In 2017, the eleventh and final volume in a book series on Dutch visual art criticism was published. Van Beuningen, an experienced art critic, noticed that only 20% of the total number of art critics mentioned were women, but found that the same series of books offered no explanation for this skewed ratio. This is odd, since the majority of art critics today are women. She went looking for answers herself: Van Beuningen investigated the role of women in Dutch visual art criticism on the basis of five hypotheses.
Van Beuningen first did extensive literature research to give an impression of the world in which female art critics have operated since the emergence of the genre around 1800. “In the 19th century and for part of the 20th century, women's liberties were restricted. Until 1957, women were legally incapacitated the moment they married a man.” The turning point came in the 1960s. “The number of students increased considerably, including in degree programmes such as art history, and the number of women in art criticism grew with it.”
Although the number of women has increased, their position has lagged behind. “It is an uncertain sector, with little job security and low earnings. Also the status of the profession has declined. The turnover is high.”
Crisis of visual art criticism
Van Beuningen also studied the way women are portrayed in the chronicle of visual art criticism. “Unlike men, who are often described as individuals, the historians mention women mainly as part of a group.” The historical overviews are also incomplete: women's magazines, and the women art critics who wrote for these magazines, are not included in the “canon” of art criticism.
As the number of women grew, so did the criticism of the field. Van Beuningen points to Sullerot's law that the status of a profession decreases when the percentage of women increases. “You see this with art criticism as well and new exclusion mechanisms emerge. When more people received secondary education thanks to the Mammoetwet (secondary education act), a university degree, preferably in art history, suddenly became a requirement for a position in visual art criticism.”
The emergence of new exclusionary mechanisms is also evident in the distribution of the group of female art critics. “A survey of art critics showed that 100% of them are highly educated. 75% have highly educated parents, while only 41% of the Dutch population is highly educated. Furthermore, it is mainly white women from the Randstad (major metropolitan area) who work in art criticism.”
Van Beuningen has noticed that the diversity is greater on online platforms such as De Kunstmeisjes. Moreover, university education has become much more accessible, potentially allowing many more people to work in art criticism. Still, Van Beuningen is not very enthusiastic. “Financial opportunities are limited on new online platforms, and I can imagine that new exclusionary mechanisms will emerge. There are few jobs in art criticism, so people will hold on to their positions. These positions are unequally distributed, and I hope to make people more aware of that with this PhD thesis.
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