At the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, a discussion of women artists' contributions

At the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts forum are (from left) moderator Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw; N.Y. Times art critic Ken Johnson; Huffington Post arts editor Kimberly Brooks; artist and Penn professor Joyce Kozloff; and artist Njideka Akunyili.
At the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts forum are (from left) moderator Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw; N.Y. Times art critic Ken Johnson; Huffington Post arts editor Kimberly Brooks; artist and Penn professor Joyce Kozloff; and artist Njideka Akunyili. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 12, 2013

Last year, curators at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts began planning an all-female art exhibition. Organizers hoped it would facilitate a debate about whether feminism is still needed in modern art, but they weren't sure audiences would find the topic worthy of debate.

Then came Ken Johnson, a New York Times art critic who in only six sentences sparked an impassioned controversy that has played out for months on his Facebook page, arts blogs, an online petition and, on Sunday evening, a sold-out panel discussion at PAFA on the very topic the curators wanted to discuss all along.

In previewing the Philadelphia exhibit, "The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making Their World," which runs until April, Johnson referenced the persistence of gender inequality in the upper echelons of the art world.

"Sexism is probably a good enough explanation for inequities in the market. But might it also have something to do with the nature of the art that women tend to make?" Johnson wrote in the Times in November. He then said, "Anyone with a theory about that will have a good opportunity to test it at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts."

Many artists and feminists railed against what they said was a dismissive tone and a suggestion that all female artists make the same thing. Just two weeks earlier, Johnson had stirred controversy in a review of an exhibit on black artists in Los Angeles from 1960 to 1980. Critics said he was just another white male elitist unable to relate to experiences outside his own.

Johnson's editors and many others came to his defense, calling it a valid question about identity politics in art.

After the panel Sunday, Johnson said he didn't intend to spark such a debate. He said he hadn't seen the exhibit in November and was merely writing a quick blurb for the arts calendar.

Robert Cozzolino said that regardless of intent, he was grateful to Johnson for turning a largely academic argument into something people are "really feeling invested in from an emotional or personal standpoint."

"Ken blew it open," Cozzolino said. "Clearly this is close to the nerve, not just in the art world."

Johnson, the only man on the panel Sunday, was often on the defensive against artists Njideka Akunyili and Joyce Kozloff, along with Huffington Post arts editor Kimberly Brooks and moderator Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw.

At one point, Kozloff asked Johnson directly: "When you talk about art, when you talk about criticism . . . in your mind do you reference people who are not white males?"

He replied that "famous" artists tend to be male and said, "It's not my fault!"

"It is!" Kozloff responded, suggesting that, as a prominent critic, Johnson plays a role in establishing artists' fame.

After the discussion, Kozloff said it was disheartening that such discussions have been going on since the 1960s.

"It makes me sad that we still have to talk about it," she said. "But we do."


Contact Jessica Parks at 610-313-8117, jparks@philly.com, or follow on Twitter @JS-Parks.

"The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making Their World" is at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 128 N. Broad St., until April 7.

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