Being A Woman Artist

November 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

Photo by James Arzente

 

““You don’t really want to be a poet.  First of all, if you’re a woman, you have to be three times as good as any of the men.  Secondly, you have to fuck everyone.  And thirdly, you have to be dead.” – a male poet, in conversation (Jong, 43)”

I recommend the poem that follows in Erica Jong’s book of poems, Fruits and Vegetables, first published in 1968.

The other day a photographer, James Arzente, came to my apartment to photograph me for a book he’s doing on artists and writers.  After a long email dialogue, we came up with a concept, and piled all of the physical remains of what it took to write my memoir (piles of notepads filled with chicken scratch, journals, photographs, music, books, costumes, pens, mementos, and postcards) onto the kitchen table.  The photographer wanted to get at what’s inside my head, and I pulled out as much physical evidence as I could possibly find, but it wasn’t even the half of it.

He pried further and further to figure out what makes me tick.  On one hand, it made me understand the intensity of what it must feel like to be a celebrity.  On the other, I was exhausted by it, and exhausted of being the sole focus.  I grew sick of myself, ill with the knowledge of my current unsatisfactory state.

“You will never really be understood,” he said, “And you have to be okay with that.”

We talked about what it means to be a woman and a writer.  I want to celebrate my womanhood, but being female has always felt like a strike against me.  I’m working through it, towards a love and acceptance of my own gender.  It’s difficult when I’ve been attacked for being a woman, not only by strangers, but also by friends and lovers.  My healing comes from strong female role models, who repair me through their wisdom and our shared stories.

“Who do you feel you are on the inside?” James asked me.

“I feel like an outlaw.  I feel like I’m fighting against the roles prescribed for me by others.  I feel invisible.  I’m in a chrysalis phase, and working non-stop to create my body of work.  It’s killing me that my book isn’t out there yet, when I have so much more to give.  I’m waiting for recognition, when in my mind, I am already known for what I do.  In reality, I’m a drifter that no one really knows all that well.”

The truth is, I feel more like a Hunter S. Thompson, a Henry Miller, a Charles Bukowski, a Norman Mailer than a woman.  None of my heroes understood women at all, and didn’t care to understand.  But women inspired their stories.  They almost had an unhealthy worship of the women that castrated them in a sense.  Scared to death of the great goddess that might reach up and snuff them out.

Right now, at the Seattle Art Museum, the Elles exhibit of twentieth century women artists, is here from the Pompidou in Paris.  Everyone seems to have a strong opinion about the show.  Some are angry over the feeling that women’s art is segregated.  Some felt it was too political.  Some were disturbed by the empty pockets of history, where women really weren’t allowed to fully partake, as in the Bauhaus movement.

For me, I found the exhibit to be enormously invigorating, and at times disturbing.  Throughout history, women have been told that their life should be a sacrifice for the family.  In much of the art, I found that same sense of sacrifice, but it was an angry outcry against prescribed roles.  A gigantic woven bee hive/cocoon – enormous and frightening, like death hanging from a hook in the ceiling.  A film of a naked carefree woman on the beach, hula hooping with barbed wire, each turn ripping her abdomen to shreds.  Marina Abramavic’s performance piece, “I must be beautiful, I must be beautiful, art must be beautiful,” as she rips at her scalp with a brush.

Grouping all of this art together is enormously satisfying and powerful.  It tells a narrative, fighting to redefine what it means to be a woman, determined to have equality and a voice.

“To create is an act of liberation and every day this need for liberation comes back to me.” – Louise Bourgeois

I think as well, it would be impossible for the art to not be political.  In an article by Robin Held in City Arts Magazine she states, “Only 5 percent of the art on display in U.S. museums is made by women, although 51 percent of U.S. visual artists today are women.”  And this is the current state of the art world.  Just today I walked through the art section at a bookstore, and the only female artist I saw on the shelves, was Georgia O’Keefe.  I never even noticed the disparity before.

All this week, I have been enmeshed in talks with women artists on how they feel about the exhibit, and how they feel about their role in art today.  The women of the sixties and seventies had a lot of wisdom and history to offer.  One woman spoke of how she couldn’t sign her real name to a piece, because if they knew she was a woman, she wouldn’t get a show.  She used her initials instead.  To be a success, she had to deny the feminine.  But now, because of political battles that have been won, she is free to sign her real name, and wears her womanhood like a badge of honor.

