Donald P. Eckard

Dr. Eckard presented the following article at the annual meeting of the Eastern Sociological Society. The article is about visual artists.


Artists pose some interesting sociological puzzles in that the complexity of their lives coupled with the mythology that surrounds them deters analysis which might succeed on other occupations. The definition of "artist" is, at the outset, troublesome since the boundaries of the occupation are so permeable and the requirements for inclusion are so nebulous. This produces some contradictory findings (as we will see below) among studies which employ different operational terms and methods.
The nature of their work also presents problems since creativity is an elusive quality which resists sociological reduction. Artists are naturally suspicious of attempts to explain their "genius' in terms of class, gender, or historical context. Historically, sociologists have been willing to leave the analysis of art work to the aestheticians and concentrate on the economic, political and historical elements of the art world, including the audiences (Blau 1988) perhaps as a result of the positivist orientation of American sociology (Zolberg 1990).
On the other hand, artistic work touches on so many of the core issues in sociology that to ignore artists or their work because of the inherent methodological difficulties is to lose a rich source of insight. Freedom, alienation, expression, relation to capitalism, etc., are philosophic issues central to both modernism and the artistic life. In response, sociologists have developed a variety of research strategies which "bracket" the aesthetic questions and concentrate on variables more familiar to them (Bowler 1994).One such variable is gender, but it is not without complications.


Gender is a common enough variable in sociological research since there is a consensus that it has some substantial impact on the outlook, behavior and life cycle of the individual. In the last thirty years, feminist scholarship has alerted us all to the many dimensions of gender (and its implications) to the point that it has become a routine category alongside class and race. However, like class and race, it is not an unproblematic concept (aside from the biological characteristics of sex) and shares a disputatious history with them.
This paper investigates gender as is relates to what Howard Becker (1982) terms the "art world." Within this universe, gender has an ambiguous status.
With remnants of its German Idealist origins, art history has traditionally presumed that artistic talent will "out" regardless of gender, race or class. The artworld, supposedly, is a meritocracy in this sense, with great art receiving the recognition it deserves in the long run. The fact that this recognition has come almost exclusively to men presents the usual choice between socio-biological and structural explanations.
Ironically, it has been feminist art historians who have seized the sociological-structural explanations in their effort to reveal the hegemony of the "male gaze." But in doing so they have exposed women artists to another dilemma: in order to avoid being stigmatized as "woman artist," they must subscribe to the objectivity of the aesthetic evaluation which has traditionally excluded them. Hence, women insist on being considered as artists, not female artists for fear of placing themselves into a category which is judged differently than men. However, the art world has traditionally been hostile to women, restricting their entrance to guilds, then academies, and maintaining an ideology which denied womens' capacity to create (Nochlin 1988).
Typical of this ambiguity was the artworld's reaction to the opening of the Museum of Women's Art in Washington, D.C. On the one hand there was a desire to rescue women's artwork from a male dominated art history, but on the other hand, there were fears that women's art would be ghettoized and held to less stringent standards. Feminist art historians (Slatkin 1990; Heller 1987) have successfully demonstrated that there were, in fact, significant women artists in the past who for non-aesthetic reasons have been denied a place in the canon. Yet it is ridiculous to argue that great women artists (or writers, etc.) existed are simply overlooked. They have always existed potentially but the conditions to realize such potential have been absent (Chadwick 1990).
Some feminists have attempted to avoid the dilemma by renouncing the prevailing aesthetic standards as hopelessly male and turning to traditional domestic "arts" such as quiltmaking as the authentic expression of the female existence. Of course, this runs afoul of the distinction between "high art" and craft work with all of the connotations therein (Parker and Pollock 1981). This separation, therefore, must also be rejected. Postmodernism offers some theoretical room for this kind of maneuvering with its rejection of the alleged hierarchical assumptions of Modernism and its attendant patriarchy (Nicholson 1990). Within Postmodernism the power-laden definitions of "high" and "low" are exploded, or rather, exposed as fraudulent and thereby releasing women's art work from the grip of male dominated criticism (Wolff 1990). In its place is a pluralist aesthetics in which boundary-crossing and a blurring of the distinction between art and mass culture or kitsch replaces Modernism's pursuit of purity.
Other debates within feminism also have implications for gender and art. While most social-contructionist lines of feminist criticism assume that women are missing from the art historical canon for social-political reasons, there is an "essentialist" reductionist school which looks for biological explanations (Moi and Radway 1994).
Curiously, while some art historians have embraced sociology and made feminist criticism to their discipline, a recent otherwise excellent text on the sociology of art (Zolberg 1990) gives only passing reference to the issue of gender. It could only have been a deliberate decision not to review the voluminous feminist writing on the topic of art. Apparently, even (female) sociologists accept, to some extent, the notion that gender is not relevant in the study of the art world.
Other issues spill over into the question of women's status in the art world. There has been an energetic campaign by some women to suppress pornography on the grounds that it contributes to the general acceptance of male domination (Dworkin 1979). However, the definition of pornography has been inexact and sometimes seems synonymous with any sexual image. This line of criticism obviously will include art work which explores sexual themes in an explicit way.
A recent exhibition at the University of Michigan Law School featured video and documentary photography by seven artists, five of whom were women. The images dealt with prostitution and thereby raised the ire of some anti-porn feminists who had segments of the exhibition removed without the knowledge of the curator. This produces the unlikely situation of women censoring other women whose artwork is about women all in the name of feminism (Vance 1993).
The various strategies employed by feminists which are outlined above suggest that art history is a contested terrain. This conflict translates into questions about sexism in the art world which are more properly the domain of sociologists. For instance, despite the fact that roughly half of the artists and art historians trained in the United States are women,

