Can a Woman Who Is an Artist Ever Just Be an Artist?
November 16, 2019 5:59 PM   Subscribe

Her existence entails a far more stringent set of justifications. In the history of visual art, her appearance is the rarest of exceptions to the male rule. But of any woman creator an explanation is required of whether, or how, she dispensed with her femininity and its limitations, with her female biological destiny; of where — so to speak — she buried the body. That same body, in Western art, is contested: It has been condensed into the propulsive eroticism of the artistic impulse; it has fueled and fed the search for beauty and its domination by artistic form. In the story of art, woman attains the status of pure object. What does her subjectivity even look like? Did the female artists who emerged in the modern era — Joan Mitchell, Paula Rego, Louise Bourgeois, Agnes Martin — navigate the styles of male cultural power by imitating them or by living at their margins? Today, when a woman artist sets out to create, who is she?
posted by Ahmad Khani at 6:10 PM on November 16, 2019

Gracious, what a load of tosh that article is. I read the whole thing but it completely lost me at "Can a woman artist — however virtuosic and talented, however disciplined — ever attain a fundamental freedom from the fact of her own womanhood?"

Why on earth would she? What is the point? The idea that anyone can be separate from physical reality seems rooted in misogyny.

But then I know a fair load of female artists and went to art school myself, and I always had difficulty dealing with the people who live on art and artists as curators, writers, gallery owners, etc. For the artist, the work is the point, and you have a life (of sorts, not much nourished by money or comfort), whether you're male or female. Perhaps the hardest part of being a female artist, based on the ones I know, is that all too often you have to financially support any men in your life.
posted by Peach at 7:26 PM on November 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

The key to being successful artist, be it actor or painter is still coming from a rich family so you don’t have to worry about a day job while you work & promote yourself.

One nice thing about the Internet is it’s increasingly viable for people to be anonymous and sexless. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to keep auditions & interviews blind for as much as possible to remove them possibility of sexism/racism/agism etc for as long as possible.

We can make a world where the proof of the pudding is in the tasting.

Women of course can be artists, & if there is some bias in our society holding them back they can at least be anonymous until that bias is stamped out.

For the moment there is some benevolent sexism of people exclusively looking to celebrate & promote female artists, but who can say if it is, or what would be enough to counteract the malevolent sexism.
posted by KBGB at 6:17 AM on November 17, 2019

One nice thing about the Internet is it’s increasingly viable for people to be anonymous and sexless.

Anonymous, perhaps. Sexless, no way! We're assumed to be male (and white... and US American... and and and) unless otherwise specified.
posted by MiraK at 8:03 AM on November 17, 2019 [5 favorites]

Peach, I think Cusk means that question rather differently than you are reading it. See how she describes the male artist:
The male artist, in our image of him, does everything we are told not to do: He is violent and selfish. He neglects or betrays his friends and family. He smokes, drinks, scandalizes, indulges his lusts and in every way bites the hand that feeds him, all to be unmasked at the end as a peerless genius. Equally, he does the things we are least able or least willing to do: to work without expectation of a reward, to dispense with material comfort and to maintain an absolute indifference to what other people think of him. For he is the intimate associate of beauty and the world’s truth, dispenser of that rare substance — art — by which we are capable of feeling our lives to be elevated.
Here are the people who HAVE transcended the accoutrements and attributes of their physical being - including gender. They act as if they are immortal, smoking and drinking and throwing their health away to addictions and sleeplessness. They father children and abandon them recklessly, as if they themselves sprang fully formed from the head of Zeus - rather than living in the knowledge that they were born naked and helpless through the labor of a woman, were raised into their full personhood through the care and labor of the same woman. They are cavalier in society and in relationships, as if they are self-sufficient islands unto themselves with no need to stay in anyone else's good graces, not even to the extent of reciprocating other people's caregiving work on their behalf. They dedicate themselves to their art as if nothing else needs to matter to them. As if nothing else is worth expending their precious effort on.

What's more, the whole of society conspires to release the male artist (the ideal-image version) from their bodies. We allow them to get away with it. We pick up their slack. We care for their bodies when they are sick. We tend to them when they are friendless. We memorialize them when they succumb to addictions. We excuse them when they are abusive.

The male artist is a being composed entirely out of the Pure Spirit of Art. Never mind that this Spirit is a hungry ghost that is apparently satiated only by vice: drugs, the perpetration of violence, and leeching care from oppressed others. The point is that male artists, and male artists alone, channel this Spirit.

Which is why Cusk asks:
Is there a female equivalent to this image?
Are women allowed to transcend their physicality and become creatures of pure Spirit in a similar way?

