Am I Sexist? Why I’ve Only Ever Written About Male Artists for Over 3 Years

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I’m a junior in a 4000 level art history seminar on theory. This is it. This is the time when I choose the topic of the thesis that I will spend the entirety of my senior year researching. At the end of this semester, I’ll submit a thesis proposal that will determine the focus of the hours I’ll spent at the library. And I think, “Where are the great women artists?”

We go around the table and say the topics of our papers. One person said they wanted to write about a painting by Edouard Manet, another about Camille Pissarro, then Rembrandt, Picasso, Kandinsky. Huh. All these artists fascinate me. They’re mysterious and confusing and brilliant. But they’re also all men.

Where is the lady power? Where are the women like Kara Walker, who creates beautiful and heartbreaking shadow silhouettes, or the Guerrilla Girls who ask if women have to be naked to get into famous museums in our studies? I am in a class of 12 people and 10 of us are girls. But when it comes to my turn, I produce my thesis centering on Maurizio Cattelan. Cattelan: a total bad-ass, very cheeky, contemporary artist who plays against authority, the museum as an institution, all that very rambunctious exciting stuff.

He’s also a man.

When we are supposed to be researching. I’m stuck in the same place. The teacher asks me why I didn’t have a bibliography. I say I’m not sure if I can write another paper about a man. Thinking back through my art classes, I realize that in all my years of art history classes (which involved a lot of art history papers), I have only ever written about a female artist once.

We talk about my paper, about my overall topic. Do I love his work? Yes. Do I love what it means for the art world? Yes. But is that enough? I justify my choice with, “There’s just not enough research on female artists who deal with similar themes as Cattelan.” I read some of the sources my teacher recommends. I’m over the moon. I love reading about Cattelan. I love that he made a sculpture of an elephant and put a sheet over it with only eye holes and called it Not Afraid of Love. I love that he put a giant middle finger statue outside of the financial building in Milan, Italy. But inside there’s this lingering guilt.

How can I sit back and perpetuate the system like this? I’m young! The future is literally in my generation’s hands (or that’s what everyone says when they complain about how our obsession with smartphones is the root of everything evil that’s sure to come in the future). Shouldn’t I try to focus on these topics that haven’t been written about? Shouldn’t I try and seek out the bazillions of artists who have fantastic skills but aren’t white males with tons of papers already published about them?

The day before I submit my thesis proposal, I show up at my advisors office and tell her I can’t do it. It doesn’t matter that I’ve wasted a semester researching this topic or that I have only one night to write a new proposal. I don’t want to feel guilty my whole senior year. She gives me case study ideas and emails me sources and says if I can get her a draft by 10 p.m., she’ll have it back to me tonight and I can send her a second one in the morning.

By 4 p.m. the next day I turn in my proposal, wildly unprepared but with a giant smile on my face. This year, instead of burying myself in the library with another white male artist, I will research exhibitions that feature everyone’s voices. I want to move with the crowd that walks into a museum not just to see the Picasso’s and the Van Gogh’s and move on. Instead, I want to explore the Whitney Biennial of 1993, the first ever exhibition where there were more minority artists (meaning women, African Americans, Latinos, Asians) than there were white males. I want to look at Making Africa, an exhibition of contemporary African art and design works. I want to learn how these voices have been shared in the past, and how we can work to keep them alive and speaking right now.

Kristen is a Senior (or fourth year, as we call them!) at the University of Virginia, studying Art History and Media Studies. She loves modern art, walking around New York and fancy cheese.

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