Over the past year issues surrounding women and sexism have once again been placed in the media spotlight thanks to high profile social media campaigns such as the Everyday Sexism project and No More Page 3. The public debate sparked by such projects has not gone unnoticed by more traditional media, with numerous newspaper articles and features on programmes such as Newsnight contributing to the discussion.
In the past week, along with a one-off special investigating sexism in the 21st century, the BBC has shown two programmes exploring the marginalisation of women in art: The Culture Show’s Pop Go the Women: The Other Story of Pop Art and the iPlayer premiere of The Story of Women in Art (airing on BBC Two 16th May). The following is a brief analysis of the ways in which each programme approaches the issues surrounding the marginalisation of women within the worlds of art and culture.
Presented by art critic, Alastair Sooke, Pop Go the Women explores the forgotten history of female pop artists to reveal their impact and influence on the artistic movement.
If the title of the programme sounds familiar, it’s probably because it seems to be referencing Ken Russell’s landmark BBC documentary Pop Goes the Easel. At the beginning of the programme Sooke discusses the role Russell’s documentary played in introducing the viewing public to a new generation of artists who would go on to be hugely influential within the art world.
As an artistic movement that emerged in the mid 1950s and predominantly bases its imagery on mass culture, the narrative of pop art’s artistic development was perhaps constructed more on screen than in the gallery. As such, the erasure of women from the history of pop art is perhaps a symptom of the institutional sexism that exists not only within the art world, but also a broadcasting environment that has traditionally been the domain of white middle class men.
In this context, it is rather ironic when exploring the erasure of women from the history of pop art that the BBC have chosen to use a male presenter. Although the programme is based around the stories and experiences of those who experienced the scene first hand, either as the artists themselves or their close friends, it is still Sooke who provides a frame for this narrative.
Although the programme touches on the struggles faced by female artists living and working within a patriarchal society, it never explicitly puts two and two together to reveal the bigger picture. In his concluding thoughts, Sooke states:
“If I’m honest, at the outset I did worry a little bit that women pop artists may have been largely forgotten because their work wasn’t actually any good.”
If anything this statement cements an underling suspicion that Pop Go the Women is less about discovering why the narratives of influential female pop artists have been marginalised, and more about proving that they actually existed at all.
The Story of Women in Art follows a similar line of inquiry in revealing the story of forgotten female artists throughout history. In the first episode Professor Amanda Vickery journeys from Renaissance Italy to the Dutch Republic in search of ‘a hidden world of female artistry.’
Vickery predominantly explores the social contexts in which female artists lived, revealing how the broader history of women has shaped their representation within the art world. The lives of individual female artists are not presented merely to prove that they did in fact exist, rather they serve as a starting point from which to analyse how society’s attitudes toward women throughout history has contributed to the suppression of female artists.
We are taken on a journey to churches, art galleries and museums to see the artwork created by women hung on the wall alongside more recognisable pieces. Many of these are not works that are brought out for one-off exhibitions, or stored away in clinical archive rooms. They have their place on the walls of traditional cultural institutions where the public may go and admire them if they know what they’re looking for.
In contrast to Pop Go the Women, not only does the programme have a female presenter, the experts being interviewed from the worlds of art and culture are also predominantly women. As such, there is a sense that the story of women in art set out within in the programme is actually being shaped by women themselves.
To conclude this brief analysis, it seems that the marginalisation of women in art is not just confined history. There is also a sense of inequality in regards to who constructs the narratives today surrounding these artists and the movements to which they contributed. The forgotten stories of women in art remain so because they are either untold or barely audible over a favoured cultural canon that predominantly favours male artists. In this environment, it is no surprise that many believe that these great female artists remain hidden from public consciousness because ‘their work wasn’t actually any good.’