The Future Starts Here
A new column on art published in Kunsten.nu. 24 October 2022. By Augusta Atla
@ Kunsten.nu - October 2022
This is a time of upheaval for art history, art theory and museum practice. Now is the time to incorporate myriads of female artists into art history and to rethink its archives – be it art collections, libraries, genre descriptions or reference books. We are facing a future, in which diversity, gender history, gender studies and the updating of the concept of gender as something that is ever-expanding are a matter of course. If the museums do not move fast enough here in Denmark, you can read the news from abroad and ‘thoughts from the future’ right here.
Thanks to #MeToo, LGBTQIA+ visibility and feminism, we live in a world where diversity and gender debate enjoy a growing presence in film, SoMe, journalism, music, literature, politics and television.
One night, I switched on Netflix and came across Heartstopper, a heart-warming UK TV series about the new generation of young people who are investigating, finding and reinventing their sexuality and gender.
Based on a book by Alice Oseman, Heartstopper is a love story, in which we follow teenage characters in quest of answers to whether they are attracted to the same sex, both sexes or the opposite sex – or whether their gender actually matches the pronoun they acquired when born. I was very moved to witness this new generation articulating and debating gender and sexuality as a natural extension and part of the search for identity that takes place at that age anyway.
Even though bisexuality is not yet mainstream, and though there are not many who classify themselves as transgender, young people are taking these topics on board. This generation reflects an existential gender study, and they are curious about greater openness in terms of sexuality.
Throughout my life I have been looking and waiting for equality in the art world and art history, trying to find some sort of key that could oust an international art elite who do not necessarily keep up with the times. The profession is weighed down by old art books packed with ancient relics, which divided everything into binary sexes and heterosexual sexuality in favour of heterosexual (white) men.
In 1950, the art historian Ernst Gombrich published The Story of Art. This survey of world art history did not feature a single female artist, even though, when he wrote it, there were actually numerous female artists he could easily have included – some of the female artists we now see being taken out of the secret compartments of history; female artists who are now regarded as geniuses – for example, Hilma af Klint, whose work was exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum in 2019.
But suddenly, as I was watching all the characters in Heartstopper, it occurred to me that young people are at last coming up with the key to the future with their demand to articulate sexuality and the new version of ‘gender’ – expanding, critical and shimmering.
Though this may seem like a small, insignificant event with little impact on the art world and art history, it isn’t. This new demand for gender awareness and a playful definition of gender is going to change everything. It is the tsunami I have always been waiting for. It just didn’t happen in my generation, but in the next one.
It did not come from professionals – even though there are plenty of professionals in the arts who make, and have made a great effort in terms of promoting diversity and awareness of gender studies. A key is an awareness, which, like a river, runs through an entire generation. For those who insist on it, it is something quite natural.
As someone who, from my early childhood, received a passionate introduction to the history of art from my mother (an art history graduate and an expert on the history of Anglo-Saxon literature) and was confronted at the age of three with the Italian Renaissance, you would think I was sufficiently indoctrinated not to see the rules of the game. But the opposite happened and, in a more than literal sense, I was born too early.
At the beginning of the 2000s, I moved to London with the express aim of freeing myself from the discrimination of the Danish art scene. Back in 2003, at the conference Before Invisibility: A Conference on Gender Equality in Art, it was announced that acquisitions of works by female artists in museums in Denmark amounted to just 6.5%.
Without knowing the numbers at the time, it was still blatantly apparent: Denmark felt like a frightening barren wasteland for female artists. Is that still the case?
The upcoming study and report on data and gender relating to the acquisition of works, which Ministry of Culture Denmark initiated this year, may shed some light on the situation. This is the first time ever that a unified body under the aegis of the Danish government is collecting data based on gender in the visual arts in order to monitor their own practice. You would think that the Ministerial Order on equality between women and men also applied to the visual arts, and that we must not discriminate on the basis of gender.
While studying in London in the early 2000s, I decided to take a fresh look at everything I knew about the history of art, questioning the nature of gender, and to find and include female artists. Before long, I could not keep track of all the knowledge I found. So, deciding to use Instagram as my memory board, I created the profile @womenpainters
At Goldsmiths in London, I was fortunate to receive not only one-to-one teaching in the studio from numerous strong female artists such as Monster Chetwynd, Nina Danino and Elizabeth Price, but also courses in art theory and feminism and everything related to it in the shape of fantastic theoretical presentations of talented artists from history. They included the pioneer Joan Jonas who helped develop the medium of video art, and Rebecca Horn, who used her own body and her questions about gender as an artistic method.
As an artist who asks questions about painting, its history and method, I was fortunate to discover Rosemarie Castoro and Carolee Schneemann. There is currently an exhibition devoted to the latter at the Barbican Centre in London. The performative, self-exploratory method of both artists is a good counterpart to Jackson Pollock’s more deadpan method.
Via the Women’s Art Library (at Goldsmiths), my education and the great libraries in London, I soon came across writers such as Judith Butler, Griselda Pollock and Whitney Chadwick, and how wonderful it was to discover the book Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection by Julia Kristeva. It dawned on me that I had escaped safe and sound from the obsolete art industry of Denmark and could now finally look ahead.
After my 5 years in London, I went on an almost 9-year ‘pilgrimage’ to see all the art I could find in Italy, France and Greece: simply to look at art and experience the writing of art history for myself.
In Italy, to my great astonishment, I came across Marisa Merz: such a brilliant artist she could have still been painting today. She is an artist, to whom many women artists living today clearly owe a debt of gratitude.
She came from Turin and was part of the ‘Arte Povera’ movement. The term was coined in 1967 by the Italian art critic Germano Celant. The Arte Povera artists created works that referred to the private sphere, with the idea that the form of art should be left ‘still alive’. They used elements such as wind and decomposition, and played with new ways of juxtaposing unprocessed materials. This was in stark contrast to the way in which Minimalism incorporated the processed, refined materials of industry (for example, Donald Judd) and to art as a fixed, eternally immutable form (for example, Carl Andre).
Amidst the idiom and evolution of Arte Povera, Marisa Merz found her own distinctive voice and, as the only artist in the movement who was really aware of the importance of gender, her experience played part in the evolution of the movement.
What many of the female artists I have mentioned here have in common is the fact that they adopted a critical stance vis-à-vis their own gender and the experience of it, just as young people today are now doing.
Since antiquity, Western culture and art history have been divided into genders and, when you are unaware of the structural method that excludes women (artists) precisely on the basis of the concept of gender, you lose both diversity, gender history, gender studies - and countless works of art.
The history of art is not an innocent or objective story about art and quality. Like so much else in history, it is a story of power, colonisation, class society and patriarchy
This year, the art historian Katy Hessel published the book The Story of Art – Without Men, which addresses the issue of whether art history has been properly archived, purchased and written down. For me, following her newsletter and podcast is like medicine.
As James Joyce wrote in Ulysses: “History...is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
We are facing an exciting time, in which the old art history reference books and museum collections are already old hat. One might venture to say that we do not actually know the history of art yet.
Art history is a new country, to which the future belongs.