Last weekend’s NYT had a six page article in Style magazine about Marlene Dumas, a highly successful (her paintings sell for multiple millions) South African artist who now lives in Amsterdam. Although I don’t particularly like her work, I have to say, she paints “like a man,” meaning she doesn’t try to please. Her work has a “Falstaffian vitalism” (Times quote from Samuel Johnson) rarely seen in women artists. She almost goes out of her way to be unpleasant.
Obviously, it goes back to gender differences in the way we bring up children, although these expectations are changing so rapidly that in a few years, if not already, what I have to say will no longer hold true. We still expect girls to be nice, pretty and popular; we expect our boys to be tough, aggressive, achievers. Women wear lipstick, get their breasts enhanced; men (mostly) don’t. Why not? And of course it reflects in the kind of art women produce and why they are not as successful as men in what is still a mans’ art world. We no longer have Gorilla Girls protesting for equality for women artists, but we still have gender differences that no amount of protesting will erase. Women can’t get rid of a life-long habit of pleasing others that does not go away when they decide to become artists.
The New York art world I grew up in was almost completely devoid of women, except as helpers to their male artist companions, (See Post # 5 “Why I Would Never Marry Another Artist.”) I had no female role models, at least none that I could accept. Unlike someone like Alice Neel (whom I admired as an artist), I wasn’t willing to live my life in a slum with a line of alcoholic lovers outside the door). However, in the sixties and seventies, with the advent of the Woman’s Movement, this all began to change and a whole host of remarkable women, especially sculptors like Nevelson, Benglis, Bontecue appeared. They were tough, mostly thoroughly unlikable (aka “unfeminine”) as human beings , but they fought for equal recognition in the art world and, for the most part, did surprisingly well.
I recently heard a couple of people (two to be exact) comment about Judy Chicago in a derisive manner, (she’s still around after all these years) about how aggressive she was, how unpleasant and such a “relentless self promoter.” All I could think of was Jeff Koons; he has Judy Chicago beat by light years, But then, he’s a man, he’s supposed to be that way; in a man, it’s admirable and leads to success. While one is not supposed to “blame the victim,” (all you women out there) you can’t be sweet and nice and be an artist. You have to be willing to kick butt, not be “liked.” Unfortunately, that’s not the way most of us were raised. That’s why we wear lipstick and “they” don’t. You can blame childhood over-socialization for that but what the hell, you lady painters out there, it’s time to throw off your chains; no more decorator art. Scare the hell out of the guys around you. Work BIG, be TOUGH!