In the article "The X Factor: Is the Art Market Rational or Biased" Sunday's New York Times, Greg Allen describes the disparity between sale prices for art done by men versus art done by women.

Out of the 861 works for sale at next week's contemporary art auctions at Christies, Sotheby's and Phillips de Pury & Co, only 13 percent are by female artists and of the 61 pieces that have been assigned an estimated price of at least $1 million, only 6 percent are by women.

According to Irving Sandler, an art historian: When you're talking about the market, there may be a glass ceiling. It's not as if women aren't recognized; they are. But look at your top auction people, and there is a vast discrepancy between what men get and what the women get.

So, the question is, why?

According to conventional wisdom, the value of an artist's work increases when she has shows in prestigious museums. But as Mark Fletcher, a private art adviser who has dealt in work by both [Damien Hirst (think tiger shark in formaldehyde) and Rachel Whiteread (think fiberglass, rubber mattresses) both Y.B.A.'s or "Young British Artists." As an aside, BioMom and I got to see a great exhibition of the YBA's at London's Saatchi Gallery last summer. The exhibitions included the floating shark as well as a room filled to its mid-point in oil. Now THAT's art!], said, "Whiteread has an extraordinary, esteemed museum exhibition and patronage history, but it's Hirst, which has little such institutional support, which does extremely well in the marketplace."

Art defies a head-on comparison. Forget apples and oranges; how does one judge the value of Ms. Whiteread's cast fiberglass and rubber mattress relative to Mr. Hirst's deteriorating shark? . . The contemporary art market has at least one frustratingly simple answer: price. And from that perspective, the comparison is unmistakable: art made by women is regarded less highly than art made by men.

The problem, of course, started long before the current boom in the art market, with its dizzying seven-figure prices. Through the middle of the last century, many galleries simply refused to show the work of female artists; others reportedly had quotas. . . "Until about 25 years ago, women just weren't shown that much."

Like other disciplines, some women who refused to network in the male-dominated culture chose to withdraw from the market. They just left because they just didn't want to have that kind of life or being that kind of situation. Note, this is at least part of an explanation for the relative dearth of women in full-professor positions and in the upper echelons of law firms.

Such obstacles slowed or prevented women from establishing a strong base of collectors.

In 1972, the feminist art historian Linda Nochlin published an influential essay that linked women's lack of parity in the art world with the biases women faced in the culture at large. Since then, each successive generation of female artists has found the playing field a bit more level.

And, naturally, there are the skeptics. Those women who lived through the patriarchy and succeeded and, therefore, deny any possibility of the existence of sexism [As another aside, our provost regularly touts the fact that she raised kids AND rose through the ranks of academia without these fluffy work-life policies to help her. Why shouldn't you???]:

Ms. Bourgeois, now 93, rejects the idea that her art has ever suffered from bias. "No, it hasn't," she said assuredly. "I don't see any difference in the art, whether men's or women's."

According to Ms. Peyton "One reason [for the male-female price gap] may be the way women can be marketed by their dealers. There's something about a great male painter; it's an ideal. Also, maybe women are concerned with different things, and so they're making different kinds of work. Maybe the market thinks that's less valuable."

Of all the worlds' markets, the art market is perhaps the most intrinsically subjective. No one calculates the price of a painting by tallying the time it took and multiplying that by the artist's hourly rate. Nor do raw materials count for much: expensive paintings are, more or less, made of the same stuff as cheap paintings. For all the experts and connoisseurs and scholars and analysts, when it comes right down to it, the price of a work of art is based on what buyer and seller agree its worth, and that's all. And as in almost every other field where money changes hands in society, women's production has been and continues to be valued below that of men, except in this field, the differences is sometimes ten-fold or more.

Women's art sells for less because it is made by women.

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