This text was written at a specific historical situation and for a specific audience. During some weeks and months in autumn-winter 2017, I was one of the initiators of a #metoo-appeal for the Swedish Art World, #konstnärligfrihet (#artisticfreedom). As an old feminist activist who had been close to burn out many times during the course of third wave feminism in Sweden from the late 90s and during the 00s, I was at first reluctant to stand on the barricades once more. So I waited for others to take the lead this time. But as days and weeks passed during the autumn of 2017, and other professional groups came out in the media with their collection of testimonies, I decided to speak up on social media with one of my own recent experiences of sexist oppression on the Swedish art scene. Shortly after that I was contacted by other women around Sweden who also felt that it was time to organize. So we did. The weeks to come would be a journey into darkness. For days and nights we administered thousands of stories that came in to our group email and posted them anonymously in the hidden Facebook group that had exploded with thousands of members within a few days. Hundreds of members were suggested each day, and there was no way we could add all of them. A range of testimonies from minor physical offences, verbal comments to brutal rape were streaming in to our email and Facebook group. At some point I had the ambition to read it all. I scrolled and read day and night, until my eyes hurt. This period of our lives was very upsetting to all the members of the admin group. Since we lived in different cities we did not have the possibility to meet to support each other regularly, but we did try to meet in person when we could, skyped and phoned each other for support. We answered every courageous person who came in with her story, we cried, forgot to eat and sleep, manically trying to keep up with the never ending flood of stories. During this time, friends and strangers, women, men, and trans people opened up to each other and started talking about abuse, sex, and power in a new way. Finally, we could be open, and vulnerable. The aftermath of this revolution is something we are still processing.
On December 13, 2017, the Modern Museum in Stockholm organized a panel talk where some of the artists that were active in the movement questioned the directors of the most important art institutions and art academies in Sweden. I was one of the artists who was invited as an opponent. The auditorium was filled to the last chair, 300 people were in attendance and the ambience in the room was intense with many people visibly upset. Since I was still processing the impact of sharing all the strong stories that had been handed over to the admin group, I knew that I might not be able to speak coherently. So the night before the event I wrote down a short explanation of my understanding of the specific type of sexism fostered in Western Art History. When I was asked to come on stage, something happened that I never experienced before; in front of a great portion of the Stockholm art world, to whom I tried for twenty years to come across as professional, I started crying uncontrollably. And then I read the following:
Dear Art World,
Today’s concept of Contemporary Art is rooted in Western modernism, with its cult of the male genius, that praised men who created masterpieces with inspiration from their muses, underprivileged girls from lower classes of society, who often lived in prostitution. The art professor’s authority over his pupil goes back to an Academy system founded in the 17th century, which in itself builds on the medieval guild when a painter began as an apprentice with a master at a young age. In 1611, at the age of 19, Artemisia Gentilleschi was raped by her teacher. Still today, we carry an Art History heavy with sexist power, where men, in the protection of their alleged genius, power, and status, have exploited and violated younger women.
I think of the Édouard Manet’s painting Un bar aux Folies Bergère, which represents a bartender girl with deep décolletage, strangulated waist and shiny eyes looking tiredly at the viewer. I think of the nobleman Henri de Toulouse Lautrec’s portrayals of ‘public girls’ who were making a living from showing their legs at the Moulin Rouge. And at Edgar Degas who, like other gentlemen from the Parisian bourgeoisie, could enter the changing rooms at the Paris Opera to hang out with half-naked teenage girls, whose poor parents hoped to marry them up on the social ladder. Thinking of Paul Gauguin, who traveled to Tahiti, exoticizing girls in his paintings and sexually exploiting them. We carry this legacy with us.
A patriarchal class society is maintained through networks. Networks between men and networks in the upper middle class. The cultural sphere and the art world are privileged places with resources, room for self-expression, opportunities to realize visions, portray them and find an audience, get recognition, be seen as a subject. There are many who compete for a place on the art scene, to enjoy this status with all that it brings with it of a good life and influence over the public conversation. But we do not compete on equal terms. Some are born into this network, they know how to navigate the system from the beginning, the contacts are in the family. While others, who are born in underprivileged groups, are excluded. This network is not only undemocratic, it also preserves an elitist, colonial concept of art that continues to exclude those held back by intersectional subordination.
The tyranny of the lack of structure that has long prevailed in the art world, where nepotism, informal hierarchies and status fixation continue to dominate despite the discussion we have had about structural injustice for at least 20 years, must now be challenged.
We have all now to ask ourselves: What do we do to change the art scene so that it becomes more democratic, equal, open, permissive, inclusive and thus more fun, more creative, more interesting and more urgent for everyone in our society? What do you do?
December 2017 / May 2019