FROM mousse Magazine no 44 ~

Talking About
“Jews don’t paint very well. It’s a fact.”

Would this shocking and unacceptable utterance still cause
outrage if we replaced the human category of Jews with that
of women? As things stand, the answer would seem to be
no: no one has expelled the works of Georg Baselitz, who
has stated just that (in the second version), from public
museum collections. Misogyny still meets with widespread
tolerance, and while certain works strive to maintain
awareness of sexism, there is no network of vigilance to
counter violence—also on the digital front, today—against
women. Jennifer Allen takes a tour of the most interesting
current artistic operations in this field, but also of the
state of the art of feminism in general, from the birth of
individual feminisms—nanofeminisms—to the resurfacing
of “identity politics.”

Talking About
I remember getting my textbook for the English
literature course in my final year of high school in
1984 in Toronto. The cover of the classic Norton
Anthology of English Literature featured 30 postage-
stamp-sized portraits of some of the “major
authors,” from Chaucer to Auden, inside the book.
There was not a single woman: not on the cover,
not in the book.
A similar experience may lie behind the collaborative
exhibition project About: The Blank Pages
opened in April this year by the artists EvaMarie
Lindahl and Ditte Ejlerskov at Malmö Konsthall
in Sweden. Lindahl and Ejlerskov faced art history
instead of English literature, in particular the
popular Taschen “Basic Art Series.” Out of the 97
artist monographs in the series published to date,
only five feature women artists.
Five is better than none, but moving from 0% to
5% women is not a spectacular increase in the 30
years that have passed since 1984, especially in light
of women’s advances in literature, art and society
overall. Even the once-sexist Norton has since
improved, not only with an expanded two-volume
edition (approximately 25% of the 260+ writers
are women), but also with The Norton Anthology of
Literature by Women, already in its third edition.
My response to the Norton Anthology in 1984? I cut
out 30 little pictures of women from magazines and
glued their faces over the men’s on the cover of my
Norton. Lindahl and Ejlerskov took a deeper tack
with Taschen. Working with historians, researchers,
librarians and art critics, over the past four
years the two artists compiled a list of 100 women
artists and presented them in the Taschen format.
While the book covers feature women artists, the
pages inside remain empty—hence their show’s
title, “The Blank Pages”—with the hope being that
Taschen will fill them, publishing these mock-ups
as books some day soon.
Lindahl and Ejlerskov seem to be part of a growing
global movement to make art history more egalitarian,
less sexist—even less misogynist, if one
views the dearth of women as a manifestation of a
gender-based hatred, driven by a number of factors,
from envy to fear. Consider the Art+Feminism
campaign to increase the number of women artists
on the website Wikipedia, especially the historical
artists who are not alive to make their own websites
today, with collective “edit-athons”. On Wiki,
contributors and editors are still overwhelmingly
male (a whopping 87% according to a 2010 survey
of the website).
In the light of these kinds of figures, it should
come as no surprise that women artists in particular,
and women in general, are under-represented
on Wikipedia. As a corrective, last February
Art+Feminism organized a global edit-athon—
with 600 volunteers working at over 30 sites
around the world, all emanating out of New York’s
Eyebeam—and added 101 women artists to Wiki,
including the contemporaries Cosima von Bonin,
Mequitta Ahuja and Frances Stark. The next
Art+Feminism edit-athon will start on June 4 at the
Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto.
Other art historical initiatives abound. In the UK
alone, the Tate produced the short film Where are
the women? (2014) for its “Unlock Art” online film
series with Jemima Kirke of HBO Girls fame, who
confirms not only the presence of women artists
throughout history but also how their contributions
have been systematically ignored by the male scholars
who wrote art history books. And this spring,
BBC2 aired the TV series The Story of Women
and Art (2014), which begins with the Italian
Renaissance sculptor Properzia de’ Rossi.
As The Guardian’s Lucy Mangan explains in her
report on the series, de’ Rossi was the only woman
among the 142 artists featured in the Vite (Lives,
1550-68) by Giorgio Vasari, who lamented: “If only
[de’ Rossi] had had as much luck and support as she
had natural talent […] she would have equalled in
fame the most celebrated workers in marble.” Yet
another historical corrective is the artist Annie
Kevans’s series Women and the History of Art (2014)
at London’s Fine Art Society Contemporary
gallery until June 6: 30 portraits of women who had
been written out of male art history, like Angelica
Kauffmann and Giulia Lama.
