What's your art brain?
Winning a commercial photography award in 2013 and 2015 was gratifying and joyful. It was also surprising. So surprising that, the first time, I didn't tell anyone until the magazine came out just in case it was a mistake. It's not that I don't believe in my work. I do. (Strongly!) It just looked different to my eye than what was selling in the marketplace. One of my teachers once said that my photography style came from "The Eye that says Oh" and is about people who "write with light" and direct their vision with their inner voice.
As the years passed, I’ve often fought against this idea in my bread and butter work, yet am always consistently drawn back to that style. After a long period of introspection and discussion, I've concluded that the difference is systemic. The “problem” with my work is that I'm female. Further, I flat refuse to be anything else and that’s why I was surprised to win this award.
It's not anything that Communication Arts Magazine, who granted the award, does wrong. In fact, it's the opposite. Choosing my work speaks well of them since they picked from a large selection of anonymous work. It reflects that they are truly at the forefront of recognizing shifts, trends, growth, and development in our artistic trends.
Women in art, both Fine Art and Commercial Art, have been a topic of interest to me since 2005. During my budding research, I stumbled onto a book by Marti Barletta. Her book is titled Marketing to Women and it explores the (evidently mind-boggling) idea of Marketing to Women. (I know! Right?) I was amazed to realize that women are considered a special group. We’re half the population! How can that possibly be?
Marti's website tells us "women [consumers] give more consideration to context and have a greater sensitivity to their surroundings than men."
In an opinion piece in Communication Arts Magazine in 2013, Kat Gordon quoted a survey by Greenfield Online which tells us that 91% of women surveyed said that advertisers don't understand them. Kat also noted that less than 3% of Creative Directors are women. She further wondered what happens when marketers look nothing like the market? As a result, Kat Gordon took a stand. She is the founder of The 3% Conference.
In the Fine Art Industry, the results are just as dismal. The Great East London Art Audit of 2012 revealed that an analysis of the 100 highest grossing auctions in 2012 contained zero women. Only five women made the list of the top 100 artists by cumulative auction value between 2011-2016. (FIVE! You read that right.)
Here's where it gets interesting:
A jury of industry professionals in photography judged the competition from Communication Arts in 2013, but they looked at the work anonymously. (that's their standard practice each year) Out of over 5000 submitted projects, 130 projects won and, of the 130, only 10 were women. In 2015, there were 4,421 submissions. 157 winning projects were chosen. 17 were women. Out of those two years, only 2 women won the award both times. (me. I was one of them. High Five!) This begs the questions...Did women fail to submit? or was the work they submitted substandard?
When talking about her 2012 book, Glittering Images: A Journey through Art from Egypt to Star Wars, Camilla Paglia notes that the world of art is in a spiritual crisis and hasn't had a new idea in years.
So? What's the solution?
Women in art are often very busy looking outward to find reasons and to find answers but they haven't found them yet. I propose they're looking in the wrong spot for the tools they need to solve this. Women, innately, have an amazing gift they often overlook in their professional arenas; it's the inner dialogue we heed in our personal relationships.
Women look inward. We mull it over. We voice our concerns. We talk but we aren’t looking for “fix it now” solutions. We worry. We emote. We analyze. We put forth ideas and shoot them down. We agonize over the right way to say something so it gets results. A child, a husband, an aging parent, or a best friend are all subjected to this process. Our words are measured to help, not harm. Our magazines are full of these helpful processes that offer guidance from kitchen to kids to beauty to budget. We get teary-eyed over simple things like a crayon drawing that goes on the fridge or a pet that gazes at us with adoration. Finally, we take educated guesses and trust ourselves to get it right. What this means is that our relationships are very important to us. They ground us and fulfill us.
Then, we go to work and everything changes. At work, women look outside of their own inward voice and trusted processes. We adopt the prevailing standards to judge our own level of competence. First, there are the behavioral rules like: no crying in baseball or boardrooms, no pink business suits, and don't let personal feelings get in the way. Yet, what does THAT mean to people who excel at personal relationships?
It's not our bench!
Women also use the prevailing standards as the benchmark of what we produce and here is where things go very wrong for women. This seems especially true in the arts and creative fields. We look to what is considered "good" by the art industry’s standards and then try to produce work that matches the ideal. But is it actually good work if 91% of women don’t feel understood. No. It isn’t. Yet, that’s the work that gets us paid.
