Can men paint ten times better than women? You might think so if you listen to German artist Georg Baselitz telling the Guardian in 2015 that “women don’t paint very well. It’s a fact. The market doesn’t lie.”
The market may not be deceiving us on purpose, but it certainly gives the impression that male artists are much better than female artists. The most expensive painting ever sold – Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi – fetched $450 million, while the world record for a female artist, Georgia O’Keeffe, is just $44.4 million, a tenth of that.
Women were dropped from galleries if they became pregnant. Buying their work was considered risky as they would not put as much effort into their careers
This is of course an unfair comparison. For most of human history, women have not been allowed to practice art in the same way as men, so inevitably there are fewer old mistresses than old masters. But even among living artists, Jeff Koons holds the record at $91 million, while Jenny Saville’s female record is just $12.5 million.
And further down the chain, there is still a 10:1 disparity. Helen Gorrill, the author of Women Can’t Paint, has researched the prices of 5,000 paintings sold worldwide and found that for every £1 a male artist earns for his work, a woman earns just 10p. “It’s the most shocking gender value gap I’ve ever encountered in any industry,” she told me for a BBC Radio 4 documentary, Recalculating Art.
It’s really shocking. For some time now, women have made up 70% of art college students who are selected on merit, and the art world prides itself on its liberal, progressive values. Nevertheless, there is the largest wage gap that I can imagine.
Gorrill stumbled upon another amazing find. While the value of a man’s work increases when he has signed it, the value of a woman’s work decreases when she has signed it, as if somehow corrupted by her gender. “It’s just absolutely stunning,” she says.
Let’s get back to quality. Could it be that men are simply better artists? Oxford finance professor Renée Adams decided to put the idea to the test. She showed participants five paintings by men and five by women and asked them to identify the artist’s gender. You guessed right 50% of the time – no better than flipping a coin. This is pretty good evidence that art by men is no different and therefore no better than art by women.
She then showed a sample of wealthy men who frequent galleries – the classic profile of an art collector – an AI-created painting and randomly assigned it the name of either a male or female artist. When told it was painted by a man, collectors said they liked it more than when told it was painted by a woman. As she puts it, “Same artist, same painting.”
how did we get here Frances Morris, Director of Tate Modern, says: “Female artists have done very poorly because there has been an unconscious collusion between the market, art history and institutions. Everyone lacks self-confidence, everyone is looking for validation. So there was a kind of confirmation story that you could call the canon. And of course, convention and history have been framed by patriarchy.”
One need only look at EH Gombrich’s The Story of Art, still the world’s best-selling art book, allocated to art students everywhere. It mentions only one artist on its 688 pages. Where is Artemisia Gentileschi? Or Frida Kahlo? Or O’Keeffe? And you only have to look at museum collections to see how disproportionately male they still are. Once an artist is bought by a museum, the value of their work skyrockets. Same thing happens when they get a transient show.
Meanwhile, some female artists have been dropped by galleries as soon as they announce their pregnancy. They were told that people would no longer take their jobs seriously; that buying their work would be too much of a risk because they wouldn’t be as committed to their careers.
So women artists are really against it. The good news is that the world is slowly starting to change. Museums are trying to realign their collections. Some even sell men’s art to buy more women’s art. Auction houses are now pushing for female artists, and the Venice Biennale was heavily female-biased this year.
Collectors notice that too. Although prices for work by women artists start from a much lower level, they are currently increasing 29% faster than art by men. For savvy investors who want a bargain and a higher return, it’s a no-brainer.
Also, a lot of this art is great. As Bellatrix Hubert of the David Zwirner gallery in New York says: “When I look at the artists that interest us most at the moment, it’s overwhelmingly women who make the best art. Or the art, which I think is more interesting.”
Women can’t paint? Garbage. Even the market tells us that.