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Neo-Maternalism: Contemporary Artists’ Approach to Motherhood

From the Brooklyn Rail, an extensive and personal exploration into motherhood and art, written by Sharon Butler. Three excerpts:

Ever since the Abstract Expressionists held forth at the Cedar Tavern in the 1950s, the unwritten rule has been that making art is a consuming obsession that leaves no time or space for worldly responsibilities like childrearing. Before the AbExers, an artist like Gaugin left his wife and kids in Denmark to pursue painting in Paris, and later Tahiti. With artists—unlike, say, poets, novelists, or filmmakers—there’s an expectation of an ascetic, blinkered life focused exclusively on making art. Artists with kids have often ignored them while spending all their time in the studio. In Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston, Guston’s daughter Musa Meyer tells the heartbreaking story of a disengaged father who had little room in his life for her. So, why then, closing in on the final years of fertility, with scant investigation or evidence that the outcome would be salutary, did I stop using birth control in 1998 and let fate take its course? My decision was more intellectual than emotional. I reasoned that I was an artist. If I did get pregnant, wouldn’t this primal experience strengthen and inform my work? If I didn’t, then I wouldn’t have any regrets. I rolled the dice, and three months later the pregnancy test was positive…

The accepted wisdom among the first generation of feminist artists who disdained baby-making was that women who reproduce spend at least a year or two making idiosyncratic, excessively inward-looking “baby art” and then, if they are lucky, eventually get their wits about them and return to their previous, more serious work. It’s a condescending view, perhaps, but to my mind more or less valid. Growing a baby from a seed is an inexorably life-altering, eye-opening, intense experience, and always will be. In the first stages, child-rearing is so existentially consuming and preoccupying that it cannot help but suffuse any artwork….

Of course, it would be naïve to contend that nowadays reconciling motherhood and art making is always a smooth and effortless endeavor. But contemporary female artists are more determined than their predecessors to overcome barriers to harmonizing the two aspects of life rather than acquiesce to them. Emerging artist Jennifer Wroblewski, mother of a six-month-old, was originally discouraged when older female artists she knew intimated that her pregnancy would adversely affect her career. Rather than accept the projected consequences of professional indifference and potential dismissal, Wroblewski decided to curate an exhibition tentatively titled “Mother/Mother” that would explore ideas garnered from the process of parenting….

Read the full article here.

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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. opheliarising #

    I winced a little when reading about the artist ignoring the children whle working away in the studio. But, really, I think I do an okay job of juggling my children with my work. And, really, is that not what a mother does, anyway? It’s a huge juggling act, no matter how you slice it.

    I’d like to think that a woman can be a sufficient – even superlative – mother, and still find her artistic and creative forces alive and well and living in her workspace. I get so much inspiration from my children, and use this whenever I can. I think they get enough of me. I HOPE they get enough of me! :0 (Let’s just say they get enough of me).

    And, when it comes right down to it, we as women might need to have our expression flowing in order to be better parents and to grow as whole people. We are also their role models, especially our girls, so I think it’s important to show them that mommy has her own life, perhaps apart from them – perhaps apart from everyone.

    December 16, 2008
  2. cathy #

    i agree wholeheartedly with you, ophelia! what a horrendous comment on life and art to ignore children, the original source and example of living in the moment that much of art is about capturing, and appreciation of the sublime in the ordinary!

    December 16, 2008
  3. cathy #

    i agree wholeheartedly with you, ophelia! what a horrendous comment on life and art to ignore children, the original source and example of living in the moment that much of art is about capturing, and appreciation of the sublime in the ordinary!

    December 16, 2008

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