Loud and Luminous

LOUD AND LUMINOUS is the name of this bold exhibition – and that’s got me thinking about how women are loud. And how women are luminous. How we’ve been loud and luminous in the past. How we’ll be loud and luminous in the future. And how that’s needed now more than ever.

Loudness is an attitude and a style. It’s the emanation of energy as sound. We speak of loud colours when someone’s chosen bold garments in strong, solid colours and patterns. Loudness is confidence, prominence and flamboyance. It rings in your ears and spurs you toward action.

Luminosity is a virtue. It’s the emanation of energy as light. The light of truth, the light of knowledge, the light of wisdom. Things are glowing when we say they’re luminous. Gleaming, shimmering, resplendent. Luminosity fills your field of vision, and like the sun, its brilliance can blind you.

When we cast our minds through the history of the female form depicted in art – in sculpture, in painting, and of course more recently, in photography – luminous women feature quite prominently. Women who are glowing. Women who seem to emanate light. Women who are still and quiet – not loud at all.

Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century, claims that the very first work of art to be created by woman was a drawing by Kora of Sicyon – an outline of her lover’s shadow against a wall, he says, a luminous tracing. It’s as absurd as the story Adam and his god tell where they’d like us to believe that he created the first woman himself, out of his own rib. Not even the snake would buy that – and Eve certainly didn’t. What Kora of Sicyon in fact achieved was to develop new techniques in sculpture working with her father, Butades. Their sculptural innovations in relief changed the way light could cast itself upon stone and metal, and was the precursor technique to what we now recognise as some of the most outstanding works of art and architecture in the classical world.

The stories men have traditionally told about women have certainly made us luminous in art – luminous, but not loud. Think of any painting of the Virgin Mary that enters your mind: imagine the light halo’d around her head as she peacefully holds her newborn son. Yet another story of the woman as passive receptacle to the story of man’s empowerment. Think of Man Ray’s iconic images of women’s faces glowing next to tribal masks, or his extreme close-ups of eyes and limbs, or the instantly recognisable form of Le Violon d’Ingres (1924), his model and muse Kiki de Montparnasse as a violin complete with F-holes. Think of all those seductive glamour shots of women from the Golden Age of Hollywood, styled as though expressing episode after episode of the same male gaze casting-couch fantasy: they might be holding our gaze with intent defiance, but ultimately they’re passive, inert and still, never expressing or articulating, never depicted in action.

Those images have affected men’s perceptions of women the world over – and they’ve also conditioned women to behave and respond in a certain way. But not any more. The expectation of working with an inert, sexualised, fetishised woman is a fantasy whose Hollywood days are numbered – and we saw on the weekend that a consortium of women have come together to buy the embattled Weinstein company. Good news.

Now there’s a turn-about. Can you imagine the kinds of moving image we’ll soon see emerging from the Hollywood of tomorrow? Strong women. Active women. Creative women. Audacious women. Loud women. Just like the women showing work in Loud & Luminous, with thanks to the confident and trustful curation of Melissa Anderson and Hilary Wardhaugh. Together they have cast out the kinds of provocations that make women sit up and take notice.

These are confident images. These are sensitive images. These are works by women who, deliberately or otherwise, are redefining what it is to show the form and the body and the identity of a woman in the photographic medium.

Standing up and taking notice is something we all need to do. Because even though first and second and third and fourth waves and #metoo and #timesup are making feminism and gender equity some of the most pressing issues in the world, research study after research study shows that things aren’t looking very good for women. In the arts, they’re actually getting worse – as the Australia Council’s most recent study shows. Called Making Art Work, this is the latest in a thirty-year research partnership between Macquarie University and the Australia Council, by Prof David Throsby and artist and academic Katya Petetskaya.

  • The mean (or average) income for visual artists was $20,200 for their creative work back in 1986-87 (in 2015 dollars), and $44,600 for their total income. By 2014-15, this had become $18,100 and $47,000 – that’s no real change in thirty years, and a 10% loss of average income from creative work.
  • The median income (the middle value across the entire spread of incomes) for visual artists was $6,100 for their creative work back in 1986-87 (in 2015 dollars), and $33,700 for their total income. By 2014-15, this had become $5,200 and $34,400 – again, that’s no real change in thirty years, and a 15% drop in median income from creative work.
  • On the whole, Australia has a roughly equal number of female and male professional artists. Yet female artists earn 25% less than male artists, against the Australian workforce gender pay gap of 16%. While both male and female artists spend around the same amount of time on their practice each week, male artists earn more from that work. Female artists earn 30% less than male artists from their creative work.

