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.


Miscellaneous-Mum said...

Well, I can put my hand up to say that I've left my kids in charge of getting their own snacks/drinks/solving certain problems while I've been in the middle of a Very Important Paragraph, and I'm not in the least bit sorry. I was taught self-reliance at an early age.

Damon Young said...

The most important thing isn't kids or parents, domesticity or creativity - it's the commitment to 'the whole catastrophe'.

You dedicate yourself to the juggling out, and hope you have the nous, energy, love and good luck to make it work.

Honestly, is there any other answer?

Rachel Power said...

Yes, I remember when my first son was little and my partner said that over time he will need to learn that we were are all people who live together and respect each other's needs -- as well as love each other. This is very much how my partner was raised, and at the time this notion kinda blew my mind. But since then it has informed my parenting quite significantly. Obviously we're reasonable with our expectations -- our kids are still small. It's more just a small shift in attitude, acknowledging that just because you're a parent doesn't negate the fact that you are still a person with your own needs and rights, alongside those of your children. Funny, the idea that we've hit an age where that might needed to be reasserted!

Anonymous said...

Yes yes yes! I so agree that while sometimes children's needs *are* more important than art, especially when they are young (and so, sometimes, are partners'/friends/other family members' needs, for instance in crisis situations), in the long run it's not as simple as one set of needs being separate to another. Babies need feeding and nappy changes and love and security, but children also need healthy role models. And ideally happy parents.

But I especially like your last two paragraphs. That self-congratulatory (usually) male writer who expects everyone else to do the work of life so he can just write makes me want to puke.

D said...

HI Rachel,
Again another worth-reading post.

The old saying "keep me posted", these days, has taken on a newer level of meaning.

Keep on posting, and keep me posted on your version of our shared, albeit varied, art need-love-wish-want quest.


genevieve said...

I think children benefit on all sides from having parents sharing creative pursuits 'creatively' (ow, that sucks) in the long run.

I obtained a compendium of "Best American Science Writing" from Readings a few weeks ago, just for the hell of it - gave it to youngest son who is a bit aimless at present, and he is galvanised. Science, here he comes. I am still scratching my head at the serendipity of it all, but know that if I did not read incessantly, if I had not pulled myself together and studied librarianship/segued into blogging about books, if I didn't spend hours at the computer away from family, I would not have picked it, nor would he read it.

Added to which, same son defined metaphor and simile effortlessly at the dinner table last night, even though most of the books he reads are science fiction and fantasy (no poetry at all). Que??? sometimes we don't see what we're making available till much later on. (PLEASE NOTE THIS CHILD ATTENDED A GOVERNMENT SCHOOL.)

And as I am considering making 'art' out of my kids' text messages (don't ask), this thread has certainly got me thinking that it is not always given to us to see where the next bout of inspiration is coming from. Though it is damn hard to see that when all around you is nappies and vomit, I know.
Beginning to wonder quietly if that corridor pram is less of an enemy than men might think - J.G.Ballard, widowed (?) quite young with young children to care for, considered it his greatest friend, professes he would not have survived without his children.
But enough from me :-)

Rachel Power said...

Great response as always. I agree--so much better for kids to be around people driven to create/think/read/talk than people devoted to their needs in the most narrow sense. So much is learnt by osmosis, as you say.
As for the pram in the hall thing, I also feel my children were the making of me--a hindrance to the volume of work I can produce, perhaps, but certainly not the quality. And which is preferable?
Oh, and yes, don't get me started on the government vs independent school debate. I'm a huge champion of free, public education--the only kind of education there should be, in my humble opinion. Then we wouldn't need to argue about where the money goes...

Elisabeth said...

Hi Rachel
I'm new to your blog, a blogging friend of Damon's and Pauline's from Art and My Life.
As an older mother with a desperate desire to be creative and with children now in their twenties, along with a fifteen year old, I feel the need to emphasize that a sense of parenting goes on from the minute our children are born. It doesn't simply apply when they're little.
I read once that Elizabeth Jolley could never settle into her writing late at night until she was assured that her family were settled, the chores were done and all was well in her small world.
I have a similar sense, I cannot settle when I am preoccupied with some earthly concern generally to do with the psychological - more often the psychological than the physical - health of one of my children or my husband. If someone out there is brawling, or deeply unhappy or entangled in the vagaries of a tortured love affair, which seems to be the case at the moment for my fifteen-year-old, then I cannot settle into my writing.
The demands continue and before you know it you're worrying about your grandchildren, but the call of creativity goes on and I agree with all the other writers who talk about the need for compromise.
In the hurley burley of life, we need to share centre stage.
I enjoyed your book immensely as I struggle through my own writing life, as has my oldest daughter, a first time mother with a 17 month old, battling through and conflicted over the demands of her PhD and her little boy. Both matter, and its pointless to quantify, but clearly his absolute needs come first, hers second at the moment, but in time there will be room for more compromises.

Damon Young said...

Genevieve, as I've suggested elsewhere, Cyril Connolly was just a bit soft.

He never spoke for all men...

Anonymous said...

I can't help but feeling though that the activity of the traditional male artists forcing those around them to bow to their genius, is also perhaps a bit of a myth, in some ways, certainly these days.

I can't help seeing both sides, that is people choosing to be with these artists, marry them and raise a family. They knew, or at least had some idea, of who this person was and the way they lived before marrying them. I have seen people falling in love with an artist because of their passion and creative fire, without weighing up the possible cost of these personality traits later on. Then resenting the artist's behaviour and disinterest in the domestic responsibilities. It is give and take, on both sides. Also personal responsibility too...

I don't think success in creative fields requires being self absorbed and selfish and perhaps it wouldn't have made any difference to their output if Martin Amis et al had done the ironing once or twice. I know plenty of tradesmen, office clerks and truck drivers who absolve themselves of all domestic responsibility.

Anonymous said...

Damon, your comment "You dedicate yourself to the juggling out, and hope you have the nous, energy, love and good luck to make it work" says it all so well.

Some people generally suck at caring for those around them, drop the ball, so to speak and are just plain selfish. Regardless of profession.

genevieve said...


that should have been PEOPLE.
Sorry, that was an awfully long comment, wasn't it!! trippy.

Mrs Smith said...

athopanMy question is, what difference does it make whether the work done by the juggling parent is art or anything else? The juggle you are talking about, the push and pull, happens to every parent doesn't it? Is art is a 'higher calling' that somehow justifies a greater 'indulgence' than other working pursuits. In my opinion -Time is time. Family is family. Passion is Passion. Work is work. No matter the nature of that work.
Are children really greater blessed to have creative/artistic parents and role models than any other kind? My suspicion is that we all screw our kids up equally - creatively or otherwise.
I agree with Damon. It's all about the commitment.
This is a fascinating discussion and I look forward to thinking further about it and reading more. I have not yet read your book so will go and purchase one forthwith.

Anonymous said...