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.

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Culture Over Color

August 12, 2012 § 2 Comments

Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is so rich with lyrical prose that I had to read the first page three times before moving on to the next.  She flips back and forth effortlessly between a deep southern African American dialect into literary narration.  I found myself speaking out loud in the tone of her dialogue, just to listen to the way it rolls in and hangs there, like humidity in the calm before a storm.

The plot follows a woman named Janie as she struggles to find herself through imagination, love, and experience.  When the book was first released in 1937, it was attacked for not fitting within the African American protest tradition of the 1930’s.  The lives of Hurston’s characters are rich and varied; not the diminished, victimized culture portrayed in other works of Black fiction at the time.  The main focus is on a woman’s right to life, while race is merely the framework of her culture.

As Henry Louis Gates Jr. puts it in the Afterword, “… the social realism of the thirties, and the cultural nationalism of the Black Arts movement – was the idea that racism had reduced black people to mere ciphers, to beings who only react to omnipresent racial oppression, whose culture is “deprived” where different, and whose psyches are in the main “pathological.”  … Socialists, separatists, and civil rights advocates alike have been devoured by this beast (199).”

This is an idea that shouldn’t, but still does, persist in some ways today.  When I was a poet in New York City, I grew tired of listening to the African American poets perform angry diatribes against racist white people.  At every single reading, it always happened.  Rather than action, it was reaction.  I deal with my own kinds of anger, and I understand how difficult it is to exorcise that as an artist.  A part of the process in expressing anger is to move forward, but it’s easy to get stuck.  By playing the role of the victim, you avoid personal responsibility.  You cannot always blame someone else for your lot in life.  You must take action, no matter the obstacles.

Zora Neale Hurston’s voice is extremely relevant for today.  Rather than fighting for or against race, she celebrates culture, which is something different entirely.  She shows us, that regardless of outside factors, we all search for the same thing – for life, for soul, for the full human experience and the freedom to have it.  She brought more humanity to the Black experience than any of her contemporaries.

Janie is on a search for love from the time she blossoms underneath the pear tree.  “She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight.  So this was marriage (Hurston, 11)!”

Janie’s grandmother wants her to sit and do nothing – the ultimate achievement for a 2nd generation woman past the time of slavery.  Her grandmother arranges a marriage to an older man who is stingy and has plenty of land, but Janie doesn’t love him.  She escapes with Joe who is on his way to the first all-black town to build a life and community.  But in his efforts to be a successful businessman and mayor of the town, he fails to recognize Janie as a human being and sees her only as the object of his possession.  He desires the ownership he was denied before, from all things and people.  Janie is not allowed a voice, and Joe’s accomplishments (in his mind) serve to make her a great woman.

“…  Ah told you in de very first begginnin’ dat Ah aimed tuh be uh big voice.  You oughta be glad, ‘cause dat makes uh big woman outa you (Hurston, 46)”

At his death, she finally transitions, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. puts it, from “object to subject.”  She is rich with an empty life.  Leaving it all behind means nothing to her if she can have what the pear tree knows every spring.  A young gadabout named Tea Cake sweeps her off her feet.  He loves her, and lets her be exactly who she is.  They go fishing all night, shoot guns, and take off to work “on the muck” all summer long in Florida.  She goes from wearing fancy dresses to overalls, and everyday feels brand new and alive.

But nature is a brute force, and a massive hurricane destroys their new life together.  In the end, it doesn’t matter as much that Janie loses Tea Cake, as much that she experienced what everyone is looking for – love.  She is fulfilled by experience, complete and refined in her own self.  Now, just sitting there doesn’t seem so terrible, when her mind is full of beauty.

“Dey gointuh make ‘miration ‘cause mah love didn’t work lak they love, if dey ever had any.  Then you must tell ‘em dat love ain’t somethin’ lak uh grindstone dat’s de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch.  Love is lak de sea.  It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore (Hurston, 191).”

Anyone who dares the world for love can relate to the character of Janie.  I spoke to a poet the other day.  He told me that when he was younger, he didn’t finish his PhD. because he went through a divorce.  But in the process, he fell in love and became a poet.  When I told my husband this, he said to me, “Heartbreak is better for writing poetry than love.”

I replied, “But first you need love to experience heartbreak.”

It’s true that I wrote my best poetry when I was broken.  All of my best poems were inspired by men who could only see me as an object, not a human.  Likewise, I could only see them as my teachers and not my equals.  I was in the chrysalis phase that, Janie as well, took so many years to fly out from.

What I thought was love was only fantasy.  And when you live inside of fantasy, reality is not allowed to exist.  Nighttime is the only time for this sort of love, in the daytime there are too many reminders – that I was an object left behind on the bed for more important things, a side-note, a thing whose roots to the earth must be ignored since mothers and fathers and even friends remind a man that a woman is a subject and not just an object.

Zora Neale Hurston was a prolific writer until she fell into obscurity in the early fifties.  Her work could not be simplified, her ideals could not be categorized, and this made her ambiguous.  She was accused of molesting a 10 year-old boy, though she was in Honduras at the time of the crime.  Still, the charges damaged her career.

She worked as a maid in Florida, and failed at a string of jobs.  Ten years later she died in a welfare home.  She was virtually forgotten until the writer, Alice Walker, wrote an article for Ms. magazine in the early seventies, on how she went in search of Hurston’s unmarked grave to give her the recognition she deserved.  Since then, Hurston’s work has gained popularity and been recognized for its importance.

