Art History hasn’t been historically inclusive, but that’s changing, for the better!
More insights for (and from!) the young artists who visited my studio last month.
I grew up in small, agricultural community that was white white white. I never saw a person of color—any color!—until I was standing in line at a McDonald’s in my teens, behind a person of color. I could not stop looking at their skin, because I’d never seen anything like it (in person, AND this was before we owned a color TV.) I hope they did not notice my interest!
I rarely saw a woman’s art in my art history textbooks in college. None in Janson’s History of Art, and a handful (literally!) in my other textbooks. There are a jillion paintings of nude women, and very few women recognized as “real” artists, even today.*
I’ve just realized I rarely saw the work of any artists outside the U.S. or Europe, either. I did take Asian Art History classes, so I eventually saw work from India, Japan, and China, but those were advanced classes. I do remember at the end of my senior year, one professor suggested that African Art seemed to be becoming a “thing”, and if we couldn’t find work in “regular” museums, we might consider exploring that “new field”.
As for genders, there were “men” and there were “women”, period. I knew nothing about people being gay, or lesbian, or transgender, or any other gender placement and didn’t know any people who were, until college, either. Of course, looking back, there obviously WERE people who blurred the lines, but we just considered them “odd” or “weird” or “different”, “not quite.” Or we didn’t talk about it. My heart breaks for what they must have endured their entire lives among people just as or (or even more) ignorant than I.
And the only religions depicted in traditional art were Greco-Roman mythology (not a “real” religion, of course, these were myths, right?) and Christianity. The big schism in religions were limited to Protestant and Catholicism. (As I branched out into more specialized Art History fields, I did encounter Buddhism and Shinto, so there’s that.)*
Things are much different today!
Where I live now has an amazing variety of many races, creeds, genders, and countries of origin. And most of the students that stayed to talk in my studio were Latina artist. (I’ve only recently learned that “Latino” is male and “Latina” is female. So….still learning!)
I shared my lack of exposure to artists who were women, to the point where I assumed women really couldn’t be “great artists”. After all, the experts said they weren’t, and I couldn’t “see” them. So it had to be true.
When I had my epiphany in my early 40’s, I still hadn’t embraced the bubble art history had put me in. I said I had to be an artist, and I didn’t care anymore if I were a good one or not. I just had to do it.
What a difference today!
David Foster Wallace and his famous commencement speech for Kenyon College This is Water is a powerful message to us all. If we grow up only seeing what others deem is “normal” to see, then we won’t be able to see the whole picture. If we never see women artists, we believe there aren’t any. If we believe the only “real art” is 2-D work, then we won’t believe other media “count”. If we believe there are only two “real genders”, we can’t accept as human beings those people who don’t fit into that box. If we believe only certain periods of history and certain places were the home of “real art”, then we can’t even see that the art of other times, places, countries, religions, etc. have their own respectable place in our world.
We still have a long ways to go.** But it’s getting better. And I encouraged these young women to see their art-making as a force for good in their journey.
I told them, “Don’t accept anyone else’s judgement of your worthiness based on your gender, your color, your country of origin, your religion, your personal beliefs and experiences. Do the work you love, grow, improve, practice, keep it in your life, and know that you are always worthy.”
They are fortunate. It was obvious they are already getting that support from their community, their teachers, and their fellow students.
I wish them the best of luck, and I hope you do, too.***
* “…9 percent of artists in the 9th edition of Janson’s History of Western Art are women, and 5 percent of artworks on major U.S. museum walls are by women artists….”
**”In recent years, museums across the United States have worked to diversify their collections, sometimes even selling work by white male artists to buy art by women and artists of color.
But according to a new study, they still have a lot of work to do.
Researchers examined more than 40,000 artworks in the collections of 18 museums across the US, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the Art Institute of Chicago, to analyze the gender and ethnic diversity of their holdings. They estimate that 85 percent of artists represented in these collections are white and 87 percent are men. (This is, notably, significantly out of step with the US population at large, which is 61 percent white and 50.2 percent male, according to census data.)…”
***No, I do not hate all white men, except when they persist in believing they are automatically better than anyone else, because….well, BECAUSE.