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.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Come Worry With Us - a review

My friend Katie and I went to see the thought-provoking doco Come Worry With Us (not a great title) the other night at the Melbourne Film Festival.

There was something so gratifying for me in seeing this film — not only because (much like Mary Trunk's film Lost in Living) it was such a perfect actual and visual representation of all the themes and ideas in The Divided Heart. But also because I felt like it backed up the original impetus for my book: that motherhood can be challenging for all working women, but has its own very particular set of difficulties for artists.

I often got what seemed a very defensive reaction from potential publishers (and, later, reviewers) to my desire to focus on artists — the whole “what makes you so special?” question — when I never understood why delving into the specific experience of one group of people was in any way devaluing the experiences of others. Neither did I assume there wasn’t plenty of cross-over with the experiences of non-artists, but I still strongly believe that the kind of dedication any creative practice requires makes for a particularly fraught situation for those who want or have children.

Come Worry With Us perhaps presents an extreme version of this situation in focusing on a couple who are bandmates in an experimental rock group, Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra — a band dedicated to both creative and personal integrity. Their boisterous, largely instrumental (though with vocal elements) music has a small but faithful audience and they intentionally keep ticket prices to a minimum. With baby Ezra in the mix, they remain dedicated to their decision to share both income and costs evenly, including those related to touring with a toddler.

Having a child proves the ultimate challenge not only on a practical level for parents Jessica and Efrim, but also on an ethical one. They are confronted with the way a child demands a different kind of engagement with the conventional world, especially on the financial front.

As father Efrim says, the world of touring musicians is the opposite to everything a child requires: they are stuck in a bus when he should be outside running about and they are working when they should be getting their child to bed. And the cost of the bus and the nanny almost cancels out any money they make.

That said, amid the obvious trials, some of the loveliest scenes are those between little Ezra and his parents' bandmates, who are like second parents to him, and witnessing his own growing love of music.

The film illustrates the seemingly inevitable gender division that occurs after having a baby, all the more dramatic for a couple who has never subscribed to traditional roles and been very much equals. In the early days after their baby’s birth, for practical reasons, Jessica stays home with baby Ezra while Efrim tours with his other band.

Despite this split, I found myself somewhat irritated by father Efrim’s insistence that while Jessica was doing much of the hands-on care, he was bearing the brunt of the anxiety about providing for his family. While his financial concerns were real, she expresses similar fears about the threat to her creative endeavours and the need to find more stable work.

At one point Jessica’s best friend, a visual artist, makes the astute comment that while she’d like to have kids, she thinks she’d much rather be a father than a mother.

Jessica really sums up the central dilemma when she asks: “How can I be the kind of mother I want to be and keep doing the thing I love? Is it selfish or is it the best thing to do for your kid — showing them that you’re doing what you love?”

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Chaos and creativity

It is always so lovely to hear from readers of The Divided Heart. I've been lucky to get hundreds of letters and emails over the years, and every time I am struck by how articulate and thoughtful -- and candid -- these messages are.

It is humbling to get such heartfelt responses from women who are often arguably a lot further along in their creative careers than I am, but for whom the book still struck a nerve. It is also especially gratifying to hear from readers who tell me that the book was what enabled them keep hold of that elusive creative thread when everything else in their lives was telling them to give up and let it go.

Most recently, I got an email from painter (and mother of five!) Jasmine Mansbridge, who after reading The Divided Heart shared her "thoughts on being an artist and a parent" on her blog.

She writes there about how a lack of time for art creates a kind of urgency that ends up driving greater productivity. It is such a potent fantasy -- that idea of having endless time rolling out in front of you to create without disruption or distraction. And yet, even at times when my creative frustrations are through the roof, I know that if I had all the time in the world for writing and drawing, I would likely only freeze under the pressure. You'd just find me down at the local cafe drinking my tenth coffee and pretending to myself it was all part of the process...

As my kids have gotten older, I can now look back and see what an incredibly fruitful time those early years with small children were for art. Yes -- manic and exasperating, but also intense and rich and full in all the right ways.

Thank you to everyone who has written to me (especially those who I may have neglected to respond to -- that includes the reader who wrote me a particularly long and gut-wrenching letter in an envelope I threw out before realising that it meant I'd lost the return address -- I have felt terrible about this ever since!). Your words mean a lot.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Taking the baby on tour: new doco screening at MIFF

I wish I'd thought of making this film! Ah well, it exists now - and that's the important thing...

Come Worry With Us (screening at this year's Melbourne International Film Festival) is about the "struggle to balance parenthood with the realities of life as a working, and therefore touring, musician".

I know nothing about the band - and haven't seen the film yet - but it sounds like something anyone interested in the crazy parenting/creativity combo should know about. Here's the blurb:

...when Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra members Jessica Moss and Efrim Menuck welcomed their son Ezra to the world, and to their by-necessity nomadic lives, the old pressures of financial insecurity, artistic integrity and life-work balance are joined by the new challenge of raising a family. 

Adding further complications are Jessica's realisation that she has fallen into the traditional role of mother, and Efrim's dual obligations with Thee Silver Mt. Zion and his other band, Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

Award-winning filmmaker Helene Klodawsky follows the band on the road as these pressures begin to mount, producing an honest, beautifully shot profile that will speak not just to fans of post-rock but to anyone struggling with the 21st-century anxieties of making a living while maintaining the integrity of an artistic life.

Come Worry With Us is screening on August 13 and 16 at 9pm - book tix here.