Cusk is an insightful and incisive writer on the topic of feminism as it applies to motherhood. I'd strongly recommend her other work too.
posted by MiraK at 10:07 AM on November 17, 2019 [11 favorites]

Relevant quote where Cusk underlines the centrality of the feminine experience of motherhood to being a whole artist, i.e. the opposite of your read on it, Peach:
Cecily says that on her bad days she believes that should she ultimately fail to reach her zenith as a painter, it will be because she chose to be a good mother. I beg to differ: Motherhood is an inextricable aspect of female being; it is one thing to choose not to have a child at all, but if you can do both, be both, then surely the possibility of formulating a grander female vision and voice becomes graspable.
posted by MiraK at 10:16 AM on November 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

I don’t know, as a female being who is never going to have children, I have problems with the idea that it is inextricably a part of me that I can maybe give up, but only to my own denigration.
posted by velebita at 11:42 AM on November 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

but only to my own denigration.

She didn't say or imply that, though.

This article is about art and artists and embodying (disembodying?) the spirit of art. Extremely relevant to that is the circumstance of being a mother, specifically, since motherhood is today the most significant embodied aspect of femininity that acts as a barrier to women achieving the spirit-of-art state that male artists are granted. (There are other aspects of femininity that also act as barriers and this article discusses some of them.)

Discussing the impediments that motherhood physically, socially, and culturally imposes on women is not automatically a denigration of anyone who is not a mother. Neither is discussing the other potential impacts that motherhood has on an artist's art.
posted by MiraK at 11:58 AM on November 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

I believe Cecily Brown’s statement that motherhood is having a negative impact on her work. Cusk’s response that women should take on the project of creating a world with a ‘grander female vision’ is like victorian era angel in the house stuff. Once we’ve dismantled the patriarchy let’s talk about the inherent value of childbearing.
posted by velebita at 12:18 PM on November 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

Once we’ve dismantled the patriarchy let’s talk about the inherent value of childbearing.

No, dismantle the patriarchy BY talking about the inherent and concrete value of childbearing. Childbearing is real work that provides real value to society, and should be treated as such.

I suspect you're confusing the lip service pedestalizing of mothers that patriarchy does with actually valuing motherwork. Patriarchy is great at stigmatizing and punishing non-mother female-perceived people while exploiting the unpaid labor of mothers. To wait until the end of patriarchy in order to recognize the value of this labor is just backwards, because motherhood and its constellated issues (including the compulsory motherhood culture) is one of the highest prices patriarchy extracts from women.

I strongly recommend the work of Rachel Cusk, Andrea O'Reilly, and Nancy Folbre, all of whom have produced essential reading on mothers (and other unpaid caregivers) living in the intersections of patriarchal and capitalist oppressions.
posted by MiraK at 5:28 PM on November 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

I keep having inordinate numbers of THOUGHTS!!! - please excuse me for sitting around on this thread writing essays!

Cusk’s response that women should take on the project of creating a world with a ‘grander female vision’ is like victorian era angel in the house stuff

Here are some realities:

The vast majority of people who are assigned female at birth (whether accurately or coerced or wrongly) become mothers

But! Motherhood removes the mother from public life for several years: business, politics, culture, art, etc.

In addition, motherhood removes credibility and seriousness from a mother's public life for many years after she rejoins it. If she works for pay, she works "mothers' hours", if she's a politician she is constantly forced to justify her time away from her children, etc. And if she's an artist, motherhood is assumed to and supposed to hinder her art.

What this means is that a couple-of-decades-long experience of MOST afab people disqualifies them from all manner of public life, in the eyes of patriarchy (and capitalism) (and imperialism) (and other systems of oppression).

In some parts of the world, having periods disqualifies afab people the same way. Hindus, for instance, frequently force menstruating people to withdraw entirely not just from public but also private life. As a child I wasn't allowed into my own kitchen, or my own puja (worship) room until my period was done. In most parts of India, having your period makes you literally untouchable: brahmins have to bathe if your shadow falls on them. In addition, starting periods was the reason I was given for my mom pulling me out of all sports activities. It's the same or worse for afab people all over the country.

Now, you can take the side of the argument that justifies such oppression by talking about PMDD and cramps and how periods do indeed hinder women from many activities.

Cusk is on the side of the argument that says: menstruation is a fundamental life experience common to most afab people. Menstruating people must be integrated into public life, and what's more, menstruation itself must become part of our public life. Menstruating artists are VALUABLE AS ARTISTS and are DOING ARTISTIC WORK even when they are lying in bed with cramps chewing midol.... Because all of an artist's life is relevant to their art and feeds their art. Everything that happens to an artist shapes their art. So Cusk is here saying let's articulate a "grander female vision" of art that doesn't stigmatize periods, because integrating cut off experiences and unspeakable aspects of our lives always leads to a grander vision.

This is not an argument to make periods compulsory for people who would rather not have them. This isn't a false 'veneration' of menstruation by the rules of patriarchy. This is different. This is about women becoming whole in public and in art.

Now read "motherhood" for menstruation. You'll see what this article is about.
posted by MiraK at 4:15 AM on November 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

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