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Where are the women artists?

The Guerrilla Girls, anonymous artists, fight against sexual and racial discrimination in the art world. They highlight the underrepresentation of women artists, who often had to adopt male names or work in ignored mediums to gain recognition. The debate on how to include these overlooked artists in art history continues today.. Created by Tate.

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Video transcript

These monkeys are the Guerrilla Girls. Anonymous artists who work to expose sexual and racial discrimination in the art world. In 1985 they fly-posted Manhattan in protest at the lack of women in exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. It featured 169 artists, less than 10 per cent of the exhibitors were women. It was a time when female artists were playing a central role in experimental art. Not that you would've known this walking into a mainstream gallery or museum. There have always been women who are artists, but it was men who wrote the history books and somehow they just forgot to mention them. During the Renaissance women were encouraged to paint as it was seen as desirable for women to be accomplished in the arts. In fact, by the 18th century women were allowed to paint all that they wanted just so long as they embodied feminine traits like beauty, grace and modesty and their paintings were beautiful, gracious and modest too. As one critic said 'so long as a woman remains from unsexing herself, let her dabble in anything.' But women had this burning desire to be taken seriously, which is ridiculous because everyone knows that women have weak hands so can't paint or sculpt properly. The 17th century artist Judith Leyster worked at the same time as the Dutch master Frans Hals. Her works had a similar style, Leyster was well-respected during her lifetime but because she was a woman she disappeared into obscurity after her death and only re-emerged when it was discovered that seven of her paintings had been wrongly attributed to Frans Hals including this one, in the Louvre. Some female artists adopted male names, like Claude Cahun and Grace Hartigan, who signed her works 'George.' Some artists just used their initials. LK, is Lee Krasner. Here she is labouring under the weight of constantly being referred to as Mrs Jackson Pollock. Some female artists chose to work as models to support their career and to learn from their male contemporaries. In order to find their own direction some women artists worked with textiles and craft. Men had largely ignored these mediums because they considered them to be secondary to painting and sculpture. It gave women the freedom to experiment. For similar reasons they embraced new materials and new media like photography and video and became innovators in performance and installation. Yet they were still underrepresented. By 1970, tired of being patronised, ignored and disregarded some women decided to take on the establishment. In 1971 Margaret Harrison's drawings became the first feminist art exhibition in London but the cops shut it down. Because of a drawing of Hugh Hefner dressed as a bunny girl with a bunny penis. I think he's in here. I never really got to the bottom of it, but it was thought of being too pornographic. Now, they didn't mind the women in the sandwiches what they did mind was why I altered the male body. When the Gallery Director said well, what don't you like about it? to this policeman he said well, it was the way she treated the men, we thought that was disgusting! In the US art historians Linda Nochlin and Ann Sutherland Harris staged a show called Women Artists: 1550 to 1950, which inspired revisionist debates about the history of art because this is a problem for art historians. Do they simply go back in time and just insert these female artists into the pages of art history? That seems to ignore the fact that these artists have been historically ignored. Do they write books just about women artists? But that only marginalises, pigeon-holes and isolates these artists from the movements, influences and errors that they have been a part of. This is still a hotly debated issue and has led to a radical re-thinking of the way the history of art is presented. By calling attention to identity, sexuality, politics and history women artists have dominated the debates surrounding art for the past four decades and pushed the boundaries of art to represent the complicated realities of today's world in all its many forms.