CULTURE & ARTS

How Art History Taught Me That I, A Woman Of Color, Could Create

Within the formal study of art history, a small yet potent revolution is stirring.

Throughout elementary and junior high, I had been a straight-A student. But by high school, I had become a slacker who made an effort in the only two classes that didn’t bore me -- English and Art. Chalk it up to a glasses-to-contacts makeover, newly put-on teenage DGAF attitude and swelling ennui in suburban Orange County.

The high school I attended was full of ambitious students who were bent on finding acceptance into prestigious colleges, and honors courses felt par for the course. While some of my friends spent their lunch hour cramming for Advanced Placement classes, I opted to take a guitar class during sixth period. When not trying to learn "House of the Rising Sun" on a grassy hill somewhere, I'd sneak off campus to buy quesadillas at Rubio’s, smuggling them back in my guitar case.

Though my high school offered an AP art history course, I didn’t enroll. Given the chance today, however, I'd certainly be more motivated to take it.

The College Board -- the organization that oversees AP classes -- relaunched AP art history this fall, diversifying a list of 250 works of art and architecture to include as many artistically significant cultures as possible. The course’s most obvious flaw had been that it had mirrored the broad cultural bias found in the art world -- and rewriting history is a painstakingly Herculean task, as The Atlantic recently pointed out.

Guerrilla Girls,<i> Do Women Have to be Naked to Get into the Met Museum?</i>, 1989
Guerrilla Girls, Do Women Have to be Naked to Get into the Met Museum?, 1989

Looking at the revised list of required works for the AP class jogged memories of my first foray into art history with a college course titled "Women and the Visual Arts." Previously, my only brush with art history had been periodic field trips to museums that largely skew white and male. And it wasn’t my teenage imagination -- the state of gender parity in the art world is pretty dismal: In 2013, every artist in the top 100 auction sales was a man; there were no women among the top 40 in 2014.

According to the Guerrilla Girls, a group of anonymous female feminist artists, less than 4 percent of the artists in the Modern Art section of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art are women, but 76 percent of the nudes are female. Since 2007, only 29 percent of the Whitney Museum's solo exhibitions were dedicated to women artists. During a recent appearance on the "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," members of the group discussed the underlying problem.

“Art should look like the rest of our culture. Unless all the voices of our culture are in the history of art, it’s not a history of art -- it’s a history of power,” said Frida, one of the pseudonymous members of the feminist art collective.

While the class focused on female artists of the West (read: mostly white), I felt like I could see myself in these women. On a pedagogical and cultural level, it seems important to include a diverse array of artists. But, for women and people of color, diverse representation has a powerful personal impact.

For me, merely seeing and acknowledging women as artists has provided the inspiration not only to make art but -- more importantly -- to see the potential in myself as a creator. Hoping to jog my memory beyond this abstract albeit strong feeling, I emailed my college professor for the syllabus from "Women and the Visual Arts," which I had taken more than 10 years ago.

Gallery view of <i>Two Fridas</i> by Frida Kahlo&nbsp;
Gallery view of Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo 

Elisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, Mary Cassatt, Käthe Kollwitz, Frida Kahlo, Cindy Sherman -- these were all women who resonated with me deeply during that first art history class. They’ve also landed on the AP’s revised list of required works, along with more women artists I didn’t learn about until much later.

Still, looking down the list I couldn’t help but burst with questions, like a detective in search of missing persons. Where’s Artemisia Gentileschi? Louise Bourgeois? Yoko Ono? Eva Hesse?

Glaring as these omissions may be, any attempt to encapsulate art history spanning all humankind will feel incomplete. According to The Atlantic, the College Board plans to periodically revise its image selection to align with the art being studied in college courses, with up to 10 percent of the works changing every five to seven years.

A few weeks into my first art history class, which specifically focused on women artists, I decided to major in art. This is no coincidence. The ramifications of seeing women represented as not just muses but creators themselves left a long-lasting impression on me. Ultimately I decided not to pursue fine art professionally, but I’m more confident as a creative person, in my own unique voice and in the stories I have to tell.

Imagine how a young high school girl of color will feel when she comes across Frida Kahlo or Shirin Neshat or Kara Walker for the first time during her AP art history class. Even with the heavy historical weight of the White Male Genius, that’s a small yet potent revolution worth celebrating.

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