...women artists and art teachers earn less than men; government and major funding agencies award the most money to men; most sample art schools employ less than one-quarter female faculty; female artists are very poorly represented, if at all in the most widely used art history books; women artists are underrepresented in shows where selection is by invitation, but appear in more equal proportion when selection is by "blind" jury where the gender of the artist is not known (Dickinson 1990)

The manner in which artists are trained has made social categories such as gender more pertinent in assessing the art world. Prior to this century, artists received their training largely through a process of selection by recognized masters (Pevsner 1940). This system was easily manipulated by men to restrict access by women. However, during this century, and particularly after the Second World War, the university affiliated or private art school has become the primary source of training for artists (Crane 1987, Eckard 1991, Finney 1993). This has led, in the United States, to an explosion in the number of artists trained and in the participation by women. By 1987, institutions of higher learning granted 14,804 Bachelor's Degrees and 2,738 Master's Degrees in the fine arts. This does not include the related fields of performing arts, film, photography and crafts (US Dept. of Ed. 1989). By 1990, over half of the degrees were going to women.
The transformation of artist training has taken place in an environment that has placed increasing prestige on credentials. Educational credentials have become, in a complex bureaucratic society, the means of establishing the legitimacy of a profession (Larson 1977). Also, stylistic change in the art world has made evaluations of quality more difficult forcing patrons and consumers to rely on alternative criteria, namely academic training and credentials, for their judgments. Thus, if the art work itself appears incomprehensible, at least the credentials of the artist assure the viewers that something legitimate has been produced.
Since art school credentials have now become the most important criteria in artistic preparation (and the minimum qualifications for teaching art) one of the nagging problems of art world research is at least partially overcome. We are now in a position to identify artists in a manner that was not possible prior to the use of academic credentials.
Previously, researchers typically had small, local samples developed through participant observation, or relied on "known" successful artists or groups for their information and data. However, these data were extremely unreliable since they underreported all those artists not part of the sample, which in many cases were the vast majority.
The alternative was to rely on government data sets for information which is common enough in occupational research. However, in the case of artists, these data sets provide very little useful information. For instance, the Bureau of Labor Statistic's (BLS) Current Population Survey gathers data on over 325 occupations, including eleven artistic occupations. The three-digit category most relevant to this research is #188, painters, sculptors, craft artists, artist printmakers. The BLS reports that for this group (estimated at 232,000 cases) the unemployment rate in 1993 is 4.2% (NEA 1994). However, even the most superficial knowledge of the art world informs us that unemployment of artists as artists is extremely high and that the BLS figures are substantially incomplete.
The reason is, of course, the methods used in collecting the data. The Current Population Survey uses the common "work week" technique in conducting its interviews. Thus, respondents are asked if they had a paying job last week. For artists, this often means in a non-art related job which serves as the financial support for their artistic, but low paying efforts. For BLS purposes, those artists show up (for example) as waiters and waitresses, which is only partially true. Their "real" vocation is in art, and waiting tables is merely a temporary, albeit necessary source of income used to sustain the artists' lifestyle.
The BLS, as well as other researchers (Wassall & Alper 1985) caution against using BLS data due to the difficulties suggested above. This has not deterred some researchers from drawing, in my view, unwarranted conclusions. For instance, in a series of articles Filer (1986, 1989, 1990) has utilized Census and BLS data to analyze artists' income. He claims that artists do not suffer any disadvantage in income and that they can be characterized as "...normal, risk-adverse, income- seeking individuals just like the rest of us" (1986;p.74). Wedded to the rational choice argument as he is, Flier has to come to this conclusion, and the incomplete data from the BLS makes it possible. Further unwarranted conclusions are drawn by those who use Filer's research, such as Frey and Pommerehne (1989) and Hall and Neitz (1993, p.181), who place Filer's work within the "production of culture" (Peterson 1976) approach.
As I will show below, artists from my sample report a severe financial disadvantage, not only in terms of income generated from art but in total income from all sources, and that women artists report lower incomes than their male peers.


