MY art magazine has a feature about Josephine Hopper. You might not have heard of her but may know of her husband, Edward, famous for his lonely, dissociative style, best known for his 1942 painting Nighthawks showing a late-night diner. He painted Jo about 3,000 times. Her painting career declined as his rose and she became his muse. Hopper said she had ‘a pleasant little talent’. In 2004, Gaby Wood, writing for the Guardian, agreed that it was a small talent. On the page her work looks wishy-washy, but now it seems those views were wrong.
‘Jo Hopper’s legacy is being rebuilt,’ said the magazine article. A biography is coming and efforts made to wrest her name completely away from his. It probably won’t be long before she is talked about as the better artist; art historian Elizabeth Colleary says Jo was ‘much more of a modernist’ than Edward, implying greater originality and experimentation, even though that isn’t there in the work.
Whether she was talented or not belongs to the old canon of judgment; the fact that she was female is more important. At the Tate Britain William Blake exhibition last year, I read that his work was inspired by his wife Catherine. It was even suggested that she’d had a big hand in his etching and illustrations. Then I was told by BBC Radio 4 that William Wordsworth couldn’t have written a word without help from his sister Dorothy. This was followed by similar information in catalogues about Lee Krasner, who had the misfortune to hook up with Jackson Pollock, Dora Maar, who was squashed by Picasso, and Camille Claudel, destroyed by getting into bed with Rodin. Gwen John has of course long eclipsed her philandering brother Augustus, at least in the view of current curators.
In the art world men are now radically outpaced by women. It’s possible that they may soon disappear; in Tate Britain’s Aftermath exhibition in 2018, about painters after the First World War, curator Emma Chambers got around the problem of too many male artists in the show by putting paintings by women into the catalogue replacing those on the walls.
Obvious truth need no longer apply. When four people won the Turner prize last year, after asking the judges to make the award collective rather than individual, Melanie Phillips wrote that she ‘experienced a distinct sense of déjà vu’. In 1996 she published a best-selling book entitled All Must Have Prizes, taken from a ludicrous idea by Lewis Carroll. Her book analysed what she called ‘the progressive destruction of our education system’.
She saw that this refusal to award points on merit any more lies in cultural and moral relativism, which states that because not everyone has equality of opportunity, women against men, black v white, they must all be given identical outcomes. This has gradually undermined our institutions, particularly those concerned with the visual arts. You still have to be talented to enter a music college or ballet school, but you don’t have to be able to draw to enter art college. In the past talent had to be obvious and skills learned, but as that view is selective, ‘elitist’ standards have simply been simply removed and reality distorted.
This has benefited all identity groups vying for funding, particularly feminists who tend to be middle-class and educated. In his review of the snappily titled Women Can’t Paint: Gender, The Glass Ceiling and Values in Contemporary Art by Helen Gorrill, critic Alexander Adams pointed out: ‘One core function of feminism is as justification for preferential treatment. Feminists cannot see any gender disparity unfavourable to women as anything other than overt discrimination. Where women do better, as in arts administration, the advantages are dismissed as hardly compensating for historical injustice.’
Women now rule in arts management. Jenny Waldman is director of the Art Fund, a charity which acquires art for the nation. Rather than a background in art history she was creative producer of the 2012 finale of the ‘Cultural Olympiad’ for the Olympics and instigator of London’s first outdoor ice-rink. Our four Tate Galleries are ruled by Maria Balshaw. In 2017 she told the Guardian there’d been ‘an overdominance of white European work at the Tate’. She didn’t study art history either, but English literature and cultural studies at Liverpool and later an MA in ‘critical theory’, followed by a DPhil in African American visual and literary culture. As director of the Whitworth art gallery in Manchester, she championed African art and female artists. In 2011 she became director of Manchester City Galleries, pushing the same agenda.
In 2018, just after she left to take over the Tate, Manchester Art Gallery took down one of its most popular paintings, John Waterhouse’s 1896 work Hylas and the Nymphs, even removing postcards of it from the shop. Curator Clare Gannaway explained that the painting was about ‘male artists pursuing women’s bodies, and paintings that presented the female body as a passive decorative art form or a femme fatale’. We are following the US and Canada in this philosophy. Galleries there are constantly undergoing ‘feminist rehangs’ to concentrate on women and race.
(Hylas and the Nymphs was soon restored after an outcry with the excuse that it had been removed temporarily to make room for an ‘installation’.)
Women now predominate in positions of power in all aspects of creative life. Jude Kelly is artistic director of London’s Southbank Centre. Grace Chan is chief operating officer of English National Ballet, Lucy Davies is executive producer at London’s Royal Court Theatre and Karen Watson is chief operating officer of English National Opera. The Globe is run by Michelle Terry, who recently told BBC Radio 4: ‘Shakespeare is about congregation’, ‘his words are not important, only the feeling and emotion the play gives you’. The executive director of the RSC is Catherine Mallyon, while that thriving entity, British film, is headed by two women named Amanda – Berry at Bafta and Nevill at the BFI. Emily Eavis co-organises the annual Glastonbury Festival. Even the art history A-level has been redesigned to take a feminist, internationalist view. Art teacher Sarah Phillips was given the job of changing it, asserting: ‘Students won’t just study the work of dead white men. They’ll have the opportunity to study Islamic architecture and work by people of all colours and creeds.’
The whole art establishment now seems to agree with James Rondeau, director of the Art Institute of Chicago that ‘art museums [American for art galleries] must be understood less as temples to culture and more as porous social platforms across a wide spectrum of interactions. We are focusing on ensuring that visitors recognise themselves in our collections, exhibitions and programmes, but we must go beyond that and reimagine how our spaces themselves can telegraph: “This is your experience”.’
Artists can gain acceptability only as part of a group, preferably representing a ‘protected minority’. If women can’t paint as well as men, painting must change. If white women win too many prizes, as we have seen in the case of literary awards, prizes must also go to black women, even if that means giving out several first prizes. If women are not interested in certain subjects, or might lack general knowledge compared to men, then the knowledge must be changed.
In 2018 the BBC’s University Challenge agreed to have more ‘gender neutral’ questions. This year’s final remained disgustingly male. The Guardian immediately derided the panellists as ‘Renaissance men’, Renaissance being a discredited term among the woke, suggesting a Euro-centric view of history and culture. You can use the term ‘Menaissance’ for male gender enlightenment but remember, nothing happened in Europe in the early 15th century that didn’t also happen in Africa with equal influence.
Whether that is true or not is just not relevant any more.