I still think of art as a coffee house where naive, cool, nerd and isolated men hang out. Inside, there are amazing artists as well as men who are extremely confident and make shitty works, just chilling.
Linda Nochlin posed the question “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” fifty years ago. This question was raised in a culture which associated artistry and genius with maleness. Women were excluded from the field of arts unless they belonged to an upper-class family, and since they weren’t allowed to work with a live model, they couldn’t develop skills for drawing the human anatomy. It was also less likely for them to get a reputation compared to their male colleagues, unless they were the best at something, like the best painter of animals Rosa Bonheur. In a nutshell, being a woman artist meant being part of the struggle for existence in a male-dominated art scene. But is the struggle of women artists really a matter of the past?
Aside from being the muse of others −a role that has been assigned to them−, women artists have started expressing themselves distinctly as subjects within the surrealist frame. With feminist art, which has been perpetuated during the 1970s, challenges of women artists have also become part of the feminist struggle. Women artists have grown even more rebellious and started to throw themselves and their bodies into their practices. Needless to say, the constitution of this visual language has been a challenging process. Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979) was deemed “dull and low art”; while Carolee Schneemann was reclaiming the nudity of women through her own body, she was dubbed “pin-up girl” in the art circles. A long time has passed. Concepts and perspectives have multiplied, feminist perspective has expanded. Nowadays, feminist art makes itself visible through intersectionality and queer contexts. The new generation of artists often work collectively. Even though it doesn’t always produce striking results as the collective Guerilla Girls did and sometimes there are ego conflicts; it is obvious that the motivation behind these initiatives is to feel safe and strong, to make their ideas accessible to more people and to create a mutual field of resistance. These fields exist for all of us, they function like nests, whether we attend to them or not.
On the other hand, art; just like all other spheres of life, inevitably continues to be a field of struggle even for women artists who are not part of a community, whose works don’t put forward political statements. Since I consider myself to be one of them, I will try to convey certain issues through my own experience −which I think is common. I do think that these issues point out the ongoing patriarchal structure of the arts.
It was the year 2006. I was sketching some stuff in the sculpture studio of the school where I was an exchange student at. Meanwhile, a friend of mine stopped by. While we were chitchatting, a guy working in the studio warned us for distracting him. I haven’t realized that he was working there, not even his presence in the studio. We apologized and went out. When I went back in, I found him looking at a yellow sphere, fully concentrated as if he was hypnotized or deeply meditating. I found this a bit funny and theatrical. I thought of him as a young boy pretending to be an artistic genius. On the other hand, I couldn’t imagine a female student sitting there doing the same thing. For some reason, I associate profound works, deep concentration and immersing yourself fully into your work for hours by putting on your headphones with maleness. I also envy it. If it were me, and if someone called me while I was working, I would have picked up the phone. If the doorbell rang, I would have run to the door even if there were other people in the house. Even in the absence of physical stimuli, my practice continues with disruptions and turmoil. I realized later in my life that somehow; I have treated my boyfriends’ works with more tenderness and respect compared to their approach towards mine. In some cases, I have disrupted my works pretending to be their mothers, in others, they have interrupted my works rather abruptly. After all, I’m not the genius, I make trivial works on and off. I’m not an “artist”, I draft poems, compose songs, make paintings, but I wouldn’t meditate on the yellow sphere for hours.
It was the year 2009. Those were the days that I considered myself barely part of a collective for the first time. At the time, I didn’t care about the fact that my works weren’t dealing with feminist themes. I was more interested in making immoral and sensational works to provoke people. The men around me were making me feel like I was a young shining star. I couldn’t grasp that me being a young woman was a big part of this situation. I made my most provocative works during that period. Now when I look back at those works, I see the affinity of their visual language to feminist works I’ve never heard of at the time. I consider this language as a collective linguistic expression of the things that have been socially constructed; the things we have been subjected to. Times and geographies may differ, but the internal burden of “womanhood” remains constant. Anyway. The collective I mentioned broke up with a silent pact. I didn’t feel motivated to work, because I realized that being a “young talent” −a widely recognized identity−, didn’t mean anything unless you were part of a community. Obviously, it was a lot of fun to perform on underground stages where the audience was already present. At the time I was longing to hear the applause prior to going on the stage. I mean, I was longing to be an object of desire, Femme-Enfant, Femme-Fatale. Nevertheless, the struggle to earn a living disrupted this bohemia. I worked at other jobs, and started my graduate studies. I must have been overwhelmed by the stress of my job and school, I wasn’t regularly making works for a while.
2010. I had a boyfriend; he was a quite good musician. I don’t exactly know why but most of my boyfriends have been musicians ☺ We started a band together, and the songs were just pouring out of us. With a timid emotional state caused by not having fully discovered ourselves, we as the two women vocalists were in a both comfortable −since these professional men were supporting us−, and uncomfortable position. I was pretty depressed about not being familiar with musical notes and the technique at the time. However, I was also often losing myself in the endless music discussions of the boys, passing out in a corner. On the other hand, I was so self-confident that I felt like if I was discovered, I would have dominated the scene. Of course, this didn’t end up being the case. Because in-betweeners like me are not cut out for stardom. Either you have to be really hardworking or very smart or sensational. I am not either of these three.