A questionnaire was designed following guidelines established by Dillman (1978). For reasons outlined above, art school graduates were used as a representative sample. Alumni lists were obtained from the Tyler School of Art of Temple University in Philadelphia. The mailing to one thousand graduates (442 MFA and 558 BFA) from the years 1970 to 1990 took place in September of 1990. Two follow-up mailings were made in order to increase the response rate.
Four hundred seventy-two usable questionnaires were returned, 61% from women.
The major stumbling block in researching artists and their economic condition is their typically complex work lives. Unable to support themselves after graduation, artists look for jobs that will sustain them financially but still allow time for artistic work. Tyler grads were no exception. When asked for their main occupation, the responses generated over 50 occupational categories.
This is where the Census and the BLS are unable to capture the essence of the artist's work life. Despite working in an unrelated field, the respondents remain committed to producing art. Only 6.6% of the respondents indicated that they had given up art work despite the financial hardships. A typical response to one of the open-ended questions:

I do carpentry and woodworking to support myself. I try to make art when I am not exhausted by this work or when I am not distraught over lack of money due to no work. Many of my friends in construction are also artists.(R2288)

Undoubtedly this individual would be categorized as a construction worker, not an artist by the BLS interviewer. However, the results of the questionnaire indicate a high level of activity in art related work despite the demands of non-art related jobs. When asked about their exhibition history, only a 15% minority reported that they had not shown their work publicly in the last five years while 59% report regular shows in a variety of spaces. Furthermore, nearly half (48%) of the fine art MFA graduated indicate that they are represented by a gallery which suggests not only activity, but some measure of critical acceptance.
Regardless of how extensive their work lives, both in art and in other kinds of occupations, the financial returns to artists are substantially lower than other college graduates. At the time of the survey (1990), 45% of the fine art graduates were making less than $15,000.00 from all sources. This is roughly half the annual income of male college graduates in the United States at this time. Almost 60% were reporting income less than $20,000.00.
The only relief to this dismal employment outlook comes in the form of teaching. Over half (52%0 of MFA graduates report their main occupation is within some institution, typically as teachers, while the number of self-employed, independent artists drops to 23%. That barely a quarter of our MFA's are engaged as independent artists suggests that the stereotypical image of autonomous, individualist painters and sculptors is in need of renovation.
Despite the free and easy atmosphere of art schools, it is inescapable that a significant transition is taking place; that artists, too, are being brought into the bureaucratic embrace. Not only have they succumbed to the credentialization by the state, but they have also chosen (or been forced by circumstances) to relinquish their position outside of conventional society in favor of careerism in teaching.
But this migration towards teaching does not appear to be experienced by men and women equally. There appears to be a process of self-sorting in terms of specialization.
Our respondents indicated their area of concentration at Tyler from a list of eight available majors. The distribution of area of concentration by gender is presented in Figure 1.

