Saturday, September 13, 2008

Those self-indulgent artists

(a bit of a follow on from the previous post re: "Is it all just a whinge?"...)
After my discussion with Elly Varrenti on Radio National last week, an artist rang in to say "how self-indulgent" to be talking about the situation for artist-mothers, as if we are different to other working mothers. She mentioned that she was in her studio, her son at school, having given up paid teaching work to paint full time.

Just a quick reponse to this, which is something I am asked all the time. Are artists different to other working mothers? Well, no... and yes. And, of course, it depends--on the art form you work in, on how successful or established you are, on whether you are supported in being an artist by those around you... There are so many variables.

It is a vexed question, and one I have struggled with. So the best way I can answer it, I think, is to speak personally.

In many ways, I think the issues for working mothers are universal and well-known. I don't see why it is deemed more indulgent for artists to talk about the struggles (or indeed the positives) of working and mothering than for other women--and indeed there is a lot of talk out there about the guilt, the overwork, the exhaustion and dilemmas felt by all working mothers, artists included (and I acknowledge that many professions have creative elements).

Historically, the "artistic life" has been romanticised, and so it is all too easy to suggest that artists think they're "special". In contrast, one of the things I think The Divided Heart shows is just how normal and mundane the act of making art can be. And there are many who do, as Joanna Murray-Smith said on the radio, just bang a few sentences out with the laptop propped on the kitchen bench surrounded by 13-yr-old footy players eating chocolate biscuits. Joanna, who makes a good income from her work (and deservedly so), is mostly able to treat her work as a 9-to-3 job, much like the Radio National caller, by the sounds of it.

For me, and so many of the artists I know (including many with high profiles in their field), art is still stuffed in around the edges of bread-and-butter work. I guess I feel I know whether or not being an artist is different to being any other kind of worker because I am both. By day a journalist; by night a writer (or something like that!). Unfortunately I can't treat my art like a job because it doesn't pay--and so it all too easily feels an indulgence; something that is of little benefit to anyone but me--except that it's a necessary outlet and vital to avoiding martyrdom! I struggle to justify paying for time to write when it doesn't bring in an income, and so find myself largely writing in the wee small hours after everything else has been attended to.

But apart from those practical issues (the inspiration vs perspiration ratio holds true in art as in anything), art is also a mysterious thing. I feel that writing asks very different things of me than does my day job, whether it be journalism or any of the other kinds of work I have done over the years. Most jobs have clear parameters--fairly set hours, tasks than can be scheduled, guaranteed benefits. Work, on the whole, is a socially sanctioned activity, while art is still seen by many as egotistical self-indulgence.

For me, creativity is a fragile thread, easily broken. No one is asking me to write. It must come from me, and it is a profoundly personal act--in that way, very different to completing a task at work. I was talking to my partner, Alistair, recently about this issue and he said: "Art is like asking a question and being available to receive the answer." I think that's a lovely way of putting it--ideas visit you at strange hours of the day and night and if you are not in a state to receive them (as I find is so often the case as the mother of small children), they can be lost to you forever.

This last paragraph has been written with my daughter tugging on my arm, telling me she's in need of some baked beans on toast. So might just leave those thoughts hanging and maybe anyone who reads this has other ideas on this question...

6 comments:

Damon said...

Here are other some self-indulgent works (in no particular order): Rousseau, Confessions; Gunter Grass, Peeling the Onion; Sartre, Words; Nietzsche, Ecce Homo; Kazantzakis, Report to Greco; Anne Fadiman, Ex Libris; Maria Tumarkin, Courage; Henry James, A Small Boy and Others; Leonard Woolf, Sowing; John Stuart Mill, Autobiography; de Beauvoir, The Mandarins...

Rachel Power said...

Thanks Damon, my audience of one. So pleased you've discovered my otherwise undiscovered blog (waiting for Martin Amis to sue me any day now...) Think I might take your list and stick it on my wall!!

jodi said...

Thanks so much Rachel...see my blog for an extended version of this thank you note. Best wishes with the book...it's inspiring.

shannon said...

I feel different as an artist from many other mothers in the fact that many women see having children as a welcome respite or break from work- I LOVE my work, now I have two loves. "A Divided Heart" is an exact description of how I feel.

kayoz said...

I think one of the issues I struggle with is - okay, it's not the same as "work" (not unless you actually get paid enough to make a decent living), but how is it then significantly different to a hobbie? I think it *is* different, and yet... it's hard to quantify.

BTW, another point of connection (aside from the Pia one) - I think Alistair and I were in the same year at Narrabundah. I doubt he'd remember me, I didn't really know him, but I remember seeing him perform at the Terrace Bar here in Canberra at least once.

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