Taking on hypocritical arts institutions, censorship, hate mail, Queen Bees and misogynist critics while vandalising old masters and writing a new book, 'Women can't paint'. It's all in a day's work for author, artist and lecturer Helen Gørrill.
What was the inspiration behind your new book Women Can’t Paint: Gender, the Glass Ceiling and Values in Contemporary Art?
I was inspired by a 2013 interview with the German artist Georg Baselitz who stated ‘women simply cannot paint’. We've also had comments by famous critics such as David Sylvester and Brian Sewell saying things like ‘there’s no such thing as a great woman artist’.
You believe that in term of inclusivity and equality, female artists are seeing progress being reversed with the advances made in the past 20 years being lost. Why do you think that is happening at this stage?
Yes, this was proved in my PhD thesis that we are now less likely to succeed than we were in the 90s. There are less women achieving success now in the arts, and this is a fact that people don’t want to hear. I blame PR and the media for much of it, for example, the Tate issue so many press releases (at tax payers’ expense) that suggest they are doing so much for women artists, but what actually are they doing? If they’re trying to increase collections to only 30% women, should we really be happy with that? We are given the illusion that change is happening, so we don’t do anything about it because we are made to feel happy with current progress. Also, there are a lot of women in positions of power who are not helping other women, so we have the Queen Bee syndrome in the artworld too.
You singled out the Tate in a recent Guardian article as an example of an institution that fails to collect and show a representative number of works by women, although publicly they are making all the ‘right noises’ about championing inclusion and diversity. Do you think that practice is widespread amongst art institutions, and what would help change the current situation?
Yes, I believe this is widespread – I’ve discussed museums across the world in my book who are doing the same thing. The exception is the Finnish National Gallery (Kiasma) who have always collected more or less 50:50. The extraordinary thing about Kiasma is that their equality model has led to women and men creating vastly different bodies of art (I have termed this essentialist aesthetics), which evidences that if we are given equal representation we have greater creative freedom. On the other hand, in the UK, an androgynous aesthetic movement has occurred which has led to women and men's work becoming very similar, as a result of having to paint in a particular way (a masculine way) in order to be accepted by gatekeepers such as museums, galleries, collectors. I used the Tate in the Guardian article because of the huge amount of public funding they take from British taxpayers, which is then used to support the work of mainly male artists. I’ve written a list of new manifestos (discovered during my PhD) that will help the situation, one of which is the introduction of quotas, and they’re all in my final chapter ‘Smashing the Glass Ceiling of Women’s Art: Manifestos for Equality That Could Actually Work’.
Going back to your Guardian article, I am always amazed by the negative tone of the comments posted under most articles about gender and discrimination. It seems there is a sizeable group of men who always rush to deny that there is any discrimination at play, no matter what the evidence and research might show, and who try to dismiss or ridicule the arguments being made. Why do you think it is so hard for some to accept that women are still treated less favourably in many instances?
The Guardian comments were closed off almost immediately after publication because of the sensitive nature of the issue, I think they had received complaints. What stunned me however was the amount of hate (e)mail received from women who stated they didn’t want to see ‘second-rate’ artwork in our museums, thus making the assumption that women artists aren’t as good as men. I’ve written about this throughout my book.
As a painter, I have seen countless female artists show much less confidence in and put less value on their work. Is there an issue as well about women themselves still being reluctant to expect (and demand) a decent price for their work and to be less likely than men to promote themselves or speak out about poor treatment? So that the barriers we face are indeed external, but also have to do with the way we view and value ourselves?
Yes, I think women are very often reluctant to push themselves forward – this is something I feel really strongly about and have woven throughout my book. I interviewed numerous famous artists and analysed the words they used to describe themselves afterwards – the differences in the way women and men define themselves was substantial, and I’ve made charts to demonstrate this. But this insecurity has to come from our great institutions – when we go to a museum and see the work of mainly men, it has to affect us. And at art school, we don’t learn about enough women artists. I’ve just written an art and design course for a major British university, and had such struggles to insert the work of women. I’m currently trying to find out if my equality model has stayed in place (I bet it hasn’t).
The work shown in your 2009 degree show, drawings inspired by religious pamphlets that featured dominant women and sexually submissive men, was censored. Why do you think that was the case? Was it the religious element that was the issue or the fact that you showed a representation of men (in a submissive role) that contradicts so-called ‘traditional’ gender roles that led to this? I find it hard to comprehend how any institution would want to limit a student’s creativity in this way, especially considering the material that can be accessed on the internet these days…
The institution and the police said it was the issue of men being shown in sexually submissive pictures because we just aren’t used to seeing them. So I would have been fine showing just the female artists because we are used to seeing scantily-clad women – in fact outside my degree show there were billboards with women in provocative poses draped over cars, selling chocolate and wonder-bras. I had my work censored quite a lot at art school, and eventually left one fine art course because they substantially down-marked my work when I worked with gender issues. I have heard this is a widespread issue, according to some of the artists I interviewed for my book.
Who are the artists that inspire you and your role models in general?
The artists I interviewed for my book (many have remained anonymous), and any artist who sticks to their guns no matter what art school and life throws at them. I love artists whose work is different and who breaks away from the norms and patterns of current practice.
What about your art practice, what projects/works are you currently focusing on?
I’m currently vandalising old masters, and enjoying this very much! I’ve just completed a portrait gallery for the new Bankside Hotel in London, painting with donated lipsticks and eyeliners and incorporating local graffiti from Southbank. This project has been so much fun, reviving old portraits into the 21st century, and I’m now working on a new set called the ‘new mistresses’.
What advice would you give to artists who are trying to make their mark in the art world?
If you’re female, you will have to accept that you will have to work three times harder than a male artist. 74% of our fine art graduates are female, yet our museums collect only 13% work by women, and women’s art sells for far less than men’s at auction, often up to 80% lower. Artists need to rise up and have their voices heard. We need a revolution, and I believe my book Women Can’t Paint will help to make the change. My Guardian column was read by millions of people, which is fantastic, because we have to make people aware of the problems we face. So the haters can keep sending the hate-mail because this is spurring me on to write my next book. Bring on the change!
More information about Helen and her work can be found on her website . Her book will be available in 2019 and more information is available on the Tauris Publishing website.