My first trip to an art gallery was in London. I was nineteen. I grew up in Bankstown, in South-Western Sydney, when the dominant narrative was crime and not creativity. My school provided advice on how to avoid gang violence, self-defence tips to fend off sexual assault and the best industries to secure a job in (namely health, as there are always going to be sick people, you see). My decision to go to the free art exhibits was dictated by a limited backpacking budget, not prior experience.
Stepping into the National Gallery felt like I was entering another world. The air was thick with silence, the ceilings seemed to careen overhead, the floors were buffeted with so much polish I could see that my hair was a mess. I followed a crowd of people into the first room, my hiking boots thunking off the floorboards.
I watched how people moved through the space and mimicked their postures, standing in front of the canvases with my hands behind my back and tilting my head side to side. I continued to shadow people as I was completely unsure as to how long you should stand in front of a picture.
I can remember more about my panicked people watching than the actual art itself. So it was with more fluster than fanfare that I made a decision to try and learn a little more about art. Truthfully, I hated feeling ill-at-ease and ‘uncultured’.
Yet I wasn’t sure how to educate myself. I simply didn’t know where to look for information. Instead I started to slow down if I saw an artsy article in the newspaper. I continued to attend free exhibitions until I could start to afford the price of admission. While I still heavily rely on reading placards to explain the provenance and intention of each artwork, over the past decade I have slowly developed a small but workable vocabulary to describe how I feel about art.
Oscar Wilde, despite all his sizzling wit and dazzling phraseology, spoke with simple directness about art: ‘Art is not something which you can take or leave. It is a necessity of human life .’ It seems that most Australians agree. A 2016 Australian Arts Council report revealed that 85% of the population believes art makes for a richer and more meaningful life. This has increased from 71% in 1999.
Wilde made his declaration about the necessity of art during a speaking tour of America in 1882. Throughout his lecture, Wilde sticks to direct, unadorned language that cuts to the quick: ‘The conditions of art should be simple. A great deal more depends upon the heart than upon the head. Appreciation of art is not secured by any elaborate scheme of learning. Art requires a good healthy atmosphere.’
But what sort of atmosphere are we fostering? Evidently there is an enthusiastic and growing audience. But what art is celebrated and appreciated ?
In Australia the status quo remains unshaken – women, POC and people with disabilities continue to be underrepresented in art galleries. The problem of underrepresentation is so pervasive that a 2016 report commissioned by the Australian Council for the Arts revealed ‘professional artist populations are less diverse than the rest of the Australian workforce’.
My knowledge of art, in large part, has been gleaned from exhibitions. How galleries and public institutions curate exhibitions has significantly shaped my perspective and understanding of art history. Despite enthusiasm and frequent attendance, I have only a slim understanding of art. It has taken me years to realise that I have been a woman looking at how privileged men look at women. Men dominate the walls of galleries. Their perspectives are valued.
According to the feminist activist artists, The Guerrilla Girls, ‘less than 4% of the artists in the Modern Art section of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art are women, but 76% of the nudes are female.’ The statistics are similar in major galleries around the world. Walk through these spaces and you’ll be greeted by women arranged in awkward angles, each pose designed to maximise the pleasure of the viewer. Women are props.
The underrepresentation women is not because there is a lack of talent or expertise. In fact, 75% of Australian art school graduates are women but only 34% of artists exhibited in our state museums and galleries are female.
But this doesn’t mean that women are waiting for change to occur.
The Hotham Street Ladies created the installation, ‘You Beaut’, from icing and sweets. The work was part of the exhibition ‘Blood: Attract & Repel’ staged at Melbourne University’s pop-up science gallery as part of National Science Week earlier this year. Blood splatters the walls. It looks fresh, startling red, not yet clotted. Hanging on the wall is a uterus. The fallopian tubes span the walls as though hugging the small space. It larger than life, yet it is also life itself.
I couldn’t help but feel optimistic about the ecology of art when I saw the work. It is funny and delightful. It feels like we are rushing headlong towards a future in which women are valued. Yet my reaction to ‘You Beaut’ is not unanimous; the work courts controversy. Australian Family Council of Victoria spokesman, Bill Muehlenberg, spoke out against the work: ‘Arts are a good thing and there is a place for them, but when something like this is in a public gallery, we subsidise it. We’re dragged into it unwillingly by our tax dollar and it’s just shock value.’
Women continue to shock by the very act of being women.
This could easily become a conversation about funding. However, I feel that it should be a conversation delivered with sharp insights from artists and art workers. The barriers to women becoming professional visual artists are complex and require solutions guided by those with that life experience. So while Muehlenberg’s statement sounds like he doesn’t quite grasp how the female reproductive system works, he is right about recognising the importance art galleries have in society. They are public institutions and yet they do not resemble our society. However, 73% of Australians do feel that the arts in Australia reflects the diversity of the cultures in Australia.
This statistic can be interpreted in various ways—it could highlight the public’s lack of awareness about our society or it may point to the high degree of trust that the public has in these institutions. Either way it underscores just how important the role of curation is – it forms the basis of our collective knowledge.
It has taken me time to lose that self-consciousness I felt when entering art galleries. It strikes me as completely ironic that my attempt to actively overcome being ‘uncultured’ has resulted in a narrow perspective of arts. The Guerilla Girl with the alias, Frida Kahlo, poetically summarises her motivation for her activism work: ‘How can you really tell the story of a culture when you don’t include all the voices within the culture?’ Galleries frame our understanding of art and therefore society; so until the arts becomes more diverse, we are simply getting a severely edited story.
Fiona Murphy is a writer, editor and broadcaster. She’s one of the creators of the podcast Literary Canon Ball, a book club celebrating under-represented writers. You can also catch Fiona reading the weekend news on Vision Australia Radio. This year she’s stepping outside her comfort zone and is developing a comedy routine with the support of Comedy Lab — an initiative set up by Women with Disabilities Victoria, the University of Melbourne and the Victorian College of the Arts. Fiona is currently working on a historical novel about animals big and small.