Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Modest Proposal: Title IX MoMA's 501(c)3

Bill Bartman with Elizabeth Murray [image by Bill Zules]; Women of the 2010 Whitney Biennial

In 1999, Bill Bartman, the founder of Art Resources Transfer, told me an idea of his that I still believe is one of the best I have ever heard: art museums are 501(c)3 nonprofits, by merit of the exact same quality that makes universities eligible: they are educational institutions. Bill's idea was to sue art museums under Title IX; to force them to give female artists an equal portion of resources spent on men, in the same way universities have been forced to give women and minority students an equal share of scholarship money and then latter transformed college athletics by requiring parity in spending for women's sports. It is a dangerous idea, one that, if carried out, would transform the artworld more than any avant-garde provocateur could ever hope to.

I was thinking of Bill's dangerous idea this morning in relation to the March Madness-esque list Tyler Green posted on his blog recently. Turns out "March Madness" relates to ranking of men's college basketball (I looked it up on Wikipedia), which as it turns out is an even more appropriate metaphor for Green's list, than vise versa. The very first comment on the post should have given Green pause. Someone with the totally awesome moniker, Maximo Xavier, wrote "Wow, the greatest work of art since WWII is most likely by some old white guy. Go figure." Of the 64 works listed only three are by women and all but two are white - and since Maya Lin is a two-fer, it is one pale sausage party of a tournament. The artist Jen Dalton and others were quick to press Green on Twitter about the lapse. By the time I picked up the thread, Green had already begun to prevaricate and squirm (I was not impressed by the way Green handled this).

It wasn't entirely surprising that Green posted a list that was out of whack (not entirely, but still very surprised - I mean it was really out of whack), but it is more than a bit strange, that this late in the day, anyone serious about art would feign innocent objectivity when it comes to the demographics of the artworld. Over Twitter Green answered Dalton's criticisms of the list's lopsided makeup by retreating behind a willfully retardé claim of objective neutrality: "It is not a list of artists. It is a list of artworks." he told her. That's not even 1975 retardé, that's 1945 retardé. (It's a good word and I like being handed the chance to use it, but I think I have gotten it out of my system.)

A bit further along the thread Green reiterated the point, informing Brian Dupont that, "I like that you're engaging with the rubric, but engage the rubric, which is *artworks* not artists.... It's like complaining about apples not being steak." The pretense here is that greatness is an inherent quality of the object that has nothing to do with the identity of the artist. That is full bore pre-Jackie Robinson bullshit. The problem doesn't lie with the way it is being defended however, it lies with Green's rubric itself. When judging greatness there is no way to separate art from when and where it was created, and most importantly, who created it.
Judy Chicago ready to take on The Man; Dr. J & Kareem Abdul-Jabbar making a perfect play

In his awesome essay about basketball and fine art, The Heresy of Zone Defense, Dave Hickey uses a perfect play by Julius Erving against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1980 (its pretty brilliant, totally worth looking at the video) to open up a discussion of rules:
The play was as much [Kareem's] as it was Erving's, since it was Kareem's perfect defense that made erving's instantaneous, pluperfect response to it both necessary and possible - thus the joy, because everyone behaved perfectly, eloquently, with mutual respect, and something magic happened - this the joy, at the triumph of civil society in an act that was clearly the product of talent and will accommodating itself to liberating rules... Julius Erving's play was at once new and fair! The rules, made by people who couldn't begin to imagine Erving's play, made it possible.
Identity Politics is a bugbear for writers on the Left and the Right. Both Francis Fukuyama (recovering Neo-Con) and Frederick Jamison (unreconstructed Southpaw) fret about the fracturing of the center into hyphenated splinter groups. But identity politics isn't, as many of it's critics claim, a new rule imposed on us by the postmodernists however. Identity has always been a factor in considerations of greatness (of any kind). Until recently the only politically viable identity in American life was to be straight, white, and male. There is no such thing as a non-political identity, there never was. Acknowledging the importance of ever increasing numbers of possible identities is  something both new and fair. Continuing to pretend that identity is moot is step backwards of the ugliest kind.
Donald Judd; Eva Hesse

