They say Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in heels.
The Double Bind: damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Prickly thorns that pierce your flesh.
Freshman year of college, I am pulled aside by my male college professor and scolded for raising my hand often. I stop speaking in classes, checking myself for “talking too much.”
I cut my hair short and wear paint clothes to studio classes. I am told that I am rumored to be a lesbian, with no explanation other than non-conformity.
Intimidating. Aggressive. I maintain a 4.0 GPA while working full-time, all while completing two unpaid internships.
Seminar class in grad school. All are women, including the professor, except one male post-bac student. He constantly explains what it’s like to be a woman, refusing to hear us tell him our stories.
My art classes are regularly women-dominated. Post-graduation, the galleries and shows are mostly men. I count the white women, women of color, queer artists, trans women, in each roster.
Non-art job full-time—dilettante.
Make art full-time—housewife.
Hustle together a mixture—not serious enough at either.
“I like your work; I’m going to steal it.”
Georg Baseltz says in 2013, “Women don’t paint very well. It’s a fact.”
Men tell me how I should speak to collectors, to develop relationships that lead to buying.
I am harassed by a collector for several weeks because of one polite, impersonal conversation.
“You should be flattered,” a male artist tells me.
A female artist is sexually assaulted by a male artist. No consequences. This is about more than one female artist, more than one male artist.
My words are ignored by men until they are spoken by my husband—or another man.
Art talk #1, 2016: woman painter, mostly female audience. Questions asked about process, color, how her different works relate. Sole male questioner asks last question—how her gender factors into her work, despite her never discussing it once, nor other questioners mentioning it. He is unsatisfied with her response.
Masculinity is prized. Women who embrace it are still undervalued. Femininity is unserious, girly, “not art.”
A highly talented woman painter meticulously paints herself nude, exploring restrictions and gender. A male artist, without permission, photographs her piece, prints it to the same size as her painting, hangs it next to her work at a grad event. Calls the photograph “his work.” A few years later, she stops making art. He is featured prominently in a major art magazine.
Art talk #2, 2016: panel of three artists showing together, two are female. Audience is almost entirely female. During Q&A, the male artist is asked about how he sees his work fitting with the others in the show. “I see my paintings as scientific, while hers are emotional.” She immediately corrects him, saying her work is about intuition and gesture. When he is challenged for the remark by another questioner, he becomes defensive, insisting his hobby of reading basic astrophysics makes him qualified to assert his expertise, despite being reminded that women scientists face the same Catch-22 women artists do.
Self-confidence becomes narcissism. Assertive becomes aggressive. Success comes later and later. If you’re lucky, they’ll launch a show dedicated to reinserting your presence and impact back into art history. If you’re really lucky, you’ll still be alive if it happens.
To be an artist is to make art, to work. To be a woman artist is to be accustomed to walking into galleries and museums to see your gender displayed naked as objects, but seldom as creators.
What to do? What to do.
To be slowly strangled by this double bind, it’s easy to become small. Quiet. Take less space. Or become hard. Inflexible. Bitter.
But to be hard is to be brittle, to break at the slightest bend. To be soft is to be permeable, open to possibilities beyond such stark binaries. It is radical to embrace your softness, your indefatigable work.
I will be soft. I will be strong. I will not yield. I am an artist.
This piece was written as a companion to Untitled (Sunshine Quality Apr 10 1934 Never Fade) in response to a group show on how artists make a living, Nice Work If You Can Get It.