Strikingly, the women of my generation said that they don’t identify as women.  One felt that anything written before 1980 was a “dinosaur text.”  They were firmly planted in the here and now, living dangerously outside the context of history.  I sensed abhorrence within them of their femaleness.  The same abhorrence that existed in society in the 1950’s, when my mother was raised to think that being a woman made her unclean – doomed to keep cleaning, just to make up for it.  Back then, household appliances were sold as devices to cure psychological ailments.

Young women artists want to shed their femaleness like a dead skin.  And then they are shocked when those issues subconsciously come out in their art.  One was disturbed when people found the feminine in her art.  It made her angry. She might clothe herself with male-dominated activities to feel stronger, but she is still facing the unavoidable fact of her existence as a woman.

This same aversion to the female, I believe, has created a large disconnect among young women.  I know I am at a difficult stage of life for female friendships – babies, work, lack of money, flakiness, geographical distance.  But even so, all of the women I know look at each other with a deep sense of mistrust until proven otherwise.  I am just as guilty as everyone else, and I’ve practically given up.  Yet when I do find that closeness with other women, I find my confidence blossoms.

Women seem to feel sick of the issue of equality, and what that means.  The issue has always been there, and it’s not going away anytime soon.  It’s a constant struggle.  And if we let go of it, there are plenty of men waiting in the wings to take back their control over our bodies.  If your own body makes you ill, and you want to avoid it, then why not hand over the control?

In the young women, I saw myself, and I didn’t like what I saw.  This week has changed me.  I want to embrace who I am within this body within this world.  But I also demand that society embrace my mind even more than the visual elements that I might express.  Yes, I am a woman, but first and foremost, I am a human being.

Breaking My Erotic Silence

September 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

After watching the excellent film The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, I had no choice but to pick up Dalma Heyn’s book, The Erotic Silence of the American Wife.

In the film, Pippa marries a wealthy man thirty years her senior when she is a young runaway living on the edge.  She mutates from being an expressive human being with problems into the stilted and empty role of being the Perfect Wife.  But underneath all of her prim lines, you sense the real Pippa lurking underneath.  She begins sleepwalking, ending up at the min-mart where she buys cigarettes.  And then, out to lunch with her neurotic friend, Pippa begins to combust:

“You could be married to anybody, if that’s what you’re worried about.  Marriage is an act of will.  I mean, I adore Herb, but our marriage functions because we will it to.  If you leave love to hold everything together, you can forget it.  Love comes and goes with the breeze, minute by minute.”

When Dalma Heyn set out to write her book comprised of years worth of interviews with wives who committed adultery, she began with an armload of clichés, stereotypes, and societal views that had nothing to do with the feelings of actual women, their marriages, and their experiences.  The problem that all of these women shared, was that they bought into the ideal of the Perfect Wife – she is selfless, giving, able to predict the needs of everyone else, without ever meeting her own needs.  When these women don’t measure up to this idea of goodness (and no one ever does or should), they constantly feel bad – they are a failure, there is something wrong with them.  In the process, they disconnect completely from themselves and go numb.  They can no longer experience a fulfilling sex life either.  They’ve become what they thought was their husband’s fantasy, but it has nothing to do with them.  They are looking at themselves from the outside in.

“They spoke of a profound awareness that they were somehow no longer themselves, that they weren’t in a relationship but playing a role in one (Heyn, 103)…”

They wonder what became of the sexual outlaw they were before marriage.  Some of the women had not even had premarital sex.  Regardless, women from their twenties to their seventies, and all walks of life, experience adultery as a rebirth of self.  They don’t experience shame or guilt – they experience life, total joy and an uninhibited place to reclaim their authenticity.  They seek out men that have none of the prerequisites that they look for in a husband or even a boyfriend.  They might not even be in love with these men, it doesn’t matter; the experience of total freedom is the same.

The women often have no desire to leave their husbands.  But through the experience of adultery, they understand that they need to change the shape of their marriages, so that at last, their needs can factor into the relationship.  There is no going back to the Perfect Wife.  Some of the women never tell their husbands and fare well, while a large percentage of the women who do tell end up in divorce.  But every marriage is different with different outcomes.

