Women and Art

Last week I finally got to go to a Chapters Bookstore. Not just go, but go and spend time browsing. I was in heaven, at least for a while, but then I found some books on mixed media and browsed through them. The strange thing was, the artwork and techniques these books were showing seemed to have a kind of sameness about the images that they featured. This made me a little uncomfortable, and my thoughts returned to something that’s been troubling me lately; namely the place of women artists in the contemporary art world.

Of course the work of women artists is routinely accepted in major public and private galleries today and there are certainly women artists with national and international reputations. As of the last study that I read on the subject (it was from CARFAC I think), the income of women artists was still about 50% less than the income of male artists overall, but that in itself is not what has been troubling me.

After looking at quilting and textile art online and trying my hand at quilting, I am thinking more and more about using textiles in my mixed media work. Some time back I came across a few Interweave websites. “Interweave is one of the nation’s largest art and craft media entities with businesses in magazine and book publishing, interactive and social media, television and video programming, directories, and events for craft enthusiasts.”; this quote from the companies about page. On their magazine page quilting, sewing and mixed media magazines are lumped into one category. And again the mixed media work featured on covers and websites had that same look to it; a kind of homogenization of imagery.

Now I think this company’s marketing strategy is nothing short of brilliant and clearly it is aimed at women. Nothing wrong with that. But where does one draw the line between enthusiasts, crafters and artists? For an artist marketing her work, will being seen as an ‘enthusiast’ make it that much harder to command reasonable prices or to sell her artwork?

Detail from mixed media artwork 'Fuscia' using photo transfer, collage and painting by E.M. Schumacher.
Detail from mixed media artwork ‘Fuscia’ using photo transfer, collage and painting by E.M. Schumacher

Women artists who work with textiles have traditionally been seen more as crafts people than fine artists and I was hoping that this has been changing. Separating arts and crafts seems arbitrary in any case. But the more I see mixed media being marketed and formed into a kind of brand, the more I wonder if this won’t push many women artists who are trying to build a reputation in the fine art world into a kind of creative ghetto. Will being seen as an artist who works in mixed media or textile art make it harder to have work accepted in public and private galleries that show ‘fine art’?

There are of course museums and galleries which exist to show and promote quilts, crafts and/or textile art, but should all artists working in these mediums be seen as separate somehow from the fine art world? And what kind of art does a women artist need to produce in order to be accepted in the contemporary art scene? Do we have to worry that we won’t be accepted as artists because of a marketing movement that is turning mixed media into a new craft form aimed at women?

I have more questions than answers here. For myself, I think I will just have to put these questions aside and resolve to keep making artwork, regardless of the techniques and materials that I choose to work with, and see where it takes me. As an artist, the worst poison would be to stop exploring and creating because of what I think may amount to the re-emergence of a traditional social constraint.