Informally, I did a study in 2006. At a group show of about 30 artists, I hung work that I thought would appeal to men in one section and work I thought would appeal to women in another. Then, I stood back and watched. I was correct in my theory; men were unfailing drawn to objects, structures, and linear subject matter such as railroad lines, single images of a gingko leaf, and landscapes and they were drawn to black and white or sepia images. Women were drawn to faces, color, complexity of textures, and emotive images. Next, without mentioning the gender study, I asked the attending gallery owners and art critics about the two displays. Overwhelmingly, the men's side was considered "fine art" and the women's side "decorative art" and it was consequently dismissed from importance! Funny to note the only art that sold was from the women's side and it was priced slightly higher than the men's. Women buy art.
This told me there was a clear difference in the standards. Then, it occurred to me that women have rarely questioned origin of these standards but where did these standards - these benchmarks - come from? To find out, I went looking for the origins. I found a man named Giorgio Vasari. The accepted father of art history who first began making these distinctions and writing artist bios back in 1568. In his book, Lives of the Most Eminent Italian Painters, Sculptors, & Architects, he listed 160 artists but he gave a passing nod to only 4 women. It was these artists and their eminence that started the standard. These were the people that the art world took as their influences. Centuries later, we find the development of commercial art also relied almost exclusively on male contributions. Forty years ago, there just weren't many women in the work force and certainly not in the specialized field of advertising. In both arenas in those bygone days, women were subjects of artwork, whether as a painted Madonna or a Gibson Girl hawking cola. (Mad Men, anyone?)
It makes perfect sense that the people who created the work also crafted the prevailing standards. It also makes sense that women entering the Arts in the last few decades initially adopted those existing benchmarks. Remember in the 80’s when women first got started knocking down the boardrooms and corporate walls? They donned mega "power suits" with massive shoulder pads. In other words, they adopted the prevailing standards and joined the boy’s club in order to be taken seriously.
Are Men the Villain?
But this begs another question about the boy’s club clique and I trudged onward in my quest for knowledge. After the gender experiment and my studies in art history, I wanted to find out if there was more to it than men just being purposely oppressive jerks. Was there another reason?
Of course, I'm no scientist but my research points to some common sense ideas about how the two genders function. Physically, they use their brains differently. Men lead with the left hemisphere of the brain, while, typically, women use both sides with reliance on the right side. The left side controls logic, structure, spatial relationships, and objective thinking while the right side is more intuitive, thoughtful, and subjective.
This was my AHA moment.
It brought me to my conclusions that the failure of women to successfully gain recognition in the arts may be twofold. One is that the pervasive results of our commonly held benchmarks may be generating dismissiveness of the work that right-brain thinkers produce. In other words, the benchmarks of what is “good” are old and need inclusive updating. Two is that the benchmarks being used may be producing substandard work since it’s forced to mimic the “good” work of left-brain thinkers. For right brain thinkers, the prevailing standards force them into a standard that is linear, structured, and reality-based imaginings. For women, it’s often like trying to read a road map written in ancient Sanskrit. It just won't take us where we want to go.
Women have been patiently studying that map for a few decades, yet at the same time, we spend substantial amounts of energy trying get around those perceived road-blocks. We demand our voices be heard and we want answers!
Maybe we should quit whining about inequity?
In fact, demanding (and shrieking, shrilling, and painting period blood on everything) others listen, or make special allowances, (women's ONLY clubs) or granting equal time might well be contributing to the problem. It gives away an inherent recognition of naturally occurring talent. The idea of our talent’s recognition being handed off opens up a series of questions we need to answer. Is waiting to speak until someone is listening is, essentially, asking permission to speak? Is accepting special allowances saying we're unable to compete without help? Isn’t being “granted” equal time a backhanded way of saying we're not due that time otherwise? Could it be that the noise we make in trying to find our way has resulted in being seen and then dismissed for the noise rather than being heard for its purpose?
Does our work STINK?
Worse is the terrible thought: What if, subtly and insidiously, we’ve unconsciously bought into the idea of our own second-class status? Does it show in our work? Is that why anonymous judging only netted 27 women out of almost 10,000 entries? Are we producing substandard work? Is that why I was surprised my work won an award? Because, though I liked the work, I didn’t figure anyone else would simply because I knew what I submitted was different than the prevailing standard?