Over in Berlin, the feminist collective ff also took
a historical approach to a controversial contemporary
show about painting: the men-only group
exhibition “Painting Forever!” last fall at the Neue
Nationalgalerie. The collective—17 women,
including artists Christina Dimitriadis, Antje
Majewski and Jen Ray—organized the evening
event The History of Painting Revisited at the neighbouring
Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle. Revamping the
cover of Ernst Gombrich’s classic The History of Art
(1950), ff presented female painters of past centuries
and then invited guests for a “walk to a nearby art
institution to call attention to the insufficient representation
of female painters within Berlin’s public
Given centuries of patriarchy, we can expect
history to look bad for women, but the present
doesn’t look that great either. Indeed, ff works not
only on correcting history but also on changing the
present through a host of collaborative events with
various partners, institutional and other, beyond
Berlin. Last March, ff joined forces with the art
journal n.paradoxa for a London-Berlin feminist
art salon linking women artists, writers and curators
working in those cities. This October, ff will
create Temporary Autonomous Zone 3 with the Teatr
Studio in Warsaw, a performance-exhibition in
collaboration with Polish artists, musicians and
theoreticians, curated by the formidable Barbara
The present doesn’t hold much promise for women
outside art, at least if one judges from a host of
interventions. Consider this spring’s American
media campaign to end the use of the term “bossy”
to describe women, female teenagers and girls
(and thus to stop thwarting their leadership aspirations,
especially among the younger generations).
Prominent women and men took to the camera
for the campaign: from Facebook COO Sheryl
Sandberg, whose Lean In. Women, Work and the
Will to Lead (2013) has become a manifesto for
professional women, to entertainer Beyoncé, who
has affirmed a feminism that includes racial, social,
political and economic equality as well as sisterhood,
motherhood, marriage, career and—contrary
to some feminist critics—sex appeal and sex.
“Everyday Sexism” projects—from Laura Bates’s
website to Twitter hashtags—provide examples
of the disparities women face daily. Or consider
the abrupt termination of Jill Abramson from The
New York Times and Natalie Nougayrède from Le
Monde. “Bossy” or not, these top editors ultimately
confirmed statistics collected by the consultancy
firm Strategy&: women CEOs are more likely to
be fired—and fired earlier—than their male counterparts.
Most recently, #YesAllWomen starting
amassing tweets about sexual harassment and
misogyny after Elliot Rogers’s shooting spree in
May at Isla Vista in Santa Barbara, California.

Why now? Such efforts—from historical correctives
to contemporary movements—are often
described as 4th, 5th or even x-wave feminism,
after the pioneers of the 1960s, although feminist
political struggles started much earlier. According
to this reasoning, every successive generation of
women coming of age finds its own axes to grind,
although many women today do not call themselves
“feminist” for a host of reasons: from a
critique of feminism to the belief that gender
equality is so self-evident that it should not require
any label.
Indeed, the artists Lindahl and Ejlerskov never use
the word “feminism” when they are describing
their About: The Blank Pages exhibition-publication
project in an open letter, which they presented
with their books, to the Taschen editor of the Basic
Art Series. Instead, they describe The Blank Pages
as a simple, evident rectification: “In close communication
with artists, scholars, art historians, art
critics and librarians,” the artists write, “the Basic
Art Series is now checked for errors and we hereby
send the edited list back to you for correction.”
Bossy or not, feminist or not, I would argue that
the current struggles among women to change the
past and present are not a new “wave” of feminism
but a trans-generational one. This trans-generational
effort towards greater gender equality has to
do with the fact that the struggles to end sexism,
harassment and misogyny—along with racism
and homophobia—are on-going battles. Alas,
feminism was not a historical revolution that
brought about a permanent change: equality from
now on. Women’s liberation seemed to bring new
roles for women, but with these roles came new
forms of oppression.

Older generations of women, from earlier
“waves,” are living witnesses and proof that equality
was never reached, despite the spread and
visibility of feminism. Already way back in 1991,
the American journalist Susan Faludi penned her
unsettling study Backlash: The Undeclared War
Against American Women (1991), which documented
the systematic political, social and economic
erosion of the hard-won gains of feminism in the
United States. Cartoonist Lynda Barry’s humorous
Excuse Me… What Happened to the Women’s
Movement? (c. 1990) suggests that women were
part of that backlash because they did not identify
with feminism.
