There aren’t many female artists who have appeared in as many acclaimed galleries as Valie Export. The list of international collections that hold her work is ridiculously impressive: Centre Pompidou, Paris; Tate Modern, London; Reina Sophia, Madrid; MOMA, New York; MOCA, Los Angeles. Yet she is not well known by the general public, despite the fact that she’s been producing art since 1967, working tirelessly and tackling sexism. I know I’m kind of preaching to the choir by telling Bitch readers about a feminist creative, as you have probably heard something about her already, but what I really want to explore is how the words of her “Women’s Art” manifesto in 1972 are relevant to today, and that we are still “confronted by a masculine reality” nearly 40 years later.
[Valie Export, Einkreisung, 1976]
Export’s argument, originally published in Neues Forum, begins by saying that “man has defined the image of woman.” She was living in a very patriarchal society where women had only been given the Pill in the 1960s and “wife rape” had only recently been considered a crime, so it’s not hard to see the obstacles standing in the way of gender equality. We were routinely consigned to a life of marriage and child-rearing, so art didn’t really have much of an opportunity to figure on the agenda. But when Export goes on to say that art is a tool to “liberate culture from masculine values,” I am not sure how much farther other female artists have come since 1972. Yes, we have the excellent Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, and Cindy Sherman with their sharp postmodern observations, and I consider them to be my role models. Yes, we have feminist art collectives, and galleries named after high-profile figures such as Barbara Hepworth, and we have the amazing National Museum of Women in the Arts, based in Washington DC. But have we managed to achieve the “self-determination” in the struggle for sexual equality in the arts, when females continue to be pigeon-holed and grouped together in some sort of club?
It can’t be a coincidence that, in 2008, nine out of ten directors of the major US art museums and galleries were male (the exception was the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Anne d’Harnoncourt), and four out of 31 in the UK (which has risen to five in 2011). We continue to see a bias towards men, despite artists such as Export being included in key collections, because nobody seems overly bothered about gathering a breadth of female artists unless it’s for a designated exhibition space that keeps them nicely tucked away from the guys. Valie Export’s manifesto words aren’t as dated as I’d like them to be, and I’m sure when she wrote them that she wasn’t envisioning such slow progression for her dreams of gender equality through art. Like her fractured self-portrait from 1989, I feel like we’re still not complete, and I know that sounds defeatist—but it would be idealistic to say that we’re treated with the same level of respect as male artists, or that female art gets an equal billing.
[Valie Export, Selbsportrait, 1989]
What’s more, as Export rightly said in 1972, “Men have succeeded through the millennia in expressing their ideas of the erotic, of sex and beauty, their mythology of strength, virility and discipline in sculptures, paintings, novels, films, dramas, drawing etc.”—she then went on to rally the troops and called for “women to employ art as an expressive means of influencing the consciousness of everyone.” I would argue that we are still being oppressed by men, and if you asked the man on the street to name three female painters he’d struggle to come up with even two.
So, when 2022 comes around and we’re looking at 50 years since Valie Export’s manifesto, where do I hope we’ll be? Well, I’d like to think that we’ll see women moving into senior positions in the arts and directly influencing gender equality in the exhibitions to come, giving us icons to look up to. I’d like women to feel comfortable in expressing themselves as artists in their own right, rather than having to hold their own shows and be consigned to the back of art history textbooks. I’d like to see popular culture taking women seriously and saying, “God, life was so boring when we only looked at male painters/photographers/sculptors/filmmakers.” Women doesn’t have to be “constructed by man,” as Valie put it. We can construct ourselves.