What I distinctly remember from that time is a comment about me on the internet. To sum it up, it was saying that I was only included in the band because I was the guitarist’s girlfriend. I was raged, if I could, I would have punched this person’s face. The basis of my rage was the fact that I agreed with him due to my lack of confidence. Would I have made it to those reputable stages if it weren’t for that amazing guitarist and his talented friends backing me? I couldn’t read notes, I didn’t know the technique, I was only writing poetry and composing by improvising on guitar, what exactly was I? Was I a good enough musician? We broke up with the guy, the band broke up, everyone picked their sides, and I took on the role of being the muse of his sad songs as the woman who has left. My confidence which was already lacking, completely disappeared within the solitude. I closed the chapter of music for a while.
2013. Back to painting. I didn’t have any motivation until my good friend Burcu gave me sincere, constructive, and encouraging feedback. I got enthusiastic and went back to making. Perhaps these works were not as provocative as my earlier ones, but they resonated more with the reality of my position at the time. Thanks to these pieces, I met really nice people. My works were shown in group exhibitions, some said that they really liked my works. Through all these experiences, I started to believe that I was still an artist despite my day job and ongoing status as a student. All these people are women and yes, I am an artist.
Now. What did I mean when I called someone an artist at the time? What does being a woman of this culture actually correspond to? I understood this over time. For me, it corresponds to being butt-naked. As a young artist, I was getting a lot of attention from men, and I thought this was only because they liked my works. Nowadays with social media’s upheaval, I figured out that this wasn’t the case since another group of men were liking not the photos of my works but the ones in which I was wearing shorts. Don’t get me wrong, people might like my legs, eyes, or other organs. They might also find my work awful, but still desire my body. But my artist page is not the right platform for this. The fact that my professional endeavor is constantly overlooked and the photos with my body parts in the in frame are getting likes tells me this: “Girl, don’t waste your time with this stuff, your breasts and face are way more interesting than your watercolors”. (After I wrote this text, one of them overtly said it :D). Since our sex appeal gets more attention than our art, shall we place our works in between our breasts and buttocks as the “loser women artists” we are? Or can we only attain reverence in the arts as desexualized Marys? So, here’s what I mean my friend: Yes, I do post both my legs and evil-spirited creatures. Do these two have to contrast one another?
This makes me think of the handsome guy playing the cello on the internet. The “sexy” man that has attracted the attention of people of all ages in the recent months. Even though it doesn’t appeal to me, yes, he plays his instrument well. He’s not my type at all. When I imagine myself in bed with him, it gives me goosebumps. He performs with attractive women in a sexual manner, owning up to the “casanova” role, making common, popular moves. People either criticize his performance or his attitude which they find repulsive. But none of the comments touch upon the fact that his sexuality -which says “Ladies, there’s enough of me to go around, haha!”- and his music can’t be melded. Whereas if a young and talented woman pop star were to behave in a similar manner, she would be called a “bitch”. Her “crooked” legs, “small” or “big” breasts, lower chin would get ahead of her voice and performance. People would start making comments such as “Well, she is really talented but she’s marketing her body, being vulgar,” in a “fatherly” (bitchphobic) manner. If the girl weren’t that talented, they would have probably said “This is bullshit, she should go into porn business!” (bitchphobic vol.2). We should understand that for these men the issue is not sex itself. It is the desire to walk all over a woman’s professionalism by instrumentalizing sex.
For those of us who chose to be an artist −which is not even practically considered a profession−, this situation confines us to an even more precarious ground. If we make works outside the mainstream, it is expected of us to have mysterious “personas”, to be really “cool” so that we can pique others’ curiosity. However, since men chose to be artists despite other good positions handed to them on silver plates, they don’t necessarily have to put in the extra effort. I still think of art as a coffee house where naive, cool, nerd and isolated men hang out. Inside, there are amazing artists as well as men who are extremely confident and make shitty works, just chilling. I feel as though I need to either jump on the tables dancing, or confidently say “tea for everyone, it’s on me” and gain their respect to make it in this coffee house. They make me feel this way. Most importantly, in this coffee house, everyone is an individual, everyone is responsible for themselves, however an invisible male solidarity is present.
Consequently, being a woman artist accompanies taking a political position, and this is inevitable for most of us. While men can rise as individuals, we inevitably must take strength from each other.
We mostly work together with others like us in platforms where we won’t be exploited, embracing positive discrimination. This results with works that give voice to identities that are not included in the patriarchal culture. While I’m witnessing beautiful and empowering forms of solidarity, I can’t help but wonder: Would we have any chance if we were not to unite for our identities, if we entered the game just as ourselves? Or do we have to keep going around as women, queer, black, migrant artists forever, with our designated labels?
Class is one component of the picture. Indeed, class and gender collaborate even more overtly in the arts. So much so that the class background of a male artist can aptly prepare the safe ground for his sensitive, fragile, impulsive, and macho behavior. Whereas a woman’s tainted past can easily turn into a threat waiting to get her around the corner. Even if we don’t consider it from a dramatic standpoint, women artists can disobey, set out on their own and freely choose their collaborators only if they belong to an upper class. Otherwise, it is only a matter of time before producers and curators claim that they’ve rescued us from the pimps.
For a long while, I felt like I was unsuccessful and inadequate as an artist because of the way my gender, class background and anti-social personality played out. The strong solidarity between women artists empowered me to leave these feelings behind. This is exactly why I’m yelling out in the middle of the coffee house as a butt-naked woman: We don’t have to make striking works, devote ourselves to our practices, get rid of our sexualities or conform to your rules to proceed with our careers as artists!
Note to self: I can’t read notes, I don’t know the technique, I am only writing poetry and composing songs by improvising on guitar, what exactly am I? I’m a good enough musician.
Translator: Gülşah Mursaloğlu
Proof-reader: Müge Karahan
For the original in Turkish / Yazının Türkçesi için