Art worlds: Interview with Eleanor Heartney

March 19, 2014

Art Media Agency (AMA)

The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium (Prestel, 2013) is the second literary offering from the co-authorship of Eleanor Heartney, Sue Scott, Helaine Posner and Nancy Princenthal, which focuses on women artists’ contribution to 20th-century art from the 1970s onwards. Alongside the first book, After the Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art, the works form an extensive exploration into the evolving position of women artists, drawing on statistics, exhibitions and art schools. AMA had the opportunity to interview Eleanor Heartney who, for her own part, is an independent cultural critic and author living in New York. Her career has included contributions to numerous publications, including the New York Times and the Washington Post. We asked her for a deeper insight into the main issues raised in the books, and if the team have any future plans.

The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium is your second publication focusing on the influence of women artists in the 20th century. Can you give us a quick overview of the book?
First of all, it’s necessary to talk a bit about the first book (After the Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art) in order to get to the second book: it was an overview of contemporary artists, looking at twelve women who were doing all manner of work and the book sought to answer a question which was asked many years ago by the art historian, and one of our guiding lights, Linda Nochlin in her landmark essay “Why have there been no great women artists?” Now, there have been! We had a great response to that book, which led us to consider a second publication. The first book was a very broad overview with intensive essays on each of the twelve women artists, and we thought that it would be interesting to look more exclusively at younger women, whose shorter careers meant that the essays were not so extensive. We also wanted to be more international than in the first book, because it was something which we felt was necessary to reflect what was really going on in the contemporary art world. Considering the organisation of the book, we hit on four themes: “Bad Girls”, “Domestic Disturbances”, “History Lessons” and “Spellbound”, two of which were quite personal and internal and the others more social and outward-looking. Given that we all have a background as art historians and curators and we are interested in how feminist art came into prevalence, we wanted to link these women to the groundbreaking women artists of the 1970s, so we came up with the idea of having a godmother image for each of the four chapters, which allows us to talk about the changes which have taken place in the feminist art movement since its emergence in the 70s. This gave us the opportunity to explore the continuities with the past as well as to demonstrate how things are different now. More generally, it was an attempt to figure out where art, not exclusively women in art, is today.

How did you decide on the four chapters?
I’ve always had a great interest in bad girls, so I knew from the outset that I wanted to do this chapter, and each of us took a chapter that we felt in some way very connected to. “Bad Girls” was of particular interest to me because I have long been interested in this paradox of feminism and women’s relationship to their bodies. I wanted to address the possibility of doing work about your body without becoming a part of the male gaze. Women artists, even back in the 70s, were very interested in the tropes of pornography and these transgressive modes, using them as a way to break through a lot of our attitudes about what women’s desire and sense of their own body should be. In some respects there is less controversy in using your body in this more erotic way now than there was in the 70s: a lot of the women artists who did it then got into big trouble. There’s still a backlash, within and outside the art world, and it comes from both liberal and conservative sides. It’s a very potent and interesting issue and it served as a way to explore a lot of other ideas.

The working title for the book was “Taking Control”; why did you decide on this title originally?
We were thinking again about younger women, and we questioned what changes have taken place. The notion of “taking control” was a very optimistic title and as we began to think about it we decided that it wasn’t so clear cut: our statistics continue to prove that, certainly within the wider art world, women are not reaching parity with men. With this in mind, “Taking Control” seemed overly optimistic. We went through a lot of titles, and then finally Helaine [Posner] reminded us that, in Linda Nochlin’s introduction to After the Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art, she introduced the idea of “after the revolution”. Helaine said, “After the revolution comes the reckoning,” and hence we found our title.

We are seeing an increasing trend for art prizes aimed directly at female artists, such as The MaxMara Art Prize for Women and the Theodora Niemeijer prize. Do you think these prizes are necessary to provide female artists with sufficient exposure? 
I do, and I would add another really great prize called Anonymous Was A Woman. People always question the need for an all-women book, show or prize, and that’s one of the main reasons why we collated the statistics, to demonstrate that, despite our preconception that things are improving – which they are overall – they still aren’t as good as you might imagine. In fact, the statistics surprised us; women’s representation hovers around 25-30% in all the major markers. If you look at the US Senate you get these same statistics. That’s why we feel that it is very important to continue to produce this manner of women-orientated activities, because there is clearly still something which is holding women back from parity with men in many of these areas.

