Selective Democracy

April 19, 2007

by Mary Fitzpatrick, contemporary fine artist

“The raw material of news must pass through successive filters, leaving only the cleansed residue fit to print” Manufacturing Consent – Noam Chomsky

…The same can be said of the visual world including aspects of the gallery world. How many of you are aware that anyone making any work with a camera seeking funding must go through the North West Arts Councils Media department and not their Visual Art department? And how many of you are aware that 95% of the annual media budget usually goes to white male practitioners?

Women are encouraged to apply for funding – but then some weeks later we get a letter from out of the ether pointing out that the competition was tough. They justify it by saying that “photography doesn’t attract women” so that we can try and pretend that we don’t even exist – a director actually wrote this to me after my multiple rejection letters. The names of the award recipients are then jumbled up on their website so you can’t quite work out who has been funded in Media, except if you have a keen sense of smell. Women do tend to get grants in visual arts though most of the major grants over £5000 go to white male artists. One male artist is cited on their website as recently getting two huge grants totalling £65,000 in visual arts. I did gratefully receive one ‘be quiet’ grant at a later stage when I brought ‘the problem’ to their attention.

'Abandoned doll, kuwait'

A few years ago after my many problems with this issue I did a quick audit on five recent years of the Arts Councils funds through studying five years worth of their annual reports. The results were astonishing but unsurprising – 90% to 100% of the Media fund was going in one direction only. Individuals who were funded were often given very large grants and at times double grants. At least 90% of their funds was going to male applicants only – nearly all white applicants. More often than not there would be only one small grant to a female photographer each year – if that.

The message I got through this is that they believe that the white male visual world is somehow superior and more deserving of support. Let’s not forget that this is public arts money. We are filtered out and reprimanded at the very early stages of any potential projects or exhibitions. In fact we are cleansed out to make way for the pure photographic visual residue. I myself was told at a meeting I “would never be funded to publish, exhibit or to buy equipment” by a female Media officer. In fact they even asked me why cant you be more like “this male photographer from London”. I’m not actually a photographer, but a fine artist.

I did a quick audit on some of the curated exhibitions utilising documentary such as ‘Making History – Art and Documentary from 1929 to now‘ at Tate Liverpool. If you look at this particular catalogue there are 71 images, of which 9 are by named female practitioners. However, if you looked at the actual exhibition space itself the male artists exhibited large bodies of work and often having their own rooms, whereas the few women in the exhibition had far less actual wall space. Probably 90% or more of the actual wall space was devoted to white male art and documentary practitioners. The show should have really been called ‘a white male view of Britain’. This is all the more remarkable when you consider that the curator was female.

This strange phenomenon is carried over into the Chinese Art show also at Tate Liverpool in which there is only a single female artist. An invigilator at the show told me the female curators couldn’t find any women in China making art. What they probably meant was that they had in this instance been kept creatively invisible through the various filtering processes that lead to ultimate selection and that this is still sadly a global institutional problem.

In the archaic cultural world – for we do have another world – we are filtered out and largely kept invisible at most stages of the visual colonial selection process. Like the ’so awful it was really funny’ Pollock film I watched the other night, in which Lee Krasner (the painter) meets Jackson Pollock (the painter) and from that moment onwards we only see her only standing in the doorway carrying the laundry basket, cooking or gasping at Pollocks’ genius whilst he paints throughout. At the end of the film -in small credits- we are told that she did actually carry on painting by way of minor hindsight.

Battlescene, Kuwait

In contrast I had 9000 hits to my website last month  from all over the world. Visibility is key. The website assures more visibility, which equals having a voice. You can’t just keep saying we’re all rubbish at what we do. These digital means allow me to do a massive body swerve around the institutional men and women who all work to maintain the higher visual good in this country. I can move around those power points I’m supposed to be filtered through and cleansed out of and still come out visible on the other side. I also work and exhibit a lot outside England. I was well supported by both Arts Councils in Ireland – even the Irish Government supported me.

Whilst I am aware that things have changed radically for us and there are many high profile women artists working today – I remain vigilant of the archaic colonial attitudes that still persist especially in elements of photography per se. We still have predominantly all male photography departments across the country. Digital technology is also relatively inexpensive and widely available too as are the many inexpensive printing options that have also become widely available to us. The media age gives us a lot of options, and I can reach a global audience. Marvellous. The funniest irony for me though, is that my work is motivated by and dealing with the aftermath of those very colonial mechanisms that seek to silence me as an artist. So it remains to be seen whether my blog is also filtered out – the truth hurts doesn’t it?

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