twitter facebook
From Kathryn Ann Bigelow's film "Zero Dark Thirty", 2012

Why are there so few famous women in world culture? 0

With both International Women's Day and the expansive art exhibition, “Feminism: From the Avant-garde to Today”, which is going on at Moscow's Manege from 8 March through 12 May, it's tempting to circle the month of March in your calendar with red lipstick. But even today, when it seems a bit old-fashioned to be discussing the equality of the sexes, male dominance in the upper echelons of the cultural scene, in terms of recognition on a world scale, is still quite pronounced. Why is that? Of course, neither feminist slogans, nor the wearing of trousers in Paris, will change the fact that children are borne by women. But is that still the main reason why “the stronger sex” in today's world of art, architecture and design are still men?

To get a variety of opinions on this, we asked six women, Alise Tīfentāle, Dita Rietuma, Georgina Adam, Elīna Dobele, Olesya Turkina and Power Ekroth, the following question: “Why are there comparatively few world-famous women in the fields of art, film, architecture and design – and not only historically, but even now, in the 21st century?

Dita Rietuma, film critic, Riga

The development of civilization has always been directed towards the suppression of women and the demeaning of their spiritual/creative values. It is only the feminist movement that has tried to change the concept of women's role in society, and also in the art processes. The film business has been especially cruel towards women and their creative potential, having basically delegated women to the role of a sexualized object (see the theories of Laura Mulvey), and minimizing the presence of women as directors. On this backdrop, the American director, Katherine Bigelow, is unique and amazing. She is the first, and still the only, woman to have received an Oscar as Best Director; and it happened shockingly late in the game – just in 2010.

In art forms that are less connected to an industry  and corporate structures (as film is), women do have much more creative freedom and opportunities for self-realization, and it follows – more opportunities to gain recognition, status and fame. Although I'm not being original by saying this, essentially, we still live in a society that functions on the basis of a patriarchal value system, upon which our consumer society has also “grafted on” women as playing the role of sexual objects.

Alise Tīfentāle, art historian and curator of Latvia's pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale, New York

In terms of art, in my opinion, the time has come in which the situation has completely turned the other way around. Since 1971, when Linda Nochlin posed this question and answered it herself, much has changed. Who else, if not women, head the art processes of today – among the many pleasant and influential managers of art galleries, Gagosian is practically the only non-female exception. Many important museums are headed by women, and there is no lack of prominent women to be found among internationally notable curators. In browsing articles published in academic journals of art history and critique, it is quite obvious that most of the authors are women, not men. A study of the lists of professors in universities' art history and art theory departments reveals that male professors are often few to be found among the sea of women professors. It also won't be easy to find the name of a young man in the lists of the students enrolled in these departments. In short, only a few decades have passed since the feminist revolution in the West, but the results are obvious – there has been a total feminization in the worlds of art-critique, -science, -history and -business.

Elīna Dobele, footwear designer and architect, Riga

I really don't know! I don't want to immerse myself in, nor understand, the historic interconnections that, perhaps, would explain the situation of there being few famous women in the world. Nevertheless, the main thing that I did come to understand as I contemplated this question, is that I have never judged a person or their accomplishments or their gender.

Georgina Adam, art market correspondent at The Financial Times and editor at large at The Art Newspaper, London

I can only speak about the world of art, and indeed women artists have been undervalued really until this century, which I think is a reflection on a male-dominated society rather than their innate talents. Also, there were just fewer women artists than male ones, so statistically they had fewer chances to be famous. However it is worth pointing out that even in the 20th century, many women were leading innovators in founding museums - for instance Peggy Guggenheim. And it should not be overlooked that in the mid-20th century in New York, there were a number of really influential art dealers, such as Ileana Sonnabend, Betty Parsons, Holly Solomon...and some of them are still active, such as Marian Goodman. 

Olesya Turkina, “Feminism: From the Avant-garde to Today” curator, Saint Petersburg

In the beginning of the 21st century, along with the Amazons of Russian avant-garde and radical changes in women’s status, which was brought by the revolution, it seemed that we are heading towards a change. There were outstanding women-filmmakers, like Esfir Shub, women-artists, women-designers… Yet hundred years later we are still experiencing the same problems. Socialism claimed the equality of women, but totalitarian society still remained patriarchal. Women were merely given a quota in male professions, in addition to gaining the rights to work double shifts, both at home and at work. Women of creative professions refused emphasizing their gender at all. After Perestroika, when feministic ideas came to Russia, hope rose again. Gender-focused exhibitions and conferences took place. Some universities even began teaching gender researches. Nonetheless, our society has become more and more patriarchal. Tough economic situation, propaganda of the traditional values and sexist commercials – it has created a stereotype, which is hard to fight, but it is still possible. 

Power Ekroth, Stockholm, art critic (, editor (SITE) and curator of the 7th Momentum art biennial, which is the biggest in Scandinavia and is scheduled to take place in Moss (Norway) between June 22 and September 29, 2013.

The realm of culture is reflecting the society as a whole, and it is common knowledge that the female gender is systematically oppressed in every way from beginning to end in society. Linda Nochlin has written an world famous essay about exactly this, it is called "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" back in 1971, and even if it is more than 40 years old it is still succinct and to the point. In any case, the situation for a woman in the arts is difficult, just like it is for a man. The difference is that one is always measured with a male scale where the "male genius" is in the center. Being an artist is also not like any other job which you can step away from for a year or two and come back to the same scene as it is in constant flux. This is a problem that all gender of the art scene shares, and even if there are examples of male artists disappearing from the scene when they have a kid, it is more common among the female artists to step away from their careers after having reproduced. Many talented artists have difficulties coming back to a decent work situation and getting state scholarships after reproducing, since you must have been productive in the art scene continuously to get a working grant for instance.