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Art’s Gender Hustle

Any critic unable to tell great from good, passable from poor, is incompetent. The critic who refuses to do so for ideological reasons is compromised.

· 9 min read
Art’s Gender Hustle
Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy, 1623 by Artemisia Gentileschi. Wikicommons.

A review of The Story of Art Without Men by Katy Hessel, 352 pages, Hutchinson Heinemann (March 2022)

Typical. You wait decades for an undiscovered genius, then hundreds appear at once. And by an astonishing coincidence, every one of them is female. After centuries of neglect and prejudice, these forgotten women are being ushered into the light by Katy Hessel’s The Story of Art Without Men, a cultural survey published last year to universal acclaim. Waterstones called it “as essential as it is enjoyable” and declared it Book of the Year. The Guardian (for whom Hessel writes a column) was particularly effusive: “this positive, beautifully written corrective,” wrote Bidisha Mamata, “… should become a founding text in the history of art by women.” No doubt it will.

Hessel’s revisionist history, spanning from the 1500s to 2020, sprang from her Instagram account, where she built a huge audience by posting daily about a different female artist. This and a few BBC Arts documentaries have established her as a more telegenic version of Simon Schama. “Art is for everyone,” she says. “It’s the most democratic subject in the world in a way.” That claim may surprise anyone who’s been to Art Basel, the exclusive annual art fair held in Switzerland. Still, Hessel’s take is a nice idea, and certainly a fashionable one.

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