I never thought that I would get married because I loved being single so much.  My sexuality was the ultimate adventure for me.  So sometimes, I wonder, how did I end up married to a man whose sexuality is so vanilla.  He’s turning fifty this year, and though he thinks of having sex all the time, it’s often the last priority.  When it doesn’t feel like a routine, when he isn’t being too sensitive and careful, sex between us is wonderful, but rarely ever dark, or seductive, or unbridled.  Can these things exist in a marriage?  I always thought they could.

When we were dating he struggled to keep up with me.  He stayed up late with me till the early morning hours and we had sex everyday.  He was working three jobs and started to feel the pressure.

Around the same time, I decided to give him a fashion show.  I went into my closet and put on all my old fetish gear – vinyl, thigh-high fishnets, towering platforms.  When I paraded out, he was not aroused by it at all.  He said I was playing the part of someone else.  Maybe it was who I was before he met me, maybe I never was that role to begin with.  It just wasn’t for him.  He wanted me to put on a sleek and elegant dress instead.  I’d never encountered a man who didn’t go crazy over artifice.  For a week after that, he struggled sexually, and then unbeknownst to me, Viagra saved the day.

For him, the two events were unrelated, but after that week, I stopped taking risks.  I started feeling nervous about making him uncomfortable.  I left my kinks behind.  He loves my strength in all facets of our life together.  But he has a puritan side, a clumsy embarrassment over anything out of the ordinary.

The other issue is that he’s not the string bean-types that I used to date.  He’s like one of those massive warriors that you see in movies like 300.  Built like a rock, solid, stocky, with huge hands that don’t know their own strength.  When I told him that I like to be choked, he gave it a try and almost broke my neck.  When he sleeps with his arm across my chest, my ribs begin to feel like they’re crushing under the pressure and I panic, trying desperately to wake myself.  I’m still learning how to live with our differences.

But life is also easier, happier, more content with him.  We can’t get enough of being together – we work together, go out all the time, talk openly about everything, and share our passions.  It’s always fun, even when we’re fighting.  We don’t buy into the term “settling down” like many couples do.  I play the role of the Perfect Wife more for my parents than my husband.  When they show up, everything is clean and dinner is delicious.  When they’re not here, our lives are chaotic and slightly out of control.

I don’t idealize our relationship.  I didn’t marry a man for his status or money.  I married a fellow outlaw, who lives by his own rules, and makes me laugh.  I’m well aware that the future is uncertain.  I’ll be surprised if our marriage survives for the rest of our lives, and I very much hope that it does.  And does that only mean the rest of his life, since I’m so much younger?  I make jokes about being a wealthy old widow, living like a gypsy and on the prowl.  But really, it’s just to make myself feel better about the unknown.

I went through some confusing changes in the process of our growing closer.  Like a rubber band snapping back and forth.  I was caught up in the whirlwind, in the romance in the beginning.  Then after our engagement I rebelled and fought and wanted to leave.  I couldn’t figure out what I was doing.  But on our wedding day, it all made sense.

For a short while, I turned into an old lady, had no real friends, started to compensate for my husband’s reckless, accident-prone nature by being extremely anxious, nervous, overly careful.  At times, the pressure of being a wife overwhelms me.  I’ve often wanted to run back to when my life was more straightforward and simple – when I could just work, do my art, and have sex with random people every now and then.

Sex was self-discovery, mutual-discovery, empathic-discovery.  Married sex is something completely different that I don’t quite understand.  It’s like we need to learn to speak each other’s languages, and haven’t quite gotten there yet.

There is a strange role-reversal where in our relationship I am supposed to be more like the man and he is more like the woman.  He wants to cuddle and be close, and I just want to get laid.  He wants to work up to it for long periods of time, while I get bored waiting.  He wants me to initiate, while I just want to feel wanted.  And yet, he is enormously giving, patient, and selfless – which makes me feel like an impatient, selfish, taker.

No couple is perfect, and somehow our differences balance things out.  My husband is the first man I was ever in a committed relationship with.  I guess I got bored with everything else.  Before we met, I had become an evil heartbreaker.  The ego trip felt nice, but it didn’t feel right to hurt people and feel nothing.  My husband didn’t buy all that crap.  He saw right through it (though he admits to being scared of me at first).  It was good to be seen at last.  Really seen.  It still is.

