Are men 10 times better at painting than women? You might think so if you listened to German artist Georg Baselitz, who famously told the Guardian in 2015 that “women don’t paint very well. Those are the facts. The market doesn’t lie.”
The market may not be deliberately deceiving us, 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 as much.
Women were dropped from galleries when they became pregnant. Buying their work was seen as risky as they would not be as committed to their careers
Of course, this is an unfair comparison. For most of human history, women were not allowed to practice art in the same way as men, so there are inevitably fewer old mistresses than old masters. But even among living artists, Jeff Koons holds the record, at $91 million, while the female record held by Jenny Saville is just $12.5 million.
And further down the chain there is still a difference of 10:1. Helen Gorrill, the author of Women Can’t Paint, has studied the prices of 5,000 paintings sold worldwide and found that for every £1 a male artist earns for their work, a woman earns just 10p. “It’s the most shocking gender pay gap I’ve come across in any industry at all,” she told me for a BBC Radio 4 documentary, Recalculating Art.
It’s really shocking. For some time, women have made up 70% of students at the art school, chosen on merit, and the art world prides itself on its liberal, progressive values. Yet it dominates the biggest pay gap I can think of.
Gorrill stumbled upon another startling discovery. While the value of a work by a man rises if he has signed it, the value of a work by a woman falls if she has signed it, as if it has somehow been tainted by her gender. “It’s just incredible,” she says.
Let’s go back to quality. Could it be that men are simply better artists? Oxford professor of finance Renée Adams decided to put the idea to the test. She showed participants five paintings of men and five of women and asked them to identify the gender of the artist. They guessed correctly 50% of the time – no better than flipping a coin. This is pretty good evidence that art by men is no different from, and thus no better than, art by women.
Then she showed a sample of wealthy male gallery-goers—the classic profile of an art collector—a painting created by the AI, randomly assigning it either a male or female artist name. If the collectors were told it was painted by a man, they said they liked it more than if they were 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: “Women artists have fared very poorly because there has been an unconscious collaboration between the market, art history and the institutions. Everyone lacks confidence, everyone is looking for validation. So it’s been sort of a confirmation story, which you might call canon. And of course the convention and history was framed by patriarchy.”
You only have to look at EH Gombrich’s The Story of Art, still the best-selling art book in the world, assigned to art students everywhere. It mentions only one female artist in its 688 pages. Where is Artemisia Gentileschi? Or Frida Kahlo? Or O’Keeffe? And you only have to look at the museum collections to see how disproportionately male they still are. When an artist has been bought by a museum, the value of their work rises. The same happens if they get a temporary show.
Meanwhile, some female artists have been dropped by galleries as soon as they announced they were pregnant. They were told that people would no longer take their work seriously; that buying their work was too much of a risk because they wouldn’t be as committed to their careers.
So female artists are really against it. The good news is that the world is slowly starting to change. The museums are trying to rebalance their collections. A few even sell art by men to buy more art by women. Auction houses are now pushing female artists, and the Venice Biennale was hugely weighted towards women this year.
Collectors are taking notice too. Although prices for work by female artists start from a much lower base, they are currently rising 29% faster than art by men. For smart investors who want a bargain and higher returns, it’s easy.
Also, a lot of this art is great. As Bellatrix Hubert of the David Zwirner Gallery in New York says: “If I look at the artists we’re most interested in right now, it’s predominantly women who are making the best art. Or the art that I find more interesting.”
Women can’t paint? Garbage. Even the market tells us that.