Monday, August 25, 2014

The art of learned selfishness

I still have a strong memory of the day a lecturer stood in front of my art history tutorial to declare that, to date, there had been no great women artists.

Of course there was the inevitable outrage from students in the room, who argued that it was the definition of greatness that was the problem: that the themes and forms taken up by women didn't fit the patriarchal categories of "great art". We identified the cultural and institutional barriers that historically stopped women from becoming practicing artists. We listed all the female artists we thought worthy of recognition...

After the class, there was the bitter aftertaste: the familiar, niggling suspicion that we were merely being toyed with. It was all a bit of a game with these male teachers, stirring the pot before standing back to enjoy the predictable reaction from the latest batch of naive, dogmatic young things.

But I was also genuinely troubled by the question. Are there really no great women artists? What makes an artist "great", anyway? Or, more to the point, what enables an artist to become great? Because surely no-one could sensibly argue that women didn't have equal capacity for greatness...

I began doing some research about the lives of the women artists we had mentioned in the class... (Can you see where this is heading?) Yep. That is the day I realised that almost every one of the female artists named was, either by choice or circumstance, childless. There may have been the odd exception, but even then they tended to be either wealthy enough to avoid much of the hands-on care or to have abandoned their children altogether (not always happily or freely).

I have often thought about that tutorial and wished I knew what I know now. I would have a simple answer.

Art is all about time. There is no way of making great art without investing huge amounts of time into the practice of it. And time is what most women still don't have.

I could go on and have, in previous posts over the years but I don't think I could put it any better than Helen Addison-Smith in her article "Yes, Men Are Better Writers", published in the current edition of Overland. As she says:

‘Good writing’ does not emanate from the penis but it does emanate from material conditions. Writing takes time – great swathes of clean, empty time, unsullied by children or housework or deep worry about money or skincare routines. To be a writer is to be selfish enough to grab time and spend it churning words around, even though you are not getting paid very much, hardly anybody cares about what you’re doing, and even fewer people think that it’s any good.

Men are better at being selfish than women. They are better at it before the having of children, but they really come into their own after the having of children. While women generally see the immediate needs of the shorties as taking first priority, men are able to keep themselves as the focus and so spend less time and energy bringing up children.

In the comments, there are those accusing Helen of being "reductive and rather silly". But surely sometimes being intentionally reductive and a bit silly is the best way of driving home a point and provoking a debate. That doesn't mean there isn't truth at its core.

If it wasn't for Varuna: The Writers' House I would barely have written a word since having children. As Helen implies, while there are creative women who want kids and want to make art about (or in spite of) their lives the only answer is for them to be supported in practicing the art of selfishness, at least on occasion.


sister outlaws said...

The other side to this is that some men expect and think we would just "lean in" and take and be selfish in the way they do and assume because we don't then we don't want our creative life enough - which I find infuriating. I never do any of my own creative work without checking everyone is taken care of - or by carving out windows of time by being super active and organised. For example. I have a story deadline this week. I wanted to write yesterday but my husband is sick - he went to another room to study all day while I did everything else - even though we had discussed my deadline and agreed he would look after the kids on Sunday. Today, after dropping two kids at school (and having one at home and my husband at home, sick...) I wanted to write BUT my eldest (adult) daughter rushed in and NEEDED to talk to me about relationship problems and her drunken antics over the weekend. After that I realised it is book week dress up tomorrow and spent the rest of the morning sorting out costumes. In the afternoon my second eldest (also an adult) wanted me to accompany her to a doctors appointment. Then I had forty minutes to write before picking up the kids and taking them to gymnastics. Thankfully, my husband made dinner. He studied all day. We are way too available to our children's needs - but then that is what a mother does.

Rachel Power said...

Yes, that is all so familiar to me. It seems to be such a common experience that men are (in general) far better able to drop all other cares and lock themselves away in order to do whatever it is they want to do, while women's plans are so regularly ambushed by the needs of others. I feel fairly certain that even if you were sick, you would still be talking to your daughter and making the costumes for book week. Of course as mothers we do want to be available to our children's practical and emotional needs, but there are times when it just makes sense for our partners to step in. I hope you find a way to make that clear and your story gets written.

EagleCrowOwl said...

Totally true. Time is everything. Great post.