Ceramics/Glass 29 13 42
69% 31% 9.2%
Fibers 18 1 19
94.7% 5.3% 4.2%
Graphic Design 53 34 87
60.9% 39.1% 19.1%
Jewelry/Metal 26 9 35
74.3% 25.7% 7.7%
Painting/Drawing 82 61 143
57.3% 42.7% 31.4%
Photography 20 18 38
52.6% 47.4% 8.3%
Printmaking 33 20 53
62.3% 37.7% 11.6%
Sculpture 13 21 34
38.2% 61.8% 7.5%
Other 4 1 5
80% 20% 1.1%
Total 278 178 456
61% 39% 100%

Female involvement in the categories follows social convention in that women are over-represented in the crafts, such as fibers, jewelry/metals, and ceramics. However, the desirable teaching jobs seem, in the end, to go to men. In our sample, 72% of those reporting full time teaching jobs in the crafts are men. Of these full time craft teachers, men also make more money: 81% earned over $25,000.00 compared to 50% of the women. This is in the media where women outnumber the men 3 to 1.
Apparently, the long term trend towards equalization in access to artistic training has not produced a commensurate equalization of opportunity after graduation. As the income level increases, women fall further behind men.
The significance of this for women is that , as our sample illustrates, chances of success within an institutional context controlled by men, even in the art world, may be limited. Data generated by this questionnaire has substantiated this allegation in terms of average salary rates of employment in full time teaching. Data from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA 1990) show that administrators in art world institutions have similar experiences. Women in top administrative positions in art schools, performing arts organizations and state and local art groups earn $12,000.00 (about one-third) less than men, controlling for education, age, type of organization, etc.
There is one area in which women indicate some success in relation to men: government grants. Of the fine arts/crafts/printmaking artists, (graphic artists were deleted for this analysis) 45 women (20%) and 41 men (28%) indicated that they had received funding from state or federal art s agencies. The average dollar amount for women was $7312.00 and a somewhat lower $6303.00 for men. It is not possible to ascertain whether men and women apply for grants at different rates, or whether the awards procedures were equivalent. If we are willing to assume all things being equal, then under conditions of blind review, wherein the decisions are based solely on the work/proposals submitted, there appears to be greater equality across gender. This is consistent with the findings of Dickinson, cited above, who finds women are invited to enter their work in shows above in roughly equal numbers to men under similar conditions.


There are certain methodological complextities encountered when artsts are the topic of research. These complexities render most of the familiar, large data sets unrelaible at best and in some cases useless. Researchers have to wrestle with a definition of the occupation which is sufficiently inclusive, but restrictive enough to eliminate all those on the edge of the art world can't be considered "professional."
This project uses education as a screening device. I argue that since the middle of the twentieth century, the training of artists has been accomplished primarily through four-year art colleges and university related to art schools. This reflects both the general trend toward bureaucratization and its attendent reliance on credentials. As such, the graduates of these institutions have come to make up the bulk of the practicing artists in hte United States. Sampling from these graduates thereby provides more realiable data than alternative methodological strategies.
The results of this project suggest a persistent sexism operating in the art world in terms of income, jobs, and exhibition opportunities. In a field where the prevailing ideology includes the claims of the meritocracy, where the "work" is supposed to be the only thing being judged, it is clear that women are being denied on the basis of gender.
It is particularly obvious when areas of specialization are considered. The reasons for the self-sorting of women into crafts cannot be deduced from this questionnaire; it may be that women assume their chances of success are greater, or that they have internalized the presumptions of a male dominated culture or simply feel comfortable working with materials traditionally associated with women. Whatever the reasons for the preponderence of women in the crafts, the fact that men (in this sample) attain the highly desireable teaching positions in crafts suggests that something other than artistic merit is operating.


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