Female Art Writers Open Up About Sexism in Publishing: Part Two

by Corinna Kirsch on August 19, 2015 AFC Reports


In part one, art writers discuss discrepancies between the number of women in staff writer positions in contrast to editorial ones. Part two goes in-depth into what makes up everyday sexism, from female-specific reporting topics to out-and-out harassment, and concludes with suggestions for achieving some semblance of equity in the field of art writing.

What’s “Everyday Sexism” for Art Writers?

“Female readers are often assumed to be stupid or superficial, I think, and female writers are assigned to write for a dumbed-down audience.” —Anonymous art writer

“One way that gender does affect me at work though, is in what I’m instructed to write about. Our audience is overwhelmingly male. We tend to cater towards our readership by covering subjects the company has deemed male-oriented.”—Anonymous art writer

“‘[T]ougher’ art writing — hard-boiled reporting; opinionated, quick-turnaround critique — is more often done by men. Women who occupy these outward facing jobs are more often subjected to harsh, personal attacks.”—Anonymous art writer

According to the responses gathered in our Sexism in Art Writing survey, pink stories and blue stories still exist in the field of fine art. Op-ed criticism is for the gents, social-media coverage  for the ladies. Among the most common occurrence of work-related sexism cited among the survey’s art writers was in terms of assignments, as well as the engendered style of “feminine” writing expected from them.

One writer expressed, bullet-point style, how she has been “encouraged to focus on social media and event reporting assignments, but not encouraged to write more ambitiously.” Another writer, also anonymous, mentioned that her publication’s male readership effects the type of stories she writes. “Making judgement calls about what is and isn’t appropriate content for a specific sex isn’t really something I’m totally comfortable with,” she says, “since a binary understanding of sex isn’t realistic in the slightest.”

Not everyone has had this experience though. “In terms of assignments, I have not found that much gender bias,” writes art critic and curator Barbara Pollack of ARTnews, “though I do find that male critics are allowed to write in the first person— ‘I think this’ or ‘this occurred to me’—more often than women critics,” “The male ‘I’ is still found to be more universal than the female ‘I.’”

One editor’s solution is to be on the forefront of making sure that staff writers and editors are not just fully aware of biases, but inappropriate phrasing, particularly in the headlines-approval department.. “Is Cady Noland as Psychotic as Richard Prince?,” was cited as an example of how writers and editors need to be more cognisant of how patriarchal norms are being reified in art journalism. The headline has since been changed, (the url remains the same) but was criticized for chastising a woman in control of her market as having a mental problem, whereas Prince was merely deemed a weird artist. 

Writers also expressed concern that the content of reviews skews sexist as well. Kathy O’Dell, writer and Associate Professor of Visual Arts, University of Maryland, Baltimore County writes  “[S]ince much art criticism/journalism focuses on exhibitions, it doesn’t take a numbers-cruncher to figure out that far fewer women are going to be the focus of reviews,”  in reference to the under-representation of women in museums and commercial galleries. One anonymous writer said that on several occasions,”the assumption [was] made that because I am a feminist writer I must want to write about any and all female artists.”

When out-and-out harassment in the office was noted, it took place off the page: “One [male] editor had a habit of touching me (neck, arm, etc) in the office,” says one writer. More common, though, was the reaction that being on all-male panels often led to infighting, where female  “opinions are discounted or ignored.”

I have seen brilliant and talented women who communicate in an understated manner silenced by men with loud and competitive modes of address and boring, predictable ideas. I have seen men highjack Q&A periods to ramble on about their own experiences in a condescending tone, rather than listen and learn from the female speaker who has just presented her work. — Anonymous art writer.

Part of the solution, some say, is in our use of language. “As women, we can strive to eliminate self-effacing speech and mannerisms from our public presentations,” writes one anonymous critic, “but at the same time, we also can try to make space for self-effacing or understated modes of address.” It is still up to women to identify and change dismissive modes of behavior “As moderators of panels we can say things like, ‘Let’s hear from someone who hasn’t spoken already,’ or even, ‘Sir, sir! I have to interrupt you. This is not a question.’”

While mansplanning is common to panels, the problem, as AFC’s Executive Director Paddy Johnson sees it, is made worse by the overwhelming number of men quoted in art publications relative to women, particularly on the subject of investing, the art market, and data-mining. Similarly, women receive fewer invitations to speak on panels addressing that subject. Gender parity is not considered often enough, and it becomes the job of a few very visible women to do the work of representation for everyone. The solution, says Johnson, is less about changing the way we express ourselves, and more about encouraging everyone to work towards change. It is essential that men too, speak up when they see an issue of gender representation on a panel or in an interview series. “This is a problem we have to solve together,” she told me recently while lamenting how often gender representation is seen as a problem only for women. “If we don’t have all hands on deck, it won’t get solved.”

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