If the struggle for equality persists, then vigilance
seems to be required. Yes, it’s really too bad that
some women keep on going on about feminism,
about the problems of inequality, sexism and
harassment, but that’s because these problems
have not gone away. It’s unfortunate, perhaps
even boring, to be talking about gender equality
in 2014, but think how unfortunate and boring it
is for the women who still earn less than men in
their jobs, work more than their male partners at
home and face daily discrimination, harassment,
even violence.
Vigilance—always keeping a careful watch out
for discrimination—suggests that gender inequality
and oppression are a constant, chronic reality,
not a passing, lamentable mishap. It’s a fundamental
element that is structured into every woman’s
daily life and lifetime, not a stray sexist comment
coming from some stranger on the street. With
vigilance, the absence of discrimination becomes
the welcome surprise.
Two works of art, almost two decades apart, show
the persistence of gender inequality in art. A few
years after Faludi’s Backlash, Elin Wikström created
the performance Rebecka is waiting for Anna, Anna
is waiting for Cecilia, Cecilia is waiting for Marie…
(1994) for the Moderna Museet in Stockholm: one
woman would sit inside the museum and wait until
another woman arrived to take over her “shift”—
and so on—during the museum’s opening hours.
Nothing was said or done, but this piece manifested
feminist concerns, without mentioning the
term: women’s solidarity, their ability to find time,
their interchangeability and their act of waiting—
waiting, waiting, waiting—for equality. Waiting
until women and men—not just women among
themselves—are interchangeable and indistinguishable,
on social, political and economic levels.
A more recent performance by Annika Ström
confirms that women, especially women artists,
are indeed still waiting. After two decades—two
generations, two “waves”—socio-economic relations
have not improved along with the increase in
women artists. Ström’s The Seven Women Standing
in the Way (2011) features seven women casually
chatting, drinking and blocking a gallery or
museum entrance during the opening when the
work is performed. Oblivious to other members
of the public who are trying to enter the show, the
women are instructed to persist in blocking the
doorway and, only if pressed, to identify themselves
as the title of the performance.
To me, the respective performances of Wikström
and Ström treat inequality as a chronic reality.
These works seem to be about cultivating vigilance:
not quite saying anything in particular—there
are no feminist slogans here, only women—but
at the same time not going away, and sometimes
even getting in the way. Since these problems do
not go away, these works must be re-performed.
Wikström’s Rebecka is waiting for Anna… was
done again at the Stockholm Moderna in 2011
(tellingly with volunteers), while Ström’s Seven
Women will be performed for the eighth time at the
Malmö Moderna on June 13th.
Asking “why now?” implies considering not only
trans-generational awareness but also newer factors,
such as the unprecedented rise of digital culture.
As Jemima Kirke confirms in the online Tate film
Where are the Women?, when men write history they
leave women out of their narrative. If women have
been missing from art history books over the last
centuries, then it’s not surprising that they are also
missing from Wikipedia, precisely because 87% of
Wikipedia’s editors and contributors are men.
While perpetuating inequality, digitization has
brought frightening new forms of sexism, harassment
and misogyny, from revenge porn to threatening
“rape” tweets, from women and men alike.
If legal systems have failed to protect women’s rights
and equalities, and even their lives in the past, they
have been generally unprepared to prosecute and
to control manifestations of digital violence against
women, teenagers and girls.
Globalization has also given a new impetus to fight
for gender equality, which has proven to be a worldwide
phenomenon. Gee, it’s not just in your head…
Injustices near and far gain new global visibility, a
recent case being the kidnapping of more than 200
schoolgirls from their school in Chibok, Nigeria.
Economics plays a crucial role. Writing in The
Guardian about her manifesto End of Equality (2014),
Beatrix Campbell denounces “neoliberal neopatriarchy.”
While neoliberalism erodes the social welfare
state, neopatriarchy accepts a few token women
in positions of power but resists collective labour
reforms. Like taxes, reforms can be thwarted by
corporations in the search of the cheapest labour
markets. Plus, what profit-minded firm wouldn’t
want to keep on paying half of the workforce less?
There’s another side to feminism and digital
culture. Digitization, with its dependency on
numbers, from algorithms to hits to retweets, has
reinforced what I would call “statistical feminism”:
the tendency to measure gender inequality through
numbers and percentages alone, as I myself have
done here. In Where are the Women? Kirke also
begins with the statistics collected by the Guerrilla
Girls as they formed in 1985 to protest New York’s
MoMA exhibition An International Survey of Recent
Painting and Sculpture which included 13 women
among the 169 artists (that’s 7%).