Green nonchalantly batted away protests on Twitter: "Meh. Life is too serious." he wrote "It's good to have some frivolous fun." That is more than a little tone deaf considering how hurtful it is to have women and non-white artists all but totally excluded from a list of recent greats. No best-of-list is frivolous fun when whole groups are systematically excluded. And Green's list is not an isolated document, it was the historical norm for centuries, and just happens to be the most recent example of this sort of side-lining. Indexes of art history books are not at all frivolous, making sure they include the works of diverse groups has been a hard fought battle. The rosters for museum surveys, the stable of artists at galleries, or lists of works offered at auction aren't frivolous either. Recently there has been reason to hope that things are changing. The 2010 Whitney Biennial was the first to have a resemblance of gender parity (it was actually more than half women). Things are changing, but in very important ways, on the lists that mean the most, lists of art that sells for over a million dollars for instance, things are not changing much at all. In 2005, Greg Allen reported in the New York Times that:
Of the 861 works that Christie's, Sotheby's and Phillips de Pury, & Company are offering over three days starting May 10, a mere 13 percent, are by female artists. Sixty-one pieces have each been assigned an estimated price of $1 million or more; of those, only 6 are by women.
I asked Allen if there had been any meaningful change in the 6 years since he wrote that piece, "I don't think so" he told me. "Things have evened out a bit for contemporary artists, but for older female artist, like Eva Hesse or Agnes Martin their work will always be undervalued compared to their male counterparts. The best Hess may sell for a bit more than a mediocre Judd stack, but what does that say? There are a lot of mediocre Judds available, and the best Hesse will probably never out price the best Judd."
Bra as bondage vs Bra as bravada

I have no interest in the understanding the bracket system used by Green to create his list of 64 great art works (Brian Dupont does a very good job of breaking it down) but I understand that it has something to do with sports. The resistance to women in sports would have been even greater that what women have faced in art, if it had not been for Title IV. Sports is an arena of human greatness that should be unattached to race or class, but opportunities for minorities to play at the highest levels of sport were stymied well into the Post War period. And until very recently the Olympics' prohibition against professional athletes restricted competition to those wealthy enough (or from countries wealthy enough) could afford to pursue sport as amateurs. Only after Title IV forced schools into spending equally for men and women did we see an explosion of women's sports on the college level (before than it was common knowledge that girls weren't interested in playing sports in college). Parity on the professional level of most sports is still decades away - but as anyone who loves to watch women grunt and sweat on the tennis court knows, it is coming. 

Like Green with art, most people don't want to think of athletic greatness as arbitrary, but as Malcolm Gladwell reports in his book, Outliers, the greatest indicator of early success in sports is what time of year you were born  - an artifact of little league cut-off dates that give some children as much as a year advantage on their peers. And athletic greatness in adult life is almost impossible without early successes - so if the cut-off for Jr Hockey as Dec 30th, the kid born on January 1st is the most likely to succeed, and a kid born in late November has almost no chance at all of going pro. 
Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock and Tony Smith; The Hanson Brothers

Pretending that artistic greatness is a simple matter constrained within an artwork, unrelated to the artist's gender, race, and historic moment is a denial of what makes art great: Great artworks are objects of desire; what we desire as a society can't be separated from who we desire to be as a society. When WWII broke out and Americans saw an opportunity to displace Paris as the center of the artworld, Jackson Pollock and others helped fulfilled the desire to project the image of a vibrant and equitable meritocracy (in which, straight white men just happened to occupy almost all the top spots). During the grimmest years of the Cold War, Americans desired an art that could grab the attention of foreign intellectuals away from, the intellectually still vibrant Soviet Union, but also distract from our own obvious intellectual dishonesty - AbEx fulfilled that desire. While American remains a racist and misogynistic country, in the past 70 years the scales have tilted. Today a growing majority of Americans desire to live in a society where one's gender, sexual orientation, and skin color are no longer the ultimate arbiters of greatness, and where men and women live and work together as equals. In art, just as in sport, we should acknowledge that greatness is not an isolate innate virtue, it is the expression of our aspiration as a society. 

Greatness is not something that happens alone in a studio, it is something that happens in the world. Long before a great work can even begin, that work needs to be actively fostered, and once the work starts, it has to be recognized, and after the work is finished, it has to be celebrated. We have to decide there is nothing great about racism or misogyny. Using the courts to force American museums to give equal time and resources to women artists would ripple through the art world. If collectors knew the game had changed and Donald Judd exhibitions were no longer going to outnumber the exhibitions of Agnes Martin, Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois, and Yayoi Kusama combined, you might begin to see spending at auction on important art made by women from the 50s and 60s reach parity with their male counter parts. It might take a while for a mediocre Hesse to sell for the same amount as a mediocre Judd, but it would happen, and it would happen a hell of lot faster than it will if we do nothing. 
Perfect bodies by Howard Schartz and Beverly Ornstein; Perfect signage by Jennifer Bostic 

In his book, Moneyball, Michael Lewis explains that Baseball scouts look for five talents, or "tools": The abilities to run, throw field, hit, and hit with power. His book is about the Oakland A's general manager, Billy Bean who, Lewis says, "was  turned upside down by professional baseball, and who, miraculously, found a way to return the favor." Bean, with the help of a harvard educated economist and an upstart group of hardcore amateur statisticians, learned to ignore what had always been valued, and value what was actually important. While other teams were spending millions on players with "wheels" (fast runners) and "a hose" (a strong arm), Billy was combing stats looking for the "highest on-base percentage." It doesn't matter if you have no idea what that means - I really don't - what matters is Bean was able to exploit inefficiencies that others were blinded to because they thought they knew what greatness was. While wealthy teams spent upwards of $100 million dollars on payrolls based on old ideas of greatness, and many still "failed spectacularly," Bean's Oakland As, one of the poorest teams in the league, managed to win more regular season games than almost any other team.