It’s time to understand that, since there is nothing wrong with using both sides of the brain or just the right side of the brain, it's time to start collectively using what we have. As a creative, I realized that my best work is produced from the side of my brain that I rely upon to make sense of the world. There reside the keys to unlock what I'm most passionate about. That passion tells the story better. It is my unique, irreplaceable voice. When I find myself in a position to use the other side of my brain, I believe my work suffers. It meets The Standards but, to my eye, that isn't my best work. And then, my inner critic kicks in. It mutters dire judgments, and I end up questioning my ability. I think that happens to other women also and it’s really time to stop the cycle.
The Art Industry is a half wit!! Advertising to Fine Art.
So after years of looking carefully, I’ve realized that the world of art is only using half its brain. Isn’t that why, as Camilla Paglia noted, the art world is spiritually empty and hasn’t had a new idea in years? Isn’t that why female consumers don’t feel understood?
I think it is. To do my part and help balance it out, I’ve become dedicated to producing work that tells the stories of humanity, beauty, and the connection we all share. Besides, pragmatically thinking, it’s the work that sells the best. It does mean, however, I’m working extra hard swimming against the tide of those prevailing standards. It’s hard for ALL the women and/or Right Brain Thinkers out there insisting their work is on target. Making the jump to the other side isn’t easy for either side. It takes practice. It takes a willingness to recognize that the other side has merit. Also, women have been trained to believe those benchmarks and sometimes do not recognize their work is good, so a clear trustworthy voice is key in new evaluations.
The leads me to the conclusion that this isn’t a gender war after all. It’s simply about people using their “Art Brains.” As an oversimplified summation: Left-brain Thinkers tell us “what is” and they report what they see in society, the world, and nature. Their work looks for reasons, it pokes fun at reality, and it often strips culture of its shields and armor. Left brains seem to offer an outward seeking vision that reflects the culture and humanity. Right brains look inward.
This means we need solutions that make it easy to start looking more critically at our standards of good work. We don’t want to accept substandard work but we don’t want to miss very good work simply because it flies in the face of what we’ve always accepted as good. Perhaps it’s time to look at being better than good. Let’s think about being more expansive and less dismissive. Right Brain artwork can appear abstract to Left Brain Thinkers. Right Brain Thinkers use an emotional language to create a composition which generally has a Big Picture approach to visual references, so it can scramble the comfortable logic people are used to.
The Right-sided brainiacs best reflect our culture’s inner voices. Those voices can project who we can become. They have the inner dialogue that encourages, nurtures, and pushes us to reach for dreams and stars. It's a whisper, or sometimes a shout. It speaks of gladness all bound up with a buoyant sense of faith, strength, and hope. This side of the brain so often speaks with the clearest voices of hope.
What Right Brainers need to do is simply insist the standards change to include our right-brained visions. Because together, the left and right brain perspectives, provide humanity with their complete treasure chest of creativity. That’s the REAL representation of our human condition. It’s like Pandora’s Box and from that box, the clear voice of Hope should never be dismissed.
This is why I'm an artist, a poet, a photographer, and a fashion maven. The voice starts in all of these areas and why this blog is about Art, Fashion, and Modern Philosophy. Opinions are welcome as are contributors.
My partner, also a creative in design, was proof reading this white paper and, before he was finished, jumped to a conclusion saying, “This is too long.” Then, the beautiful light of comprehension dawned upon his earnest face and he added, “But wait, I’m a left brain thinker….”
Communication Arts - http://www.commarts.com/
Great East London Art Audit (Fawcett Group) N.p., n.d. Web. http://eastlondonfawcett.org.uk/about-us/
"Kat Gordon 3%." N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Aug. 2013. https://www.3percentmovement.com/team/kat-gordon
Paglia, Camille. Glittering Images: A Journey through Art from Egypt to Star Wars.
"Salon." Salon.com RSS. BY KERRY LAUERMAN Web. 10 Oct. 2012. http://www.salon.com/2012/10/10/camille_paglias_glittering_images/
The TrendSight Group. Publication: Marketing to Women. Marti Barletta, n.d. Web. http://www.trendsight.com
Vasari, Giorgio. Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors & Architects,. London: Macmillan and, Ld. & The Medici Society, Ld., 1912. Print.