How did you collate those statistics?
We had to decide what areas we wanted to look at: in The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium we wanted to look at art schools, because it is often said that the proportion of women coming out of art school to those who go on to succeed in the art world is comparatively low. We analysed major museum shows, galleries and art schools which we felt were representative of the wider trends. We are not scientists, but we did our best to use the statistics in a way which would give the broadest view of what was happening: our surprising findings have meant that the statistics are definitely one of the most noteworthy parts of both books.

In your 1997 critical essay, “Out of the Ivory Tower, social responsibility and the art critic”, you write that “the art world is very good at examining problems, but not very good at doing anything about them”. Do you still feel the same way about the art world today? What are the major problems faced by today’s artists?
It’s interesting to look back at things that you have written and I still support a lot of what’s in that essay. However, I think that you have to talk about “art worlds”, rather than a singular “art world”, these comprising varying degrees of public exposure. The most visible art world is that which we address in our statistics; the big institutions, the market and all of these large organisms which move things forward; you could call it the “art machine”. But the market is a significant factor in this main art world, and this meant that our own statistics used the market as one of the key markers. We have to consider that there are other art worlds which comprise their own figures, but which are not necessarily represented in the market. One possible reason for women’s lower representation in the market is that it simply doesn’t interest some of them: they are concerned by other things. There is a very dysfunctional quality to the art world right now, which is linked to the enormous influx of money and the focus on established figures. I think this trend reinforces a lot of the biases in terms of the artists who are represented by the market. I think many of us in New York are appalled that the next big show at the Whitney is going to be Jeff Koons [laughs].

Thinking about the art worlds on the periphery of the market-orientated, sceptical art world: one of the things that I’m interested in right now is the issue of art and ecology, and I think a lot of artists – particularly women artists – are doing some very interesting work. It’s an area I am hoping to explore in the next book.

You also speak a lot in the book about video art and how it was not necessarily taken seriously in the beginning, perhaps because of its association with women artists. How do you think this format has evolved? 
Video art is an interesting medium because it started out as an alternative to the object-oriented market – something which couldn’t be sold – and now we have enormous, very expensive, installations. Video, like everything else, has totally evolved. In the early days there was more room for freedom in these areas because there was no scrutiny of the market. At this point, both men and women were involved and I think they found it to be a very friendly domain. For women, it was liberating, because they didn’t have to worry about men artists saying, “Well, she paints well for a woman.” These were brand new fields, so they could really go in there and make their mark.

Several of the women artists whose work you explore in the book come from diverse cultural backgrounds; do you think female art from these countries is more poignant, given their unstable history with gender equality?
I have always been interested in oppositional art, or art which needs something to resist. I think one reason for the power of women’s art or feminist art is its resistance to a patriarchal order. I have always been interested in Soviet art – the unofficial art of the Soviets – and now I think there are a lot of interesting advances in the Islamic countries, many of which are being led by women. The fact that these artists have to push against a deep-rooted theme can make for very powerful art, and it brings with it a certain danger. If you’re an artist having to deal with these issues, you have to find a language which says what you want to say, but also somehow gets through the apparatus so you aren’t totally crushed by it. Opening up our analysis on an international level liberated us to talk about this idea.

One of the artists in “Bad Girls” is Ghada Amer, an Egyptian artist who creates pornographic images behind veils of threads and embroidery. The work is often discussed in terms of the Islamic veil, insofar as she is veiling female desire; however Amer has said that she isn’t just talking about herself as an Islamic woman, but is addressing the issue on a more general basis, having lived in the United States since 1995. She has a sense that there are social walls that, as a woman, you are not supposed to breach. This exploration of the forbidden and the criticised is integral to “Bad Girls”.

What direction do you think art by women is moving in now? 
Thinking about art by women, as opposed to feminist art, women artists are doing all the stuff that everybody else is doing; so it’s hard to pinpoint. I do a lot of lecturing about art generally today and I always make the point that there are many art worlds, directions and narratives that people are involved in and themes that they are exploring: Eco art is one and participatory art is another. Sue [Scott] is also exploring Abstraction, because there are a lot of very good female Abstractionists. We are not suggesting that the artists we feature in our books are the only important women artists: by taking a thematic approach to our work, our intention is not to create a new canon, but to follow these threads that we consider to be of great significance in what they tell us about where we are in a much broader cultural sense.