Saturday, March 7, 2009
Who's paying for you to be an artist?
I have been having an interesting blogersation of sorts with Daniela after she wrote about The Divided Heart on her blog, LingoFranko. As you can see in her review there, though she had kind words for it too, she felt the book didn’t quite get to the meat of things, and I was keen to know what she thought was missing.
I bugged her to give me the “big questions” she would liked to have seen posed, and her response raised some themes which I think are indeed meaty — and which I think are central to the book but perhaps not explored as cuttingly as some readers wanted.
Her list has really got me thinking (all over again) about this eternal question of children’s versus parents' needs — summed up, I suppose, by her question: “Is art is more important than children?”
The other related theme is the cost of being an artist — financial and emotional. Who is footing the bill, on both counts? Hers are confronting questions: Whether it is fair to expect to be supported as an artist; whether artists take more than they give.
Then (yes, here I go again), as I was folding the washing last night I listened to Radio National’s Book Show segment on Literary Dynasties, about writers who came from literary stock. The conclusion was that having an artist-parent was more blessing than curse, at least for Virginia Woolf, Martin Amis and Dorothy Hewett's son Tom Flood — who were the writers discussed/interviewed.
But my ears pricked up especially at the comment from Kingsley Amis’s biographer that Amis snr, and his son Martin like him, was a serious writer because he put his work first — before anything else, including family. Both leave other people to deal with the trivial matters of life, like how to make ends meet. “They just put their heads down and work.” Martin would never have opened a bill in his life, the biographer said.
At the International Women’s Day morning tea I spoke at the other day I said that one of women's strengths in my field, the arts, is that they are learning that to be an artist doesn’t require being a self-absorbed ego-maniac; you can be a loving, nurturing human being and still make exciting, powerful, engaging work.
That said, the women I see really succeeding in the arts are the ones who expect — don’t just ask, but expect — their partners to take on an equal load. They are the ones who fully embrace motherhood, but who can also express the milk, hand over the bottle and walk out the door when required. It’s amazing as a woman how much gumption this still takes.
As one of my heroes Catherine Deveny says, when fathers are with their children, they are not babysitting. They are fathering. I agree with Catherine that women need to make this a basic expectation — not a request — if we are to move forward. For artists, who already struggle with giving themselves the permission to take their own work seriously, this is all the more important.
I can’t respond in full to Daniele’s questions here, because it would take too long. But I would agree with her that of course there are times when children’s needs have to come first, especially when they’re little — if she’s putting her head on the chopping block with that one, as she says, then mine’s there wincing right beside it. I also think there are ways of maintaining a creative life and being a committed, sensitive parent, no matter how fraught at times.
I also, though, think that if you have a creative need, then to quash it for the supposed sake of your family is to ultimately make yourself sick. And that is not a good model of living for children to witness. Sometimes it’s not as clear as children’s versus parents’ interests, because the happiness of both is so bound up together.
As for the financial side of things, I think it’s dangerous to suggest that art should only be made where and when it pays — partly because it is often impossible to know if a creative work is going to make money or not. In the arts, the exchange is rarely that clear, and apprenticeships can be long and thankless on that front — but they have other rewards. Much like raising kids. If women, or men, have a partner who is willing to support them in their decision to make art, well lucky them, I say.
On the other hand, I agree with Daniela that life is give and take, and it is important to be aware of what you ask of others in order to do what you do. I guess this is exactly my criticism of the traditional male artist who forced all those around him to be in discreet service to his creative genius.
There has got to be a middle way between self-absorption and self-denial for the artist-parent — and children can only benefit from a parent's commitment to that endeavour.