“When I see a really great female artist…my instincts are to kill her…”
I recently interviewed a prominent female artist of my mother’s generation. A 40-year art world veteran, she makes sparkling, keenly subversive paintings and photographs that explore the realities of being female in today’s world and have been embraced by both the art and fashion elite. I went in with a handful of questions, but like most seasoned interviewees, she barely required my prompts to articulate her thoughts on everything from pop culture to her encounters with one of the great figures of Pop art. But what struck me most were her vehement sentiments that women of my generation—especially those of us trying to make it in the female-saturated but notoriously chauvinistic art world–absolutely must stick together and have each other’s backs.
When I began my career as an art reporter, I expected to encounter a lot of mean girls. What’s more, I was ready to act as one myself. After all, that’s the stereotype. Not just of the art world, but of the fashion set and basically any other “glamorous” but arduous industry in which attractive, well-dressed, ambitious, creative young women want to make a name for themselves. We’re portrayed as cold, conniving, soulless bitches in designer stilettos perfect for walking all over each other in. But that’s actually the exact opposite of what I’ve found.
While the artist I interviewed lamented that in her day, women were so focused on surpassing the myriad hurdles set before them by generations of male subjugators that the bonds they did establish could be easily broken by, say, a high-powered art dealer rejecting work by a female artist from a show for nefarious reasons and the female curator not have the stones (so to speak) to stand up to him on it, I think that it takes more to shake my generation.
“It’s gotta be your generation,” the artist agreed. “The millennials are the first time I’ve started to see it.”
There was a sweaty New York summer in which another young art writer and I were seeing the same guy. How he managed to pull this off given the surprisingly small size of the scene in this city, I have no idea. It was a very bold, very stupid move on his part. While she was smart enough to realize what was going on and immediately remove any degree of emotional attachment she may have had from the situation, I was not on either account. By the time I finally figured out that he had been dating her as well, I was crushed, and my immediate reaction was dislike for this newfound romantic rival.
She—again, being the same numerical age, but clearly more mature than I—didn’t seem to harbor any of these feelings. In fact, she was nothing but genuinely sweet and inclusive towards me, even when I was dismissive and bitchy in return. She later told me that after spending much time around fellow writers of the opposite sex, she had observed that they hung out, supported one another, and had each other’s backs regardless of petty politics (and yep, that includes the occasional shared paramour), and that she wanted to foster that between the women in the field. It was awesome, and today I count her as a friend.
This is just one example. I’ve had other writers give my name to publicists to invite me to gallery dinners and receptions in their place. I’ve been given introductions, advice, warnings, and even potential story ideas from other women in the field without ever having to ask. I’m part of an all-girls book club full of sharp, friendly writers, editors, and PR girls.
Being a recipient of such authentic, unexpected actions have made me, a (very apologetic) former mean girl, realize that while healthy competition is natural, envy and jealousy—be it over boys or bylines—is a useless emotion that renders its participants both futile and miserable. How have so many decades of otherwise insightful career women fallen victim to this pratfall, and what is it about our generation that’s fueling us to finally try to be different? Is it Taylor Swift? Neofeminism? Evolution?
I think that part of it is the advice of these maternal figures, who after years of clawing and being clawed at, recognize that it’s done nothing but hold them back in the long run.
“When I see a really great female artist…my instincts are to kill her,” my interviewee admitted with refreshing candor. “My instincts are that I don’t want to see another good artist, but I make myself go say the words ‘wow, those are great,’ because the very act of saying that makes the envy go away.”
The emotional instinct makes sense: not only are we raised in a girl-eat-girl culture that glorifies achievement at any cost, but people who are in the art world, either as artists or other creative professionals, are often used to defining themselves by their singular talent. Personally, writing is pretty much the only thing I’ve ever excelled at, and I imagine many artists feel similarly about their practices. The same goes for defining oneself as attractive, or well-dressed, or ambitious, or any of the other traits that apply to so many of the incredible women in our field. We cling to these characteristics to help us sketch out an identity in order to navigate the world, but often, they end up holding us back for fear of encountering someone who embodies them more than we do.
My high school boyfriend, who witnessed me at the height of my mean girl impulses, once dropped a rather shiny pearl of wisdom on me that I wasn’t quite ready to receive. “You know,” he said, “another girl’s beauty doesn’t diminish your own.” What does, of course, is your reaction to her.
The art world may be a jungle, but I’m happy to report that it’s taught me how to not be such an animal.
Texts: by Cait Munro
Photo: by Cait Munro
The fearless heroine of the column is a red lipstick-wearing, leather jacket-sporting twenty-something New York art and culture journalist with an unintentional predilection for artwork that features glitter as a key element. Every other thursday she will take us on a whirlwind tour of the global art fair, gallery and gala scene. When she’s not on deadline or battling the occasional bout of crippling social anxiety, she is practically a functional adult human being.