For most of my life I have been trying to understand why it is that women have not played a more active role in art. Why couldn't women paint as well or better than men? If a few women could paint as well or better than men, why couldn't more women do it? Historically, women had been excluded from the painting industry because it required several years' rigorous training, in conditions incompatible with a woman's more important role within the artist family as mother of the next generation of artists. Women who were trained were usually trained by their fathers, married other artists and then disappeared. A few women survived, especially in portraiture, because aristocratic courts needed portraits of their marriageable daughters and didn't want to expose them to the dangerous figure of the male artist. If ladies were all taught to take views in watercolour, why were so few of them any good at it? Why did none of them graduate to painting landscape? The traditional explanation as to why women couldn't draw or paint used to be because they were excluded from the life class - as if drawing the nude were the only way of learning to draw everything and anything else. Anyone can pile some quinces in a dish and paint them from life, and there have been a few great women painters of still life. But why not more?
Eventually I arrived at a theory, which I offer for consideration. It goes like this: women, being generally more rational than men, are aware that life is more important than art. This is simple logic: art is a part of life, therefore art cannot be greater than life. Since the Romantic period and the rise of the concept of artist as Ubermensch, the male artist has been led to believe that, if he is to be a serious artist, he must regard his work as of supreme importance, immutable, unchanging, defying time. Therefore, as Marcel Duchamp never tired of saying, the most important element in a picture is its frame; in a sculpture, its plinth. The frame/plinth is what detaches the work of art from the rest of the world. That separateness is further reinforced by the sacred enclosure that surrounds the work - the art gallery, the museum, where nothing may be touched by mere mortals. The work is therefore defined as non-biodegradable, even as conservators struggle to reverse the ineluctable processes of decay.
As long as the art object was conceived as a monument to itself, women shrank before attempting it. Women who modify their environment every hour of every day, whether they are shaping their child's damp hair, or twitching a blind, or choosing wallpaper, or dressing themselves with wit and ingenuity, are unexcited by the self-contained, self-regarding work of art. They are not inspired. The adrenaline doesn't flow. But when art escaped from the frame and descended into the real world, women artists were suddenly in their element. As long as the work was open-ended, as long as life flowed through it, from its conception to its realisation, women could make it as well as anyone. There's hardly any point now in asking if women have to be naked to make it into the Metropolitan Museum (as the Guerrilla Girls did), because the museum is not where it's at.
Though it took male artists to bust out of the picture frame, once art was out women were suddenly free to make their own installations and performances. Marina Abramovic´, Silvie Bélanger, Mona Hatoum, Annette Messager, Cornelia Parker are names to conjure with. Annette Messager had her first solo exhibition at the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris 35 years ago; her work was not seen in England until 1992, when she showed at the Arnolfini in Bristol. Now, 17 years later, she has the Hayward Gallery in London pretty much to herself. Hers is work that insists on fragility, on loss and impending loss, infused with a tenderness that has nothing to do with sentimentality. Open-endedness characterises the work of women in other media, too, from Tacita Dean's celebrations of real objects, to Shirin Neshat's enactments of Persianness.
The fact that three of the four artists shortlisted for the Turner prize last year were female is by now hardly worth noticing, and some were even surprised that the lone male beat the three of them. The Bloomberg Commission by Turner nominee Goshka Macuga, whose work most of us found more interesting than Mark Leckey's, will be showing when the refurbished Whitechapel opens later this week, along with Isa Genzken's Open Sesame. For the Unilever series of installations in the Turbine Hall, Tate Modern has commissioned almost as many women as men, though the space is probably the most intimidating of any in the art world.
Shulamith Firestone once wrote that when women and gay people take over any field of human endeavour, it is a sign that it is finished. There are plenty of dyspeptic critics who see, in the fading away of the picture frame and the spilling of the artwork into real life, the end of art itself. It seems more likely that art is being transformed from an antisocial preoccupation into something more conscious and committed. In a threatened world, the eternal monument looks increasingly pathetic and ridiculous.
Copyright Speakers Corner 2017