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Grace Miceli
Grace Miceli /

How to be a female artist

Illuminati Girl Gang founder Gabby Bess on how women can stay sane and survive the art world

Is there a way to be a bad feminist? What does it mean to be a female writer? In conjunction with our Girls Rule issue, some of our favourite writers, activists and artists will be musing on these questions for Girl Guides, a series of how-tos and thinkpieces on the state of modern womanhood. Here, Illuminati Girl Gang founder Gabby Bess tells you how to keep sane in the male art world.

Starting from birth, feel vaguely confused and out of place 

Tracey Emin starts her memoir Strangeland with an anecdote from her birth: “At the moment of my birth into this world, I somehow felt a mistake had been made. I couldn’t scream or cry or argue my case. I just lay motionless, wishing I could go back to where I’d come from.” 

You know this feeling. You get over it.

You have an ordinary home-life. Throughout your childhood, be mediocre at most things. Think: If I'm not talented in something ordinary – like soccer or algebra – I must be talented in something extraordinary and unquantifiable. Think: I must be an Artist.

After attending college for  two years, slowly, with enough time to garner $32,000 worth of student loans, figure out that you’re not very good at anything practical. Lament not attending art school. Have only a vague conception of what ‘art school’ is actually like. Enroll in five classes for the second semester of your sophomore year but only attend one – your seminar on gender and work. Learn concepts like, "affective labor" and "emotion work". You will become intimate with this type of unpaid work. 

Develop a disinterest in money. Speak in terms of "finding yourself"

Before you go any further, double check to make sure you never want to have money – at least not for the next five to ten years. Think of Tracey Emin. At this point you will have watched dozens of Tracey Emin interviews online. You will have read her books, trying to construct a makeshift guide from them. Remember what she said: "People talk about money and success and everything now... for God’s sake, if I wanted to be rich do you think I’d be an artist? I'm much more clever than that. Making art is not a way to get rich quick, I promise everyone, it’s a slow process and you really have to trust and believe in what you do."

Quietly start to work on figuring out what your art is

Are you a writer? Writing isn’t glamorous but it’s easiest to fake. Think of F. Scott Fitzgerald and remember the line from The Crack-Up: “It seemed a romantic business to be a successful literary man – you were not ever going to be as famous as a movie star...” Emphasize the word man in your remembering of it. A literary man. Remember that you are a woman. Maybe you could be as famous as a movie star. Think of the life of female writer – the one’s you’ve read about in school – think about how history has forgotten them, how they have been overshadowed by their male counterparts. Still, this could be your art. You know how write, keep this open as an option.

“Know that after almost 50 years, the female body must still be reclaimed. Know that if you are a woman, your body is intimately linked to your work. Resent this"

Are you a performance artist? As a woman you are used to being observed and looked at. On the street men call out to you. They say things and reach out to touch you. Later – when you move to New York to pursue being an artist in a vague, misguided sort of way – they will sit next to you on the train a little too closely. They will ask you what stop you‘re getting off on. You will lie and sit on the train for three extra stops, until they leave. This could be your art – the only thing left to do is label it as such.

Are you a painter? A sculptor? A graphic designer? Probably not – you would be in art school. But think of Paul Gauguin. He was an ordinary man, not too much convinced of anything, but one day he just left his wife and kids, without notice, because he needed to be an artist. He needed to paint, and he did. Remember seeing his paintings in a museum and feeling callous – remember not being able to feel sorry for his wife and kids because you identified so much with his longing. More than that painting being in the world for you to admire, a man, a person, got to live as he chose, on the urge that his art was above all else, above anything human. Start to feel a confidence in this precedence but before you get too confident think, Would it be different for a woman?

Consider changing your name

If you don’t: Think about the ways in which you can explain to your parents that you are showing your nipples for art. Try to prepare yourself for an argument in which you say “but they’re the same as yours” to your dad, a lot. Learn to be on the defensive. Learn to struggle to legitimize your art, without knowing who or what you need to legitimize it to. 

If you do: Consider VALIE EXPORT. In 1968 Waltraud Holinger changed her name to VALIE EXPORT. She wanted to create a new identity for herself. She has said, “My idea was to export myself from my outside and also export from that port." As VALIE EXPORT she was no longer confined by the name of her father’s or the name of her husband’s or any man. Her art highlights her (female) body as an intrusion. She reclaims her body and asserts. Learn to reclaim your body. Know that after almost 50 years, the female body must still be reclaimed. Know that if you are a woman, your body is intimately linked to your work. Resent this. 

“Honestly, do whatever you want in this department but definitely try not to have sex with someone just because they are a Cool Artist Bro. But hey, it happens"

Quit school 

Firmly believe that your art can support you financially, somehow. Feel open to working a shitty job until this happens. Tell this to your parents, along with your new name. They will feel doubtful so you will show them your blog. You will have made a blog and with the confidence of a person with a blog, tell them you are moving to New York to be an Artist. To convince them, say this sentence with complete confidence: “People on Tumblr really like my work.” 

Just because you left school doesn’t mean you should stop learning. As a contemporary artist working today, you are always indebted to the past. Know what came before you, feel a reverence for it. Feel a part of a tradition and part of a current energy. Feel nervous about not having anything to “fall back on.” On your less confident days, consider going back to school. On your more confident days say, “fuck school” quietly to yourself.  

Move to New York

Once in New York, good luck. Really, good luck. You can do this, and you know it. Find a group of friends that support you and want to make work with you. View collaborations as friendships and not networking opportunities. Do not be a female artist alone. Start or join a collective online or IRL. Be generally enjoyable to be around so that people will want to work with you and invite you to events, readings, or parties. Be good at what you do so that people will want to work with you and invite you to events, readings, or parties.

**Sex Advice PSA**: Honestly, do whatever you want in this department but definitely try not to have sex with someone just because they are a Cool Artist Bro. But hey, it happens. 

Refresh your email repeatedly

One day you’ll get an email asking you if you want to fly out to London to read your poetry. Your poetry. You’ll go to London and finally meet the friends you’ve known through the internet. You’ll sit with them on a bench in front of Sylvia Plath’s house, feeling hungover and tired. You’ll feel grateful for that feeling. You’ll feel confident that, if anything, there are people that just support you and understand you.

The next month you’ll get an email asking you to speak on a panel at the Brooklyn Museum. Sometimes you won’t have any emails and this will make you very sad. Take a break from focusing on your “career” and just focus on making art. Eventually, almost secretly, your shitty job will morph into a less shitty job, which will morph into a tolerable job. You can pay your rent. Call your parents and tell them that you can pay your rent. They will be proud of you.

Say yes to things. Say no to things. Money is a motivating factor but remember what Tracey said. Never forget what Tracey said. In a perfect world, you wouldn’t compromise your art for money but this isn’t a perfect world – this is New York. Sometimes, you might have to make something you don’t love for money. That is OK. Sometimes, something you make that you love will never make any money. That is OK too. Keep in mind that, generally, everything is always going to be OK even when it seems bad.