When I think of other men sexually, I wonder what would be the point, when there’s only one man who lets me be who I really am.  Maybe not the dominatrix side, but every other side.  Everyone else pales in comparison.  Everyone else seems like they’re missing something.  With everyone I dated before, I was never really myself, and was never accepted to begin with.

I am the subject of my husband’s life.  He says that I give his life meaning.  He even took my last name.

Yesterday was our 2nd Anniversary.  I hemmed my wedding dress and surprised him by wearing it on our dinner date, along with my birdcage veil, and my grandmother’s jade necklace.  We talked about our plans for building our future together.  We talked openly and honestly about how we really feel about all of it.  We raved over Sea Urchin, Veal Sweetbreads, Cavatelli with Morels, Chocolate Truffle Cake with Black Cherries.  We even talked about this post, and how our memories are different, and yet the same.

This is the first openly honest thing I’ve ever written about my husband, stripped of all the idealistic tripe.  I’m breaking my erotic silence.

Disney Princess Nightmare

March 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

Imagine you are living in a universe where everything is pink, every girl is a princess, and men are vague figures on the periphery, only appearing when a girl needs saving.  This to me sounds like a nightmare, and yet little girls are taught that this is a dream come true.  A few weeks ago I saw Peggy Orenstein give a lecture based off her new book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, defining exactly what is wrong with princess culture in girl land.

“… princesses avoid female bonding.  Their goals are to be saved by a prince, get married…  and be taken care of for the rest of their lives.  Their value derives largely from their appearance.  They are rabid materialists.  They might affect your daughter’s interest in math.  And yet…  parents cannot resist them (Orenstein, 23).”

In the Disney Princess franchise, for the first time we are allowed to see the Disney Princesses grouped together as long as none of them are looking at each other.  They each exist in a universe, all their own.  They only make friends with those who are not on equal footing; such as crustaceans, raccoons, birds, dwarves, fairies.  No one is as special as they are.

Not only does princess mentality isolate girls from other girls, inspiring competition and a lack of empathy; but it also creates a huge divide between girls and boys.  Boys are given active toys that include all the colors of the rainbow.  They are encouraged to be doers, and to learn through play with tool sets, chemistry sets, etc.  For girls, however, there is a major emphasis on primping and materialism – spa day, shopping, and make-up for your six year old.  The girl’s version of a chemistry set revolves around learning to make perfume.  In the Monopoly Pink Boutique Edition, girls can go on shopping sprees, buy a mall or a boutique.  This all teaches them to strive to be spoiled and valued on the basis of their appearance.

At a toy fair, Orenstein observes:  “The preschool girls’ section was decorated with a banner on which the words BEAUTIFUL, PRETTY, COLORFUL were repeated over and over (and over) in pink script…  In the next room, a banner over the boys’ section, scripted in blue, exclaimed, ENERGY, HEROES, POWER (Orenstein, 51).”

Words used for girls are passive descriptions of how an object looks.  Boys on the other hand get all the action, the doing, the winning, the leadership.  Over and over boys and girls are ingrained with these perceptions at an already difficult stage of social development where they are first coming to terms with categories of gender.

“By the end of the first year of preschool, children spend most of their time, when they can choose, playing with others of their sex.  When they do have cross-sex friendships, they tend not to cop to them in public – the relationships go underground (Orenstein, 68).”

Some of my earliest memories are of playing with my friend Patrick.  My dad’s favorite story to tell is of me at around age four playing football with Patrick and his little brother Freddy.  Apparently I pushed Freddy down and he went crying to his dad.  His dad turned to him and said, “But that’s how the game is played, son.”  At a later age, I can assure you, I would not have had the guts to push a boy down.

Since I was the second child, my parents were a little lax with teaching me a few basics, so Patrick taught me the alphabet and I taught him a few ballet moves.  I loved playing Heman with him and I was convinced that boy’s toys were better.  Barbie was fun, but all she did was primp and go to parties.  Her big climatic moment was when she danced with Ken.  They would fall in love and begin to fly.  Then they would go home, take off their clothes and lie naked on top of each other in their Barbie bed.  My neighbor friend and I would gaze at this mysterious act with awe.  All the effort went into making Barbie look as beautiful as possible so that Ken would sleep with her.