On the one hand, statistics have the advantage of
being perfectly objective. Who can argue with 0%,
5%, 7% and 25% women versus, respectively, 100%,
95%, 93% and 75% men? The figures simply don’t
come close to equality. While citing statistics, the
Guerrilla Girls wore their masks, which may suggest
that their protests had to remain anonymous, otherwise
they would be considered partial, a question
of women artists fighting for their own increased
visibility. Accusations of private bias may increase
women’s reliance on cold facts and dry numbers,
although the move to increase women artists is
about a collective inclusion for all genders—not just
women’s inclusion or the personal advancement of
one woman artist, or a few women artists.
On the other hand, statistics should not be the end
of a complaint about inequality, a QED, but the
start. If you argue in statistics, the solutions come
in numbers, too: from quotas to tokenism. Yet the
solution is not just about equal quantities—50%
men, 50% women in textbooks, shows and other
realms—but also about quality. About variety,
complexity and comprehensiveness.
Indeed, the men-only Painting Forever! at Berlin’s
Neue Nationalgalerie was not only sexist but also,
well, dull: a rehash of the tired split between “figurative”
and “abstract” painting, just as painters like
Katharina Grosse and Monika Baer are developing
new paradigms between visibility and invisibility,
which take on canvas and frame. Plus, isn’t art about
heterogeneity? Doing a show with only men artists,
or a show by predominantly one gender, seems
as outdated as doing a show with one medium,
like “Sculpture Today,” with one nationality like
“Canadian Photographers” or with a monolithic
theme like “Bathtubs in Art.” It’s just too simplistic.
Perhaps the reliance on statistics serves another
goal: uniting women who might otherwise not join
forces. As Lynda Barry’s comic makes clear, many
women remain reluctant to identify themselves
with feminism, despite being on the losing end on
so many levels due to their gender. Perhaps they
fear that they will lose even more by aligning themselves
with other women…
Yet all women—whatever they choose to call
themselves—will always be lumped together statistically.
It is tempting, especially for misogynists of
all genders, to claim that women don’t get ahead
because they can’t get along with each other and
with others. So bossy, my goodness! Yet the splintering
of the women’s movement has occurred in
other socio-economic-political movements, if not
mass movements in general, through digitisation.
Social media not only connect, they also divide.
Speaking about digitisation and the end of popular
culture to the New York Times in 2010, the Canadian
Annika Ström, Seven Women Standing in the
Way, 2011-ongoing. Courtesy: the artist
mousse 44 ~ Talking About
author Douglas Coupland argued that “everyone is
able to customize their own lives with the images
they want to see and the words they want to read
and the music they listen to. You don’t have the
broader trends like you used to.” Asked about
phenomena like Harry Potter, Coupland countered:
“They’re not great cultural megatrends like disco,
which involved absolutely everyone in the culture.
Now, everyone basically is their own microculture,
their own nanoculture, their own generation.” And
perhaps every woman is her own women’s movement.
On a related note: “Identity Politics” seems to
be resurfacing—at least that’s my sense after a
recent visit with the resident artists at De Ateliers
in Amsterdam. But I’m not sure what that means
for feminism. Or “micro-feminisms” and “nanofeminisms.”
Those old enough to remember the
previous Identity Politics from the 1970s-90s will
recall how the movement was capable of bringing
together not only specific differences—like gender,
race, sexuality—but also of uniting these different
groups, often by necessity for individuals who
belonged to multiple categories of difference.
The old Identity Politics was not without its internal
conflicts; one superb example remains bell
hooks’ Ain’t I a Woman (1981), which shows how
black women have been marginalized, not only
by white female feminism but also by black male
nationalism as well as class issues. Whatever its failings,
Identity Politics faded in the 1990s—I would
argue due to the rise of the Internet, which effectively
created an equal platform for all differences:
the screen. Identity Politics was about equality and
visibility: adding different voices and faces to the
old, white, male, Western narratives and institutions.
The bubbling revival of Identity Politics doesn’t
seem to have the same cohesion of the old Identity
Politics, most likely because of the impact of digital
culture, where everyone has a voice and visibility
online. Visibility has shifted from a right to an
imperative; every person is pushed to create an
online identity. With this individualistic drive—Be
Your Own Guru!—contemporary Identity Politics
may get splintered in terms of “offline solidarity”:
from political activism to legislative change. Plus,
today’s identities are performed and mediated,
many times over, through various media, digital
and other, rather than affirming an oppressed identity.
