Gender Bias in the Visual Arts

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AGBA seeks to provide perspective on great art and draw contrasts with how we see women today.

The earliest depictions of the female nude predate history. Small clay figures with exaggerated breasts and bellies have been found in excavations of the earliest cultures in the Middle East, almost certainly designed to honor or ask the blessing of female deities that represented fertility.

This is so good you wouldn’t know it was done by a woman.

~ instructor Hans Hofmann’s “compliment” to influential painter and abstract artist Lee Krasner (1908-1984)

As the Greeks created their transcendent sculpture, the male nude came to the fore, usually in action as an athlete, a warrior, or a god. When the Renaissance departed from the proper, almost entirely religious art of the Medieval era, the artists of Western Europe turned back to the Greek and Roman tradition and once again began to carve and paint the nude human form, both male and female.

Over time, however, the female nude became the preferred model. They are depicted as passive subjects of predominantly male artists, from Renoir to Manet to Gaughin to Picasso, and the nudes seem to exist only as objects of erotic male fantasy.

In today’s world, nudity has little shock value. But for visitors to galleries and art museums, perspective is necessary. Why are so many nudes female? Why are they usually so passive? What does this say about Western culture and the predominance of men in the arts?

Art history suffers from a well-known disorder known as DWEM syndrome. That is, Dead White European Males dominate the archives, and as a result, nude women are usually the subject of historical erotic art.

~ Huffington Post, Arts and Culture, January 16, 2014 (Updated December 17, 2015)

Art galleries and museums often provide self-guided audio tours or printed brochures offering explanations of artwork and information on the artists. These, while helpful, may not do enough to contextualize the gender bias blatantly exhibited at so many museums. Perspective is necessary, especially for children and young adults. Along with the help of docents, print and audio materials can build awareness of gender bias in the visual arts and eventually change the perspective of museum visitors. Viewers will then better understand the roles of and attitudes toward women as subjects of fine art according to time, artist, and social mores.

How can you help?

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