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...