Mind the Gap: Writing Women Back Into Art History
There was probably a prehistoric woman drawing on the caves, Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA) provenance researcher Tracey Berg-Fulton says. But if a woman creates art in history, and no one cares to note it online, did it even happen?
To the general population: No. Not even if she was the “first woman” to do so.
Since 2014, Art+Feminism has pushed against this calculated forgetfulness and biased language, working symbiotically to close the gender gap in content and its creators on Wikipedia, where less than 10 percent of the open-source editing community identifies as female. When we don’t include or bring marginalized voices to the platform, said Alexandra Oliver, a local art critic, our written history is fundamentally incomplete.
And while Wikipedia is still rather young, the problems surrounding inclusion in the arts are not.
In Pittsburgh this month and last, a team of non-hierarchical volunteers hosted two Art+Feminism edit-a-thons in solidarity with more than 125 satellite events around the world. Here, after tutorials on editing, 119 participants of all backgrounds created or improved about 120 articles, including entries on a few names important to CMOA: Helen Clay Frick, LaToya Ruby Frazier, and Mary Cardwell Dawson.
Oliver and Vicky Clark, an independent curator, co-organized the second of Pittsburgh’s edit-a-thons this month at Frick Fine Arts Library. They both liked the instantaneity and accessibility of Wikipedia, despite some initial reservations from Clark.
“A friend emailed me about it last year and said, ‘This sounds like something you’d be interested in,’ and my first response was, ‘Wikipedia? You’ve got to be kidding. It’s the worst source in the world,’” Clark said.
Regardless of Wikipedia’s reliability, women still need to be there—within the articles and behind the scenes.
“When men tell these stories, they tend to tell it from their own perspective, just how I as a woman would tell it,” Oliver said.
With that, articles on women and “female topics” tend to be shorter than their male counterparts, and use language that forefronts inherent bias—the first woman to do X or the first female Y—instead of prioritizing their achievements. To be approved, an article must be neutral, verifiable, free from conflict of interest, and, in the end, meet Wikipedia’s notability standards.
But what’s a woman’s legitimacy and notability next to a man’s?
Notability is a gendered issue, said Angela Washko, an organizer for the edit-a-thon at the Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University and new media artist.
Statistically, articles by women are more likely to be challenged or deleted. Wikipedia’s gender problem slipped into the spotlight in 2013 when female authors slipped out of the “American Novelists” category and into an “American Women Novelists” ghetto of “others.”
“One of the things that a male editor will say is ‘Well, these women were not notable in history, so therefore we should not include them,’” Oliver said. This thought process then reproduces historical exclusions—a problem far reaching outside of Wikipedia.
In 1916, Evelyn Almon Withrow served John W. Beatty, the first director of the Department of Fine Arts which became CMOA, with a handwritten letter using beautiful script and emphatic underlining to tell him not to overlook her Carnegie International submission because of her gender.
“She was very pointedly stating like, ‘This is a problem,’” Berg-Fulton said.
You could also take Pittsburgh-born Mary Cassatt for example, Clark said. Her innovative printmaking and study of Japonisme was so integral to Impressionism, but the era became defined by men and their version of “modern life” in the cafes, which single women could not enter.
Cassatt still painted her daily life, like Manet and Degas, Clark said, but her daily life was mothers, children, tea parties—matters with no place in the world of Impressionism.
“It’s this cycle that just goes round and round and round,” Clark said.
Even when Clark, who received her Wikipedia article during the Frick edit-a-thon, entered the art sphere, women were not necessarily welcomed. As a young woman, she arrived somewhat late to feminism, finding it through contemporary art and artists after her art history classes discussed everything about Édouard Manet’s Olympia—except its female nudity.
“You think, so many of us sat in those classrooms and were taught by artist historians, both male and female, who had no clue of any bias here in the field and the discipline,” Clark said. If Wikipedia were around then, “I would have been a better informed curator, and I would have been asking questions.”
To edit Wikipedia, you do not need any knowledge of code or even an email, and Art+Feminism works to make women see Wikipedia as an accessible space for them online.
But some aren’t so happy to make room.
At an edit-a-thon that Washko co-organized in San Diego, several people showed up not to engage in feminism and solidarity, but to police other editors.
“There were just concerns that making an event specifically designed to add women to Wikipedia was asserting some sort of a bias,” Washko said. “It’s actually about correcting the existing bias—the substantial and well-documented disproportionately low contributions by women and articles about women.”
Washko said making more women artists visible illuminates those professions and makes them legitimate for women wishing to pursue them.
Women have always been in the arts, Berg-Fulton said, but they weren’t made visible and highlighted by archivists, who used to be primarily male.
“There is a lot of discussion about how archives are never neutral,” Berg-Fulton said. It is “…skewed toward male as would be considered quote unquote ‘proper.’ No matter how great a woman’s contribution is, it’s going to always follow that kind of polite narrative.”
While people are quick to “meh” Wikipedia, Berg-Fulton said, in provenance research, “sometimes these people, this is literally the only mention of their lives anywhere—anywhere that I can get to at least.”
And if we ignore a woman’s impact, Berg-Fulton said, that does nothing to challenge the narrative of the art trade as “a dude’s thing.”
And that belief, “replicates itself, and that replicates itself and that replicates itself and that replicates itself,” Berg-Fulton said, until someone or something sticks their pole in the wheels—like Art+Feminism.
That’s not to say bucking from the norm is a chore.
Eric Crosby, Richard Armstrong Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at CMOA, said he has found that work by a diverse variety of artists ultimately leads to a more interesting conversation on the practice.
“It’s a common assumption with museums, especially museums like CMOA, that they are going to present a monolithic history of art,” Crosby said. “It’s actually more interesting to look at the minor histories that an institution holds….to identify those untold stories and surface them rather than masterworks one after one another.”
Entering the museum’s history through this avenue, Crosby said, finds “spaces for voices of underrepresented artists across its exhibition and its collections.”
But, first, people have to know the problem exists. Then, it all starts with information—Wikipedia’s currency.
“If you have the more information available, you are going to spark more curiosity, and you are going to spark more imagination, and people will move on from there.” Clark said. “We have added a lot of knowledge in the last 25–30 years. We still have a long, long way to go.”
Image (top): Editors working during the edit-a-thon at the Frick Fine Arts Library in March 2016. Photograph by Julz Kooser for Art+Feminism.