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Art history was my favourite subject at high school. I greedily lapped up Delacroix, Monet, and van Gogh thinking: this was it! I’d found my calling. Until one day I had a revolutionary realisation (and I don’t say this with sarcasm because, at the time, it felt like I’d discovered the law of gravity). There was something missing from the ranks of artists I loved so much, and it was women.
This became even clearer to me at university when I sat in lectures where 90 per cent of the students were women, 90 per cent of the artists were men, and men made up 100% of the teaching force. I came to understand that the relationship between gender and role in the art world is complex and unsettlingly imbalanced. The artistic hierarchy is ruled by men—they are the creators, the educators, the authors. On the other hand, women make up the majority of the viewers, the students, the readers. The art history we consume as students is a male monologue of a history recorded through the lens of the male gaze.
This is especially disturbing when you consider that the majority of art history students—undergraduates, anyway—are women. The very people who are interested in the field, and are willing to pay to learn about this discipline, are not seeing themselves reflected in the content, or more importantly, in the people who teach it. As someone who formerly aspired towards postgraduate study in art history, the lack of female lecturers betrayed the inequality in opportunity between the sexes, as well as the narrow range of viewpoints represented in art history academia.
Like so many other feminist issues, this boils down to representation. The roles that men and women inhabit in art history are unequal, with women consigned to the passive subject and listener. Although women make up the majority of consumers, we rarely rise through the ranks of influence. I’ve always heard art history referred to as a “girls’ subject,” but if you consider where the scholarship is coming from, how feminine is it really?