Heman was active.  He was a hero.  There was something more empowering about being a boy.  I was jealous.  I was also jealous that Patrick didn’t give a shit about what people thought of him.  One day he pulled down his pants and peed right on the sidewalk.  It didn’t matter that there were ten other kids playing around him when he did it.  I couldn’t imagine ever feeling that free.

As soon as we entered kindergarten, though, Patrick rejected me.  He wouldn’t be caught dead talking to a girl in public.  I felt heartbroken.  I realized our friendship could only exist in my mind as a memory.  But I still admired him from afar.  Matters were made worse when in the first grade we were all lined up to go in after recess.  I was at the end of the line, Patrick was up ahead, and the boy in front of him (who I didn’t like), yelled out, “You like Lauren?!”  It was as though the most embarrassing thing you could possibly do was like me.  Everyone started laughing.  Patrick looked humiliated.  I wanted to disappear.  It was hard to understand why this was such a horrible thing.

So then we entered a new phase.  Since Patrick “liked” me, I now had a crush on him.  This explained to me why we were no longer allowed to talk to each other.  Everything became secretive, underground.  It was now all in the non-verbals, like when he silently chased me on his bicycle.  I pedaled as fast as I could, laughing hysterically over the excitement of the chase.  For a few short moments, he was actually acknowledging that I existed.

At that point the major gender separation in toys was really just beginning.  It was the early eighties, that big bust of consumerism.  My Little Pony, Strawberry Shortcake, Care Bears – all inactive toys that were cute and had no real function.  I barely knew what to do with any of them, but of course wanted them all.

Much more memorable is the summer when the girl next door and I decided to make a mud factory out of the piles of dirt behind the garage.  We made mud pies and even mud hot dogs, which my aunt told us, looked more like poop.  Then there was the year in grade school that I started an icicle hunt at recess – a game that spread like a virus till the whole grade school was involved in a battle of who could collect the most icicles, as well as the biggest.  I felt like a HERO.  I felt POWER.  I felt ENERGY.  It felt good!

When Peggy Orenstein finished her lecture on princess culture, the audience was invited to ask her questions.  Every woman that went up to the microphone bumbled through her words, skittishly made apologies, and skipped backwards through the aisle like an uncertain little girl.  Then a young man got up to ask a question.  He spoke directly with authority.  When he was finished he calmly walked back to his seat with assurance.  Just in that moment, it was easy to see, how we are all shaped by society’s messages on gender.

It’s time for women to create a new female archetype for the future – heroic, intelligent, with guts, courage, charisma and empathy.  She is prepared to fight to protect the right to be anything she wants to be.  A woman who doesn’t need saving, yet understands that we are stronger when we unify.  She is the best in all of us.

 

 

The Man Trap

March 14, 2012 § 1 Comment

            In Alix Kates Shulman’s 1972 novel, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, Sasha fights against the traps of being a woman.  As a child, the boy’s are pure enemies.  She is attacked, held down and pantsed so the boys can stare at her vagina with a ‘seen one, seen them all’ look on their faces.  As an adolescent she is lured into a ride home by a group of boys, only to be driven to a remote location where they can force her to touch a boy’s penis.

Her first boyfriend cares less about her than about getting laid, though she knows that if anyone finds out she’ll be expelled from her sorority and shunned by her classmates.  Her first job backfires when the cook threatens her to try and get her to sleep with him.  In college her dream of pre-law is put aside when she falls in love with Philosophy and the Philosophy professor.  By the time she’s playing with the big boys, attempting a PhD at Columbia – she is treated with so much disdain for being a woman in the program that she stops speaking in class and flocks to the safety of the wives in the kitchen.  She begins to panic that she’s getting too old and too educated.  So she marries the first guy who treats her well.

As soon as they’re married, of course, he stops talking to her.  He can’t hide his contempt.  His life has a grand purpose, while she supports him at menial jobs.  Her mind is no longer stimulating to him or to herself.  All he wants is his dinner.

