The Gentlemens Clubarticle and images by Richard Fish
An interesting and insightful question was raised by a female colleague of mine a few days ago when she visited the Art of Bonsai project website to read some articles:"Why are they all men?"
A simple question, without a simple answer; at least I didn't have one handy. My colleague's overriding and most indelible impression of bonsai art was that this is a women-free zone.
Looking at the latest member list for the Art of Bonsai, under 10% of our membership is female. (Admittedly a small sample, but probably an indicative one nevertheless). Bonsai clubs are male dominated, bonsai web-forums are male dominated; and study groups also from my experience.
Perhaps the lack of female participation in bonsai has a simple answer; that is, it is simply a reflection of a wider difference in artistic participation between men and women.
In 1997, the National Endowment for the Arts conducted a survey of art participation within the United States and its results by demographic group are fairly conclusive. Although the organisation somehow neglected to include bonsai art in its survey, we can perhaps draw some conclusions from art participation and creation in other broadly similar fields.
Looking at the survey results for other visual arts such as painting, drawing and sculpture, direct participation in the creation of these works by women was 17.1% of the overall adult population; for men it was 14.6%. Photography gave broadly similar results, with 18.2% of the female population creating photographic art, against only 15.6% of men.
If any conclusion can be drawn from this, it is that in the overall area of the visual arts, women actually participate in the creation of these works more than men do. Female participation in bonsai art should not therefore be simply due to differences in the attractiveness of visual art between the sexes and the answer lies elsewhere.
Bonsai is one of those now rare institutions - a predominantly male bastion in a sea of diversity. A club where we can relax with a drink, share ideas and enjoy mediocre food, while only the most determined women are allowed entry; and then only via the side entrance.
Why then, is the participation of women in bonsai akin to the levels of female membership of a gentlemen's club in St. James? What is it about bonsai that attracts men to bonsai clubs, forums and participation in creation of the art, while deterring women? Bonsai club committees and forum moderators certainly do not operate any form of direct exclusionary policy, so just what is going on here? What is it about our art that means that women are not inclined to join the stuffy, leather-bound, dark recesses of the male-dominated bonsai club?
My colleague's simple question raises deeper and more fundamental issues for our art. Is it possible to have the most successful and flourishing art form that, by design or accident, excludes almost half of the potential artists from participation? Is bonsai institutionally
The next Kimura could be called Jane, but probably won't be if this continues. Jane will be achieving great things elsewhere.