Of five panelists Green asked to contribute lists of artworks (32 each) I only know Katy Siegel. So while I am turned off by the way Tyler Green has handled himself on Twitter, because Katy is involved, I have more than a little empathy for those assembling the lists. I know Katy from taking her classes during grad school. She was one of my favorite professors, and like Bartman, someone who's thinking I admire on all levels. So for arguments sake I'll give the other panelists the benefit of the doubt and imagine they are all as awesome as Katy. The problem with Green's list then, isn't with the people choosing the great art, it is, like Baseball, with the the whole way we conceive of greatness.
Jay DeFeo in her shared Fillmore Street studio, 1960, by Jerry Burchard; Jackie Robinson stealing home

In response to Green's list of 64, a number of people submitted their own lists of 32 great works on Sharon Butler's blog Two Coats of Paint- the lists were intentionally balanced in terms of gender and race. I enjoyed seeing them and thinking about the logic behind them. I was glad to see Green called out, and hope that he will face even stronger rebukes for how he has behaved, but I was left feeling that the problem is too deep to be addressed on a case by case. Something is DEEPLY out of whack in the artworld. We say we are one thing (liberal and progressive), but the ways interact with each other financially has all the ethical delicacy of robber barons (neo-liberal and profoundly regressive).

In a recent discussion of art right now, the New York Times critic Ken Johnson observed that "the politics of the artworld are very orthodox, so the only thing shocking that might happen in the artworld that would be shocking to people in the artworld would be something that really veres away from that political orthodoxy." But Johnson is wrong. While the artworld does wear it's political liberalism on its sleeve, the sleeve itself is an unregulated free-for-all market that would make Milton Friedman blush. Hickey says that without rules, "life of perpetual terror, self-conscious weariness, and self deluded ferocity, which is not just barbarity, but the condition of not knowing you are a barbarian." Tyler Green has no idea that he is a barbarian, and the reason is that while contemporary art prides itself on its liberalism, the way art works is barbaric. Artists and critics do their part to be be good citizens, but our institutions and markets are enemies of Affirmative Action. Individually artists, critics, curators, collectors, academics, and other art professionals, have all done their part, it is time for the courts to do theirs. It is long past time that the institutions of museums, auction houses, and markets are brought to bear; for art money to be put where the Art mouth has long been.
Poets Leroi Jones and Diane Di Prima at the Cedar Tavern, (1960) by Fred W. McDarrah; Nelson Rockefeller flipping the bird.


  1. The Jackie Robinson analogy is great (and one I wish I'd thought of myself). Not having access to the best work (or baseball talent) just makes it easier for people to be lazy or sloppy in their thinking when the question of "greatness" gets bandied about and resort to the white male default. It doesn't mean that those guys are not deserving (sometimes they are and sometimes they're not), but it also doesn't mean their preeminence shouldn't be reconsidered from time to time. After all Babe Ruth faced weaker competition for not having to hit against African-American pitchers, and Josh Gibson has seen his reputation fade away for lack of a wider audience for his talents...

  2. High-fives are my favorite Carolina. Thanks Brian. I had the benefit of reading what you and others had already written. I had intended to stay silent, but I ws really pissed off by what I read and the more I thought about it the more interesting the sports analogy became.

    I was discussing Title IX with a sports writer last night who immediately brought up how it had weakened men's athletic programs. When I pointed out that before TIX, small, or even non existant woman's programs could be justified by claiming that there was no demand. Title IX made it clear that was never true. My friend not only ceded the point, he did an about-face on the issue. (although he was unmoved when it came to women's pro-basketball, which he said was an all around inferior game to men's, but what ever)

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  4. OK then. I took that word out.:

    My intention was not to be verbally rough toward anyone. I was just trying to have about 10 conversations at once on Twitter, on Facebook and in email, which I thought was being accessible and responsive. I'm sorry if anyone felt that my attempts to reply to as many people as I could as fast as I could were brusque. I'll concede that when presented out of context and out of real-time rat-a-tat, they read as flip.

    Part of the idea behind this tournament was to *not* do a list of artists, which we did last year. It was to enable a discussion of art objects, not art-ists. My distinction and references to such were not intended to seem semantic, but to point out the importance and delight afforded by individual works.

