Linda Lin is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is pursuing a B.A. in Art History with a Minor in Consumer Psychology. Originally from Beijing, Linda is the Founder and President of Women in Art Initiative, a student-run nonprofit that advocates for gender equality in the visual arts through hosting public events, conducting interviews with artists and art professionals, and social media advocacy. On campus, Linda previously served as Director of External Relations at Seneca International, an organization that advocates for the civil, economic, and human rights of women and also served as Research Analyst on the Gender Lens Investing Project at the Wharton Social Impact Initiative.
You are the Founder of Women in Art Initiative, an organization that advocates for gender equality in the arts. What inspired you to found the Women in Art Initiative?
Linda Lin: I had the idea of combining my interests in both art and feminism while I was applying for college. I initially wanted to start an initiative after graduation but since my school is pretty supportive of these creative efforts, Women in Art Initiative was launched my freshman spring. Women in Art Initiative was inspired by Guerrilla Girls, an activist feminist art collective starting in the 1980s that targeted the art world’s gender equality balance and engaged in protests and meaningful work. I was inspired by them to do a college-based student group that also promotes gender equality in the visual arts. I just hope to do something to make people aware and also promote contemporary women artists in the area and around the world through social media.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced leading the Women in Art Initiative?
Linda Lin: The process of starting Women in Art Initiative was pretty easy and smooth; I publicized the call for members through email lists, art clubs and other organizations. We organized events, interviews and marketing campaigns. I’d say the biggest challenge with leading Women in Art Initiative involves retaining people; even though many students are interested in this issue, they have many academic, professional and extracurricular commitments and it is hard to keep people continuously involved. I always think of other work I can do to keep people more engaged and attached to the Women in Art Initiative and also for them to get something out of their work with Women in Art Initiative. We always have new members but I hope we can have members who stay.
Another challenge is getting men involved – which is a similar challenge faced by many women’s empowerment organizations. It is also hard to get people who are not necessarily interested in women and feminism to be plugged into our work. We hope not to be too niche in a way that alienates students.
What are some aspects regarding the representation of women and/or gender in the arts that you find most troubling?
Linda Lin: I think the most relevant example would be the portrayal of nudity in art. It’s a very complicated issue because different artists have different intentions in presenting female beauty; some artists want to portray female beauty when painting nudes and some want to just spark controversy. I think it’s very much in the eye of the beholder and how audiences interpret nudity that matters. Of course, there are many male artists who depict women nude, but there are also many female artists who seek to portray themselves or other females as nude – these cases are different as they are of the same gender and you risk objectifying your own gender from other people’s perspectives. Different artworks have their own complexities.
I’m also concerned about the new trend of female artists who self-objectify in their work. They portray themselves very sexually out of their own agency so you could argue that they are creating these images in an ‘empowering’ way. However, if audiences don’t know that these women artists intend to portray themselves in an empowering way, and see these representations as purely sexually objectifying images, this might perpetuate gender bias and female stereotyping. It’s very complicated.
What are some of your biggest concerns with the way women are portrayed in mainstream media?
Linda Lin: The beauty standards are troubling; the way we see images of women and men is distorted. Somehow, society has constructed our beauty of women as very slim. Yet, as we look back on history, there have been places like the Tang Dynasty in China where the standard of beauty valued women looking voluptuous. Marketers are using specific strategies to promote consumer products that fit today’s beauty standards, ranging from cosmetics to clothing to accessories. I think it’s so problematic that women aren’t aware of this and that they’re conforming to a standard that probably limits their freedom to express and feel good about themselves. Largely, this standard is in the eye of the male.
From your experiences, what are some main differences you’ve noticed about artistic representations in Eastern and Western art?
Linda Lin: The general impression of Eastern women is that they are traditional and conservative; women were painted in a way that fulfilled these stereotypes. Now that we are in a globalized age and lots of new information is transmitted across time and space, there is a smaller gap in terms of artistic depiction between East and West. I don’t think you can say that women painted by Eastern artists now will necessarily conform to the delicate, traditional model in pre-modern art. To a larger extent, it’s historically and culturally constructed.
On a personal level, why does women’s empowerment matter to you?
Linda Lin: Women’s empowerment matters to me because it ensures a better and equal world. If you can change the world on a larger scale, you can start with yourself and be aware of the current inequalities and how in your daily practice you contribute or conform to those stereotypes and biases. Women’s empowerment is important because it encourages you to achieve to the best of your potential and also try to influence others to make a better world.
In your opinion, what needs to change to ensure full gender equality among artists?
Linda Lin: Something has to be done on an institutional and structural level. For example, many of the exhibitions in museums are of male artists and only a few comprise works by women artists. I think one of the reasons why this is happening is because the museum has a system where the board of overseers sponsoring the exhibitions are making these curatorial and strategic decisions. If we want to promote women artists, we have to start from a top-down approach and influence these decision-makers because they have the main say in what shows they want to do in the future. Even though there is a lot of press coverage of women artists in recent years in terms of gallery representation and museum exhibitions, it is still relatively male-dominated. I think the decision-makers and top-level leaders should be aware of this problem and put effort through developing a fund for women artists’ shows or starting an initiative that focuses on women artists and underrepresented artists, like artists of color and gender non-forming artists, to do something that promotes their work and make them visible.
Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?
Linda Lin: Mom and my grandma are role models for me. They are both very independent and they support themselves with strong personalities. They really know how to overcome problems and difficulties.
What are your favorite books, websites, films and resources focused on women’s empowerment, social impact and/or the arts?
Linda Lin: There is a very famous article within the art history field called “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” published by a very accomplished feminist art scholar named Linda Nochlin, who really set the foundation for feminist art scholarship. There was a show called Women Artists: 1550-1950 that rediscovered many of the women artists in the past. There’s also a documentary called Women Art Revolution (WAR) and I saw it a few years ago; it covered the feminist art movement in the 1960s with interviews with women artists, art professionals and art historians. In terms of media platforms, HuffPost Women and UN Women provide great resources and I think following their Facebook pages are very helpful in keeping yourself within the conversation.