Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie reflects on the seminal work, The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist, 1988, by Guerrilla Girls, and calls for women in the art world to be more politically engaged and active in their practise.
Between 2008 and 2019 Julia Halperin and Charlotte Burns conducted a discipline changing study of American art museums entitled “Women’s Place in the Art World: Why Recent Advancements for Female Artists Are Largely An Illusion”. They found that, despite narratives of “progressive change, with once-marginalized artists being granted more equitable representation within art institutions”, in actuality the idea that women are now being seen on an equal level to men is largely a “myth”. I had recently written on their study as part of a wider research project into feminine space in the museum and so, with a little more time on my hands than usual these days, decided to read their methodological review. It began with an installation view of Guerrilla Girls at Dallas Museum of Art in 2018 which, if I’m honest, led to a long and winding diversion. I didn’t even read the rest… Instead, I began to research the work of the Guerrilla Girls which, in keeping with Burns and Halperin’s findings, still emanates so much of the agency, authority and urgency as it did at its conception in the 1980s.
However, this wasn’t the first time that their work had taken my thoughts afar. The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist (Guerrilla Girls, 1988) was one of the first postcards that I ever bought from a gallery; I was fifteen, and I loved it because it felt so true. The postcard made me laugh, like really laugh, and it does the same to me now. Despite working as an artist nearly forty years after The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist was made, I still face so many of the same contradictions, concerns and irritations that inspired the work. The postcard is now on my wall, just in front of my desk; I can see it, at eye level, as I write. Sometimes it makes me fear for the moment when I might be asked to “choose between career and motherhood” – how will I politely decline, how will I continue to work in a dusty studio with a baby? It makes me think of the fragile but unafraid work of Louise Bourgeois, whose career did only “pick up after…[she was] eighty”; and it makes me realise that something revolutionary must have happened between now and then, because I know that, thanks to theorists such as Griselda Pollock, Linda Nochlin and Gaby Porter, art historians are writing to ensure that women are no longer relegated to “revised versions of art history”.
Indeed, being isolated without a studio I have had the luxury of pausing, editing and reflecting, three simple but pivotal words of advice that I received from a remarkable artist named Lucy Steggals one summer on work-placement. With this time I have stopped making anything larger, or messier, than collage (the fears of student renting!); I have had to pause to find the words that my hands would usually fill in. I have had, for the first time, the space to stop and think about what it is that is currently taking place in the field of art history. Throughout this process I have taken to writing, to reading and, ultimately, to thinking about how I can be a more overtly political artist. The Guerrilla Girls provide some advice:
Write your own art history. Expose what is missing in museums and in the history of art created and taught by corrupt institutions. Remind people that art is not just about one white male genius after another. Don’t be afraid to complain, criticize, and – above all – change the system (Alina Girshovich, 2019).
The resounding message for me is that, in isolation, I have the luxury of time to educate myself. Admittedly, since I could speak I have been a vocal feminist, with writers including Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf, and Hélène Cixous mainstays on my family’s bookshelves. However, it was not until this year that I realised, deep in my bones, how theory can become practice. I have never wanted to simply complain — I am an optimist and have always believed that change can be roused if we have the gutsy confidence to “change the [dominant patriarchal, euro-centric, capitalist] refrain” (Anna Cutler, 2003). All it takes is a show of faith, rather than a token acquisition (refer to The National Gallery’s exhibition Artemisia [Gentileschi], 2020) or an isolated island of feminist intervention that can be neatly tidied away. What will change the museum are curations, displays, programmes, exhibitions and events that allow us all to keep questioning what we think we know, re-visioning the past and learning for the future.
About Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie
Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie is an artist and art historian. She is about to enter her fifth and final year of an MA in Fine Art at The University of Edinburgh. Kathryn’s primary research interests are cinema, curation, contemporary art and feminism. She has previously written for the film production company Neon Eye, producing a series of texts and podcasts entitled ‘Looking at Women: a 101 of Feminist Cinema’. She presented at the Eighth International Euroacademia Conference on ‘The Monstrous Woman: Film, Feminism and Performance Art’ in January 2020, and will be speaking at The Association for Art History’s conference Emerging Perspectives later this year on feminist approaches to museum display and curation. She is currently producing an exhibition entitled Love Line that will take place this winter, working with contemporary and historical artworks and artefacts from The University of Edinburgh’s Research Collections. Kathryn’s artistic portfolio can be found at www.katcutlermackenzie.squarespace.com.
This piece was commissioned for Postcards in Isolation
In times of loss and separation, art can be a source of inspiration, solace and connection. In her self-conceived series, Postcards in Isolation, writer and editor Rochelle Roberts has turned to the art on her bedroom wall to reflect on the difficulties quarantine and social distancing presents. Looking at artists as disparate as Claude Cahun, Dorothy Cross, Eileen Agar and Dorothea Tanning, Roberts has explored the sadness, uncertainty and joy of life in lockdown, and demonstrated how art can help us grapple with such feelings. As a guest editor for Lucy Writers, Roberts now wants to open the series up to other writers. Is there a postcard or a work of art that speaks to you at this time? If so, send your submissions to Rochelle via firstname.lastname@example.org and see here for more information.
Feature image: The Advantages Of Being A Woman Artist, 1988, Guerrilla Girls, Purchased 2003. Tate.