Just to be clear: the artist-residents at De Ateliers
did not align themselves overtly with Identity
Politics, old or new. Yet from my perspective,
when I saw certain works, I couldn’t help but think
of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and
the Subversion of Identity (1990), which shows that
gender is not natural but performed. Taocheng
Wang’s impressive performance-installations
combine drawings of bearded (and breasted) boys
with delicate silk drawings, craft-like paper sculpture
with porn videos. Tanja Ritterbex mixes painting
and performance, and performs gender onstage
with drag queens at a popular Amsterdam club. On
another identity note, Anthony Nestel created a
host of works around an alter ego “Chaim” which
turns Nestel’s Orthodox past into spirituality for
all, inspired by his rules but for your pleasures.
If popular culture and Identity Politics become
customized, is it possible to identify the current
revival of feminist concerns as a truly collective
movement? Unfortunately, it seems that things
have to get really bad—schoolgirls kidnapped, a
misogynist shooting spree—for women to join
each other and to join men in solidarity against
gender inequalities. Perhaps we are entering a
model of “disaster feminism.” Just as natural disasters
can overcome social divisions to unite citizens,
even beyond the disaster zone, it seems that horrific
acts against women can consolidate people and
movements, whether they call themselves feminists
or not.
Yet I don’t think anyone, whatever their gender
or beliefs, should wait for disasters to strike. I
was a student at the Université de Montréal when
the École Polytechnique Massacre took place on
December 6, 1989, at the university’s engineering
school. The assassin separated what he called
“feminists” from the male students and shot the
female students, eventually murdering 14 women
and injuring more women and men in his killing
spree, though falling short of the 19 other Québec
“feminists” he had listed as targets in his suicide
note. Watching that long parade of hearses
winding through the streets was one of the city’s
saddest moments.
Perhaps that’s another reason why I advocate
vigilance. Equality has not yet been reached, and
I learned how any woman could be perceived as a
feminist just for living her normal life, and how she
could be shot for simply existing. Just as feminism
can take on many guises, so can “anti-feminism”:
an argument about bras, a sexist gesture, a violent
misogynist incident or, alas, a massacre. One must
remain vigilant because one cannot know where
another person’s perceptions and beliefs lie on this
unfortunately broad spectrum.
Moreover, there seems to be too much tolerance for
gender inequality, especially in the art world. Last
month, I was at a dinner with a prominent Berlin
art patron who told me that men are better artists
than women. And wanted me to agree. The artists
Lindahl and Ejlerskov began their About: The Blank
Pages after a similar conversation with a Taschen
editor. According to Kunstkritikk critic Amalie
Kristine Frederiksen’s report, their project started
after the artists called Taschen in 2010 to inquire
about the unequal representation of the gender.
An unnamed employee reportedly stated: “Female
artists cannot be geniuses.” That position goes well
with Georg Baselitz’s comment last year to Spiegel
online: “Women don’t paint very well. It’s a fact.”
It’s hard to believe, especially in light of Germany’s
horrific past, that similar comments about religion,
race or origins would be tolerated. But let’s try to
see how they sound when I replace the women in
these quotes above with other persecuted peoples:
“Whites are better artists than blacks” or “Turkish
artists cannot be geniuses” or “Jews don’t paint
very well. It’s a fact.” How can a man who believes
that men are better artists be a public patron of the
arts? Why no public boycott of Taschen? Why
aren’t Baselitz’s paintings removed from public
My point is not to compare persecution but, again,
to show that the tolerance for misogyny remains
high, at least in Germany. Vigilance is crucial
because inequality, sexism and misogyny occur
with impunity. For me, my dinner conversationalist
was not only a sexist with incorrect opinions but
also a total misogynist because he was imploring me
as a woman to condone the denigration of my own
gender. To participate willingly in my own oppression.
Whatever I said, his hatred trumped, because
I ended up thinking: if I were not a woman, this
would not be happening to me… I would not be
having this stupid conversation.
What is to be done? Should we wait until the
“innocent little” sexist comments turn into massacres?
I mean, they have already produced a broad
socio-economic inequality between women and
men artists along with way too many exhibitions
with way too many male artists. Perhaps we need
not only vigilance but also vigilantism to turn over
impunity. Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los
Angeles Clippers professional basketball team, was
given a fine and a lifetime ban from the NBA for
his racist remarks (made and recorded in private
and then distributed publicly). Too bad I didn’t
have my phone at that dinner! One thing is for sure:
gender inequality has been going on for centuries,
so it’s not going to go away in a few decades, not
even a century.