“Why was everything nice he did for me a bribe or a favor, while my kindnesses to him were my duty (Shulman, 5)?”

She embarks on a series of affairs, but every time she leaves her husband she falls into the same man traps wherever she goes.  A lover in Spain, in Italy, and then eventually a second husband and two kids.  Completely dependent on a man who secretly hungers for carefree youth, she is constantly afraid he will leave her.

Interesting too, are Sasha’s musings over her physical self.  At fifteen she is crowned Queen of the Bunny Hop.  By twenty-four she fears that she is old, and that people would find it laughable to think she was once considered beautiful.  There is always that disconnect between how others see her, and how she feels she looks.

“Could it be that the prettier I grew the worse I would be treated?  Much likelier, I thought, I wasn’t really pretty (Shulman, 49).”

You have to wonder, though there were many disadvantages to being a woman at that time, did Sasha’s beauty add to her disempowerment?  Beautiful women are rarely ever noticed for their minds.  Sasha hates a come-on as much as she loves it.  On one hand it proves she’s still beautiful, on the other it reminds her she is vulnerable, even to possible attack.  Being valued for her looks is also emotionally damaging as age removes her worth.

Forty years since this book was published, the ultimate value of a woman is still judged on the basis of physical beauty.  A woman in the public eye who is not attractive is torn to shreds (for example, Hilary Clinton), while a beautiful woman is adored by everyone (Angelina Jolie).  Success and accomplishment are no protection from the scrutiny.  But will we remember Angelina Jolie for her excellent screenwriting skills, or will we remember her more for how hot she looked baring her leg at the Oscars?  Being beautiful, unfortunately, is a distraction from the accomplishments you weren’t born with.

I can vouch that when I was in my physical prime (early twenties), no one was really interested in hearing my poetry.  They just wanted me to wear hot pants to a party, and I was more than willing to flaunt it.  I never felt valued for who I was on the inside.  But I enjoyed all the attention otherwise.  And eventually I learned to lead with my personality rather than my appearance.

Beneath this was an insatiable need for affirmation.  Growing up in school I had been completely invisible.  I was always quiet and up in my head.  I was a dork – ugly, awkward, insecure, with bad grades and braces.  My quietness made the other kids uncomfortable.  Boys never talked to me unless it was to mock me or scare the shit out of me with sexual threats.  Maybe it was that total and complete lack of control that turned me into a control freak.  All I knew was, someday I wanted to be in charge.

If I had remained in the church, men and the life in general would have most certainly been a trap.  But outside of the church and those old fashioned values, men were my freedom.  In fact, the men I fell for brought my dreams to life.  For a long time I lived in a fantasy.  All of my relationships were open with no responsibilities involved.

Marriage and monogamy, however, are so based in reality, I have to admit, I’m still struggling to get used to it.  It’s hard to keep marriage exciting – especially when you are living with your best friend.  Sex is not the first thought, it’s the after-thought.  And it is sometimes difficult to not equate marriage as an institution akin to the church.  When I left religion, I celebrated all of my freedoms from repression.  But then when you get married, there are parts of yourself that inevitably become repressed to protect your relationship.  It’s like a catch-22, because you’ve never been happier than with your partner, but in order for that to survive, you can’t just do and say whatever you want.  You can no longer be selfish as you begin to think through this other person and their feelings.

But for the first time, I am finally loved for who I really am, and my husband embraces the free spirit in me.  He brings warmth and brightness to my life, whereas before, life was dark, edgy and unpredictable.

In Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen Sasha bemoans the traps of womanhood, laughing it off as all her fears come to pass.  There is always the clock ticking, the beauty slipping, the value falling down.  She runs from her own brilliance into the arms of man, where frets and responsibilities distract her from dreams that became insurmountable.

Memoirs was written from the standpoint of a very different time – but every time has its pitfalls and struggles for the sake of biology.  The balance between men and women is precarious and difficult.  Alix Kates Shulman based much of Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen off of her own life.  Though her life story is such a great success (even helping to lead the famous protest at the Miss America Pageant), Sasha’s story ends in defeat.  I prefer to look beyond the book’s ending into Shulman’s inspiring example, trailblazing for women, allowing nothing to hold her back.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the Feminism category at Lauren J. Barnhart.

%d bloggers like this: