Joan Bakewell: Why should female artists be treated differently?
Talent, rather than gender, should now be the only criteria for admiring and acquiring work
Published: 30 March 2007
Congratulations, Tracey Emin, newly elected as a Royal Academician. Having caused popular outrage with her unmade bed, she has enjoyed a high profile ever since, not least because of her talent for stream-of-consciousness talk which so endears her to readers of The Independent. But she is more than that: a thoughtful artist, nominated for the Turner Prize in 1999, and steadily adding to her body of work. And she is a woman.
Women have been in the Royal Academy from the start: Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser were founder members. But far from equals. Their status was demonstrated when, in the group painting of Royal Academy members in 1771, the men are seen gathered around a male model in the Academy's studio while, to protect their modesty, Moser and Kauffman are merely represented by their portraits hanging on the wall.
So it seems an odd time for the trustees of the Tate to have publicly declared their intent to spend the meagre funds they have for purchasing new acquisitions, deliberately buying work by women artists.
The Orange Prize, awarded to the best woman novelist of the year, was founded in 1996 when there was still a sense that men were having it all their own way. Now that we live in times when there are arguably as many good women novelists as men, the idea is beginning to look a little dated.
There's a case for saying that this particular war is over, that talent, rather than gender, should now be the only acceptable criteria for reading, promoting, admiring and acquiring work. It has been a long haul to win recognition, education and equality for women, but surely the journey is over. Or is it?
There are, of course, plenty of women hanging in the Tate's four galleries. Many of them are young and beautiful, and some aren't wearing any clothes. Women's most conspicuous place in the world of artists has always been as models. As such they have posed as goddesses, Madonnas, nymphs, temptresses, Biblical legends such as Delilah, and Judith. Often they are strong, vengeful, voluptuous, tender: almost always they are seen through the eyes of men.
Not any more. Women as artists have been emerging throughout the 20th century and now hold as powerful and creative a place as men. What's more, feminist historians have made it their mission to track down and reveal the hidden talents of women artists down the ages.
Only recently in her impressive history, Nuns: a history of Convent Life, Silvia Evangelisti reveals that in the 16th century, nuns in enclosed Christian orders, with little contact or impact on the outside world, would turn inwards and explore their own creativity. Among an abundance of writing and composing, nuns also took to painting. Portraits and frescoes bear testimony to their talents. One is even mentioned in this book.
Outside the cloister, the best chance a woman had of any profile for her work was to be the child of an artist. Angelica Kauffman was one such. So, too, was Artemesia Gentileschi, and Christopher Wren's daughter, Jane, was probably more than her father's amanuensis. Given other times, she might well have been an architect in her own right.
But who is to know among the multitude of anonymous creative individuals - leaving a legacy of unsigned portraits, drawings, miniatures, icons - how many or how few were by a female hand. The fact is that the historical record may now be regarded as well-nigh complete.
The Tate seems to be making up for lost time. It holds the work of some 3,000 artists, of whom 348 are women. Just 12 per cent. The tally falls if you count the actual works. Women contribute only 7 per cent. So it is a worthy aim to want to redress the balance. However, given that the vast majority of paintings by women coming up in sales and auctions will be by living women, it poses the dilemma of having to discriminate, in favouring them as women, over their contemporaries. It will only cast a shadow to suggest their work is being bought because of their gender.
Britain can boast an abundance of women painters. Two of them, Gillian Wearing and Rachel Whiteread, have won the Turner Prize which, since its founding in 1981, had gone to men. The Tate has a feast of work by Rebecca Horn, Louise Bourgeois, Bridget Riley, Barbara Hepworth, Cindy Sherman... each of them chosen for their outstanding and unique vision. Not for their gender.
Now we will not be sure whether it is gender or talent that earns the newcomers a place. It might have been better to keep quiet about the decision, and simply do good by stealth. When I served on the Council of the Friends of the Tate, and was party to the purchase choices they made, I felt we were only concerned with the quality of the work and its place in the collections, though I am sure some of us were privately delighted when women's work was chosen.
There remains, however, one area where equality can be honoured: the price that is paid. It would be terrible if, on comparing the accounts, the work of women painters had consistently earned substantially less than men. Of course, there will be differentials depending on reputation and popularity. But any overall disparity by gender would be seriously wrong. That's the index feminists have to watch.