Artemisia Gentileschi: Rediscovered genius or token feminist in the culture wars?
A new record was set for baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi last week, when her work sold for an impressive €4.8 million ($5.3 million) at a Paris auction. But does her art merit the sudden rise of her reputation?
Part of what made 'Lucretia,' the auctioned work painted sometime between 1623 and 1625, more appealing was the grim subject matter. Lucretia was a figure from Roman history who committed suicide after being raped. Artemisia has become celebrated in recent decades as not only a talented painter but as a survivor of rape. At the age of 18, she was raped by a fellow painter. A suit was brought against the accused, who was exiled for the assault and other crimes. After this, Artemisia specialized in mythological and Biblical scenes of sexual assault and women enacting violence against men. The recently discovered painting 'Lucretia' deals with sexual violation and therefore was attractive for buyers in search of a "typical Artemisia painting." Her best-known painting, 'Judith Slaying Holofernes' (ca. 1620), went viral on social media during the hearings preceding the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court. It also appeared in the 2018 Xenofeminist Manifesto, which advocated radical intersectional feminism.
Artemisia's art – and backstory – became a cause celebre for feminist art historians in the early 1970s. Since then, feminist influence within education and publishing has produced two generations who see high culture as a battlefield in the war of the sexes. Art museums are shamed for having relatively little art by women. For complex related reasons, there were few professional women artists until after 1850; that means there is little art of museum quality by women, hence its absence from public collections. However, historical perspective counts for little when one sees art as a tool for social justice.
Reshape or destroy the canon?
From the very birth of the women's liberation movement in the late 1960s, activists disagreed about what to do with museums full of art by men. For some, it was clear that great women artists had been excluded and they needed to be found and given due respect. Yet as these searches went on, there came the realization that there were no lost female Leonardos or Vermeers. There were good women painters but no great ones. Some feminists began to use Marxism to justify a suspicion of all hierarchies. Naming good artists meant consigning others to oblivion and anonymity. Prominent feminist authors Linda Nochlin, Helena Reckitt and Whitney Chadwick are suspicious of the "star system" of the market and how that influences art assessment. In their view, a canon including women is still a hierarchical structure; even a revised canon is exclusionary.
Recently, social-activist administrators at the highest level in museums have begun to advocate quotas. Maria Balshaw, director of Tate (the national museum for British art), has said that quotas of 50-50 men and women are justifiable. In such a situation, administrators are driven to buy and exhibit art by women regardless of quality in order to meet arbitrary targets. There are other players in this situation. For feminists, acquiring art by women is a political matter, for the art trade it is a money-making opportunity.
Art as a social tool
The instrumentalist view of art – supported by many governments – is that art is no longer valuable primarily as a subject for detached contemplation and private pleasure; it is a means to advance social change. Today, administrators use art in museums to improve mental health, act as community outreach, stimulate economic regeneration of post-industrial districts and highlight issues of social injustice. For those sympathetic to feminism, a low amount of women's art in museums is indicative of societal collusion suppressing women. Therefore taking active public steps to promote art by women draws attention to "systemic sexism" and also redresses a statistical imbalance. Paintings by Artemisia – who for centuries was less known than her painter father Orazio – are so sought after because she is one of the few genuinely museum-quality women painters from the pre-modern era. This has driven up prices for art by her and a handful of other female artists.
Today, museum board trustees and directors fret about "representation" and "reflecting the world we live in;" they are desperate to improve their gender ratio figures. It is a matter of crude statistics. Last year, the National Gallery London purchased an Artemisia self-portrait for $4.5 million. A press release presented the gallery's political rationale: "Hannah Rothschild, the first female chair of the National Gallery, said in a statement: 'This picture will help us transform how we collect, exhibit, and tell the story of women artists throughout history.'"
Collusion is good business
The emergence of a new market for "lost masterpieces" has been a boon for the money-makers in the business.
In 2017, Agnew's – England's oldest art dealership, opened in 1860 – promoted an exhibition of paintings by Lotte Laserstein like this: A focus of the exhibition is to acknowledge and reinstate Laserstein as one of the great women artists in the canon of 20th century art from which she and many other women artists of the inter-war period have been excluded.
In reality, women cannot be excluded from the canon. The canon is an aggregate list of the most revered art agreed by experts and enthusiasts. Art is included or omitted in a shifting aggregated opinion of experts; it cannot be excluded because no individual or organization has that power. Although Agnew's staff knows – or should know – that exclusion of women from histories of 20th century art is not only untrue but impossible, this exclusion myth generates publicity and sympathy. The cynical adoption by dealers, auctioneers and authors of the myth of women artists' exclusion from the canon is a move that serves the vested interests of all; only a handful of outsiders point out the truth.
For these interests, Artemesia Gentileschi has been their most successful "project."
But embracing identity politics that forces museums to treat art as tokens, demeans both artists and visitors. Artemisia's art is good but let's be honest: demand for it is driven partly by politics, with only secondary attention paid to aesthetic consideration. She is no genius.
By Alexander Adams, British artist and writer. His book Culture War: Art, Identity and Cultural Entryism is published by Societas.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.