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Monday, August 2, 2010

Do Women Artists Need a Leg Up?







Please excuse the tiny print (I tried everything to get this bigger, but when I zoom in and enlarge, the dang thing reverts to its tiny version), but doesn't this postcard say it all? I know so many women who fall straight into this category. Mainly the ones I know are mothers who have spent the last 20 years raising their children and keeping their husbands from falling apart. The kids fly the coop and they can't figure out why they no longer know what it is they once woke up in the morning with a passion to do. Was it painting? Was it designing a house? Was it physics? Was it knitting a hat? Was it taking photographs? They've had to work freelance jobs or be an adjunct (in order to be there when the bus drops off the kids, in order to be around when preschool goes on break during random weeks in February and June), so now it's impossible to be taken seriously as a possible tenure-track hire. They are branded. OR, they do crawl out of this miserable hole of inertia, or this miserable hole of branded-ness, begin to make art, or begin to have a solid teaching position with a real future, and then realize that whatever they create will be marginalized as "feminine." What is feminine art? Art about child-rearing. Art about doing laundry. Art about anything domestic. Art that isn't about Greek statues, Odysseus, or war.

On the other hand, I know that there are all kinds of exceptions--house husbands, Mr. Moms, male freelancers, male adjuncts (millions of them), males who feel like hey, give me a break, I'm in the same boat you're in, miss. And men who, God bless 'em, are writing about taking care of kids, male poets like Tom Hunley and Peter Waldor. AND I know that most of these statements could apply to men, especially the ones about tenure, 4 freelance jobs, and men who don't smoke cigars.

And hey, Heather McHugh's a genius, and we all know it. And so's Linda Bierds, and so's Lucia Perillo. That's just three off the top of my head, a MacArthur triumvirate right here in a 60-mile radius of Seattle. (Women get awarded MacArthur fellowships quite often, in fact, though I do not have the percentages. They also win Guggenheims, get tenure, and kick serious butt in the the arts in general, and definitely in the literary arts.)

It's not all as cut and dry as the Guerilla Girls break it down, but still something catches in my brain when I read this list. Women are grossly misrepresented in magazines such as The New Yorker, Three Penny Review, The Atlantic Monthly and quite a few other "venerable" journals. Why? Is it that women tend to write about frivolous things (i.e., mothering) and therefore their work is not taken seriously? Is there a vital need for organizations such as VIDA, or do women artists no longer need a leg up to make it in this cut-throat business of "making special"?

I'm not sure. What do you think?

What I want to believe is this: in the past, women were very much marginalized. Basically, they were not allowed to write or paint or do fucking much of anything at all except needlepoint or quilting. The folk arts. Today that marginalization is lessening. The powers that be are beginning to "get" that good writing is good writing, whether it's about power tools and Greek statues, or diapers and strollers.

We have made progress. What gender you are matters less. But still, I often hear examples to the contrary. One never does know, does one, why certain magazines publish more male writers--significantly more male writers--than female writers. Is it because men write better? Or is because the dominant paradigm is more accepting of their themes, styles, and chosen subject matter? You tell me.

9 comments:

Justin Evans said...

Speaking for mediocre staight, white, male poets everywhere, who have vaulted ourselves into the occasional publication, I can say with a straight face that I will step on anyone---man, woman, or child, in my pursuit fo glory and supremacy in the publishing world. My male ego has nothing to do with it at all. That's what Fantasy Football and World of Warcraft is for.

That's just how I roll.

Martha Silano said...

Ha!!!!!!!!!!! Loved your comment, Justin. I figured all straight, white male poets were automatically waltzed into publication.

Kells said...

RE: Linda Bierds, Heather McHugh & Lucia P.--

I know Linda & Heather do not have children, does Lucia? This is my main concern is that it's not a man/woman thang, it's a man or woman/mother issue.

In our culture the majority of childcare and house duties are placed on women. And then many work outside the home. Something isn't done well and in the end, I think art loses because of that.

Of course, you can argue motherhood is a choice, so if a woman has children and her art suffers, this is her choice. Or is it?

???? Good post, it brings up a lot. (You need to see that movie, who does she think she is?!)

Martha Silano said...

Good point, Kells. I kept thinking as I was writing my post, what part of this equation is not making sense? The mommy part, of course!!!!!!!!

Supervillainess said...

Women are dismissed by poetry critics (usually male) as being too much like A. Plath, B. Sexton, or C. Emily D. That still happens (and it's happened to me!) If we're still dismissed and boxed if in these ways in critical circles, how do we proceed? Can we take over critical circles? It's a hard row to hoe.
I noticed my latest MS, the one I am circulating now, is purposefully "not directly feminist" - with the hopes that it will get taken more quickly than the first two. Sad but true! I fear that being a woman automatically makes all subjects "too feminine/too feminist." See Fellner's recent dismissal on his blog of a book as too "ecofeminist."

Justin Evans said...

On a serious note, I feel the issue has something to do with what value we place upon the arts. Artistic expression, and writing in particular (because I am biased) seems to have less of a value because it is perceived by a lot of people to be something anyone can do, or as a spare time hobby. No one outside of art wants to readily admit that art is a full time occupation for some. As a result, more women, as Kelli points out, are put in a position to prioritize things which should not be seen as a conflict of interest. Men to a far lesser degree are also sometines pressured to put aside art in favor of so-called manly pursuits, but that usually is a different matter altogether, falling upon gender roles in a different arena altogether.

Kells said...

Justin is right about writing as an art. You never hear someone say, Ah yes, someday if like to create a glass sculpture for MOMA, but people always talk about wanting to write the next great American novel.

There is the belief if you can speak, you can write and it is true on a certain way, but I am also pretty dang good at playing Operation with D. But I don't believe I have the skills to be a surgeon.

Anyway, I was just nodding when I read justins comment and wanted to agree and continue that idea in a bit.

Martha Silano said...

Hey Kells,

I loved your comment about being good at Operation! I am the same way after I put a bandaid on a kid's knee: look at me, I'm an RN! Seriously, I am now going to go cure cancer . . . just give me about 5 minutes to do my breathing exercises and I'll be all set.

Jan Priddy, Oregon said...

In my MFA graduation speech I talked about Harriet Beecher Stowe keeping the house silent for her preacher husband while writing Uncle Tom's Cabin at the kitchen table. Some women wrote and painted and did all those things AND managed their household responsibilities, only they didn't get published. It was harder.

When I had my children a friend from the UW stopped by for a visit and asked me, "How do you feel about giving it all up?"

I was devastated. I had not regarded my launch into parenthood as giving up anything. It was true I was "not working," but I never regarded that as a permanent choice. I had promised myself an MFA, and lo and behold... I have one.

As to The New Yorker publications... reality is not a consistent experience. For example: war vets and parents who were there when their kids came home from school do not live in the same world. And while I recognize that vets risked their lives, they don't know the truth any more than I do. In fact, the parents' reality might be closer to the truth of most human existence.