    Finally, I'll point out here what I pointed out elsewhere: When someone asks selectors for the 32 greatest works from 1945-2011, selectors are going to make heavy use of the most settled part of the canon, which is, naturally, the oldest part, 1945-65. Thirty-nine of the 64 works came from that period, which surprised me because I picked selectors whose interests included both a focus on the very recent and curators/critics with a broader interest.

  5. I agree that the residue of white, male "genius" continues to shape collections (both public and private) and museum shows detrimentally, but I don't think a Title IX style, legally-enforced parity would be the answer. Parity certainly makes sense in contemporary art settings no question, but it would folly to apply that concept to an encyclopedic museum, which is what your idea would effectively prescribe. As for MoMA, the narrative of white, male-centered modern art is a touchstone that is tremendously important for all types of art that continue or reject its message. Absolute parity would efface that history, leaving only a lot of sound and fury with no context.
    I don't mean to nitpick, as I realize you're simply making an analogy, but TIX addresses not non-profit organizations with an educational mission as a category, but educational institutions that accept federal funding. Outside of Washington D.C., federal funding for musuems is a pittance. Whatever sums that a museum might receive would pale in comparison to the costs of overhauling collections to achieve actual parity. The revenues from the Donald Judd show are probably what make shows by lesser known female artists possible to begin with, lamentable as that is. I think using a dead white male as an entry point to a complex, multi-artist show would be preferable to simply enforcing a 1:1 ratio of male/female shows. Finally, TIX addresses the rights of individuals who are students in a particular community, not unaffiliated artists and objects in a museum.
    If the terms were broadened to meet your needs, where would parity end? You effectively call for government regulation in a diverse art world with lots of different players and stakes. Do you really think that making the terms of how and what is shown concretely, legally defined will lead to anything but a quota system? Who are the gate keepers that will suddenly have immense power? Art isn't college basketball.
    What I really don't understand is how auction houses play into this. The role of auction houses is to facilitate sales between buyers and sellers. Everyone involved has a stake in making a profit and buying something they want, and there is nothing wrong with that at all. If there were profit in offering women artists at an equal rate to male artists, auction houses would do it without question. Enforcing gender parity at an auction would most likely damage prices realized by women artists' work, not elevate them. In reality, something is only worth what someone has JUST paid for it. What is wrong with getting a good value? In all likelihood, outstanding, important collections of female-made art are being put together by people who otherwise couldn't afford the insane prices realized by male artists
    The act of buying and selling accounts for monetary value; everything else (rep, gender, major museum holdings) is only a secondary consideration that informs, not dictates, a transaction. You seem to suggest that female artists prices should simply become equal to male artists within a "regulated market." This means someone would be literally forced to pay more than what the market would bear otherwise. Unless you mean to shame them into paying more. This other dude may be a barbarian, but your ideas come closer to totalitarianism.

  6. I want to point out one bright spot in the art world with regard to gender equality and that is in percent for the arts funded programs. While I don't have hard data to back this up, my experience has been that these organizations are staffed more often than not by a majority of women. Furthermore their gender neutrality in regards to awarding commissions has not led to a decline in the quality of art works. I hold up Anne Pasternak at Creative Time and Amy Hausman at MTA for the Arts as organizations who have demonstrated that equanimity in regards to commissions does not lead to a decline in quality. In fact, it is the opposite. Ellen Harvey's two works for the MTA are among the most poetic and masterfully executed public commissions I've ever encountered.

    Which leads me to my second point.

    I am a life long sports enthusiast having played hockey, raced bicycles and did my tour of duty in every little league sport available to my road weary parents. College athletics is not diminished in any meaningful way by title IX and in fact is so vastly improved by it to be willfully obtuse to take the opposite opinion. Has it led to some men's programs being eliminated in order to shift funding to women's programs? Yes. Are there men who have not been afforded scholarships as a result. Absolutely! However, we aren't talking about the Michael Jordan's of the world, we are talking about the bench warmers. These men are either playing for a smaller school or are the studs in the intramural league at their university. The Kimba Walkers of the world are still doing fine and men's college athletics has been perhaps been made marginally more competitive and therefore more compelling to watch and participate in. That a couple of guys on the end of the bench or a couple of marginal schools don't have a men's golf team is a minuscule price to pay for the pleasure of watching women's soccer and basketball grow out of the collegiate ranks and onto the international stage of Olympic and professional glory. Additionally, given that women graduates number three for every two men, it seems like good business.

    Having said all that, I am not confident that Title IX is an applicable or viable tool to transform the structure of the art world. Title IX, as it applies to teaching institutions uses the leverage of withdrawing federal funding to get Universities to comply. I don't agree with the idea that museums are educational facilities. Indeed they do have that component but they are more akin to churches; cathedrals of enlightenment. I acknowledge the not for profit status is a federal subsidy for which museums could not exist, but so are churches. If we are going to use Title IX to leverage gender equality in the art world, let's go after a bigger fish first; the Catholic Church.