And you can look all of that up for yourself: the Australia Council have put together an excellent stats summary page where you can filter data by artform and get quite the valuable set of insights into just the visual arts.

For years, the CoUNTesses – based right here in Melbourne – have been adding to the gendered imbalance of unpaid labour by adding countless volunteer hours to measuring and analysing that balance or imbalance across the contemporary arts, looking at gender representation in exhibitions, biennials and triennials, awards, university and art school graduates, art media, and arts institution boards and staff. And NAVA has been part of that work – and will continue to be part of that work.

So what’s NAVA going to do next? As the national body charged by our Members and by the entire sector to champion contemporary arts, we’re spending this entire month focused on gender equity. Across all genders. And our expectations on this are clear. We expect to see and end to gender disparities in fees, opportunities and representation – we expect to see these disparities overcome through policy and regulation. We expect public funding for arts organisations to be contingent on implementing enforceable policies and programs for redressing disparity – and I note that the SA Government and also the Australia Council have been active in recent weeks in making this expectation clear of the organisations that they fund. And we know you expect the same ethical approach from every institution you deal with.

So throughout March, we’re celebrating the work of Australia’s female and female-identifying artists. And because feminism is ultimately about creating a world in which gender assumptions no longer affect people’s work and rights and daily life, we’re also going to celebrate queerness and the entire LGBTQIA* spectrum of art, identity and power. That’s why I’m particularly thrilled to be here, with all of you, discussing exactly this, in the context of an exhibition of truly powerful images.

Harnessing our power to end discrimination and harassment is vital if we’re to strengthen our voices and champion our images. To be loud and luminous together. Because we all know how difficult, how painful and how impossible it is to try doing that alone.

Today NAVA is launching a public letter called Dear Person I’ve Been Reluctant To Keep Engaging With But Have Had To For Professional Reasons. It invites the perpetrator of gendered harassment to change their behaviour. It’s a very direct letter. And with thanks to some of Australia’s leading visual artists and arts leaders, we’ve recorded the letter as a video that you can share. We’re sharing a good long list of resources along with it, so that we’ve got somewhere to go and someone to support us when we’re dealing with or reporting these kinds of awful experiences.

It all goes online at around noon today, and I invite you all to take a look, share, endorse, put it on your website, encourage others to use it, and otherwise, draw from it whatever may be of use.

It would be wonderful not to have a list of statistics as ready to hand as the ones I read earlier. There are all sorts of structural and systemic obstacles against gender equality, and what keeps those obstacles in place is the culture – whether that’s organisational or social – that continues to enforce them. Because there are people who continue to benefit from that inequity… but now, their time is up.

As we were crafting the letter, Penelope Benton, NAVA’s powerhouse General Manager, described the letter as creepy and fierce. I love that. It’s creepy: it’s designed to make the perpetrator of gendered harassment feel as uncomfortable as the victim – or, hopefully, more uncomfortable. A lot more. Enough to change that behaviour. And it’s fierce: it’s uncompromising and it’s clear. It’s not inert and it’s not nice. In the voice of an assertive feminism, it describes discrimination, harassment and assault, and their impacts on the body, on a career and on the arts more broadly.

Loud and luminous. When I began to speak I said that loudness is an attitude and luminosity is a virtue. Those inert images of virginal women, stylised women, silenced women… we like to think that they’re in the very distant past, but if we think about the photographic images of women that we see in advertising and in the mass-market media, we’re still seeing the inert, virtuous woman rather than the passionate, expert, active woman. That’s what makes an exhibition of women photographers so important and so timely.

Today we’re going to hear from First Nations and immigrants, academics and activists, leaders and documenters, thinkers and strategists and artists. Each of us, in our own way, orients what we do to a public space that we’re all making together.

Feminism is a commitment. It’s an ethic. It’s an attitude and a style and a virtue. It’s the future. And it’s right now

Our time is here. It was always here. We’re just turning up the volume, and shining the light.

Loud and luminous.

 

This was my keynote talk opening the Loud and Luminous symposium in 2018.