Monday, November 17, 2008

Some random thoughts on the nature of genius

It’s been a while (sorry) and I find myself sitting down to write full of a jumble of random thoughts.

Firstly, yesterday I heard a fascinating interview on Radio National (yes, I am one of those annoying RN junkies who starts sentences with these words on an all-too-regular basis) with Australian filmmaker Scott Hicks about his new documentary about composer Philip Glass.

The interviewer, Jason Di Rosso, mentioned the tension within Glass’s marriage about his workaholism. Which raises the question, Di Rosso said, of “the nature of obsessive personalities, the ethics of living a life dedicated to the muse”. He used the notion of a ‘selfish gene’ to describe the artist who is driven “and sometimes that singular vision can be to the detriment of those around him”.

According to Hicks, when going into his latest marriage and having children, Glass was frank with his wife about where his dominant energies would lie. “So people make a choice about what they want to be involved with. What he does is what he does. He doesn’t really think about it as work. He works all the time … It’s just what he does.”

Using Bach, who had 17 surviving children, as an example, Hicks said: “Mrs Bach’s story would be a very interesting one I’m sure, because there was a man obsessed for sure.”

At our talk last weekend at the Northern Notes Writers Festival, where about 30 women and one brave bloke had a fascinating and very comprehensive discussion on the art and motherhood theme (thanks for the chat, those who were there), artist Sarah Tomasetti said she'd always experienced a level playing field, where male and female artists had the same opportunities—until she had children, that is. For so many contemporary women, having a baby is the point when feminism starts to make sense.

Inequality is not always about overt discrimination (though that continues, unfortunately). As a male artist like Philip Glass, that choice “about what he wants to be involved with” doesn’t rule out having children, though his predominant focus may be elsewhere. No matter how far we’ve come, could this ever be true for a woman?
It is an ultimate taboo for a woman to neglect or abandon a child for the sake of her vocation (and historically very few women make this choice, despite the notorious examples), yet the numerous male examples are largely ignored as nothing out of the ordinary.

There was an ABC doco recently about an artist featuring interviews with his children (can someone jog my memory re: the artist’s name?!). Anyway, I didn’t see it (we don’t have a telly), but I was chatting to a (female) art magazine editor a few days later who scoffed at his kids’ complaints about being ignored by their distracted father, saying they should have been grateful just to be in the midst of such greatness. Hmmm, what a question…

I was also approached after a talk by a mother of five who was the daughter of a famous painter and an artist herself. She had decided to give up her art until her kids had grown up, she told me, as she didn’t want to be the kind of parent her father was—with a mind always elsewhere.

So if a woman artist chooses to be involved with both her work and her children, does this dictate the kind of artist she can be? Almost certainly. But does this exclude her from the realm of genius—of “truly original” creation—as Hicks describes Glass’s work? In other words, does genius require the kind of single-minded obsessiveness that a loving mother cannot afford, at least while her children are small? Or are these male artists just having their cake and eating it too—because they can, because they have a Mrs Bach in the wings? (And good on Scott Hicks for mentioning how fascinating her story would be!)

P.S. If you want to read a great book on this theme, check out Wendy James's The Steele Diaries, which I will review properly in a future post...


Damon said...

Excellent post, Rachel.

Is Penelope Fitzgerald cause for hope?

Rachel Power said...

Thanks for that Damon. I'm embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of Penelope Fitzgerald before. I now feel compelled to run out and buy one of her novels! Don't you know, us women love stories about other women whose artistic careers took off late in life?! Artist Rosalie Gascoigne's another great example--though, like Fitzgerald I suspect, she certainly spent her earlier years gathering, gathering, preparing for the day when the work would finally have time to flourish. So, yes, great cause for hope--though I'm curious as to what held Fitzgerald back right up until her 60s. The article doesn't say. Anyway, let's hope health and time is on all our sides...

shannon said...

Hi Rachel,
I think the doco you mean was about John Olsen. He is a great artist. Does bringing great art into the world make up for being an asshole? I instinctively feel that it does not. Love and attention to those closest to you who want love trumps all other concerns for me. However, I keep nipping into the damn studio to make work and I feel as if I would be a really bad mother without this side of my life. Maybe art and love can co-exist when the art enhances the love?

Rachel Power said...

I totally agree, Shannon. I think women are proving that there are many ways of being an artist, and that being a self-absorbed, egotistical bastard is not necessary to making great art. And that's not to say that all men operate this way either! But in the past men could choose to be that way and still have a family; women have never really had that choice--for many, being an artist ruled out motherhood. Thankfully women are getting better all the time at saying they need both these things in order to live meaningfully, as you say. And, yes, if you need to make art then it is going to be part of making you a better mother--and lucky kids to be living amongst that creativity.

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