But her obscure death and eventual poverty are upsetting to me.  I relate to the string of miserable jobs that never work out.  Her financial struggles and the fight against what she wrote in an essay entitled “What White Publishers Won’t Print” demoralized her, and diminished her output.  Hurston did not feel like a human being without pen and paper – the curse and the gift of being a writer.  If you are truly a writer, there is nothing else for you, but to write.  In the end, she did her best to give us the keys to understand ourselves.  I am grateful to Alice Walker, for bringing Hurston’s work back from the dead.

 

The Fat Is On The Fire

May 12, 2012 § Leave a comment


Two months ago, I bought a necklace with a black metal pendant cut in the image of Hunter S. Thompson. Ever since then, his spirit has been following me around, reminding me to “Buy the ticket, take the ride.” More even, than his words on the paper, he has a lot to tell me.
Away at a Writer’s Refuge, working on research for my memoir, I found a note I made twelve years ago that read, “Read Hunter S. Thompson.” I turned around from the table where I was sitting and looked at the five books I brought along with me. One was Thompson’s Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the ‘80’s, a collection of articles he wrote in the mid-eighties for the San Francisco Examiner.
My favorite bits are Thompson’s personal tales of car explosions, raising peacocks, owning a strip joint, bad gambling deals, people out to slit his throat, incognito travels, and random chats with people like Nixon’s secret Chinese mistress who lived on a Houseboat near the Sacramento River where a humpback whale was causing a ruckus.
As Thompson floats through good ol’ boy territory and rebel remnants of the west, it’s hard to decide which is more loony – his crazy life or the Republican Party. His articles cover batty political figures and power-hungry televangelists trying to make their play for the White House. He manages to make them all look like corpses in an article entitled, “The Other George Bush” where his friend Skinner recounts a bender:
“… he’d spent the last two nights arguing with George Bush about the true meaning of Plato’s Republic and the Parable of the Caves, smoking Djarum cigarettes and weeping distractedly while they kept playing and replaying old Leonard Cohen tunes on his old Nakamachi tape machine (Thompson, 298).”
Skinner was convinced, here was a man “smarter than Thomas Jefferson,” who could “stand taller than the two Roosevelt’s put together.” Thompson doesn’t resolve the mystery for us, but he has plenty of dirt on “Big George.” As for Reagan, “Old actors never feel guilty for crimes they committed at work – because all they ever really did was play roles, and that was all Reagan did as President (Thompson, 215).”
The religious right permeated culture throughout the eighties. Even beyond the church, the mentality of doom and destruction and punishment were prevalent. Ronald Reagan told People magazine in 1986, “This generation may be the one that will face Armageddon.”
“That is the hallmark of the Reagan administration – a Punishment Ethic that permeates the whole infrastructure of American life and eventually gets down to George Orwell’s notion, in Animal Farm, that “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others (Thompson, 206).””
The pendulum swung, as it always does throughout history, into an era of fear and a backlash from the orgiastic drug spree of the 1960’s. Aid’s hit, though it took the mainstream a long time to really admit that it existed. Instead, there were reminders that sex could kill you, and living means dying. “… “safe sex,” the meanest oxymoron of our time (Thompson, 206).”
Thompson’s stories collide with recollections of my childhood. I was born in 1979. My first experiences of the world were in a decade that I now look back on with words like – fear, greed, power, money, poltergeist, apocalypse, punishment. It’s no wonder that my generation flipped out and went grunge.
“The President’s wife, in her role as main spokeswoman for the administration’s War on Drugs… has created so much pressure on a whole generation of confused pimply teenagers who may or may not “Say No to Drugs” that the last of the ‘80’s seems destined to produce another generation of criminals like the one that got caught on the cusp of the ‘60’s, when Jell-O conformity of the Eisenhower Era finally created so many socioeconomic rejects that it eventually became fashionable to be one (Thompson, 207).”
My mother was highly susceptible to all of this fear. I wasn’t allowed to own a Cabbage Patch Kid. She had heard a story that one became possessed by a demon and talked to a kid. Dolls with creepy faces were suspect in general, especially ones with eyes that blinked. Our house was at constant risk of becoming a poltergeist. As long as you clung to Jesus and said his name over and over, you could avoid spiritual catastrophe.
Alcohol and drugs, it seemed, were the ultimate invitation to demons – just try it and they could infest your house like fleas, hiding in the carpet and the crevices of the couch just waiting to claim another soul for the dark side. All it took was a moment of weakness. Life had the horror and magnificence of a Sci-Fi film. Any mistake could cause you a lifetime of punishment. Perhaps the extremes were what made me want to screw up in the first place, just to test it out. All that striving for perfection and bullshit can really weigh you down.
It was a strange era to spend the first ten years of my life. Stranger still, that the current Republican nominees resemble something more akin to the ‘80’s than 2012 – slippery slicksters who might just bite us in the ass because we’re too anesthetized to do anything about it.
When I talk to people just ten years younger than I am, I get the feeling I’m actually talking to the Internet. They spit out facts and ask me, “Have you heard of this band?” “Have you seen this video?” “Do you know who this guy is?” and pop out their iphones at me with the source of their never-ending information that they want to spew in my direction.
What happened to the human beings? Are we all just extensions of machines now? Showing off our prowess through information rather than active imagination?
I’m grateful that I was born before the era of the Internet and the cell phone. While I enjoy the ease that they provide, I appreciate being unplugged and fully committed to the moment. Thompson reminds us, that if you’re not living you’re really dying.
Nature is tough. To survive, you have to be a warrior, but to thrive you have to remain open, even when struggles make you want to go into seclusion. For those with courage, life is full of thrills, ups and downs that bring you closer to your own true nature – honest and pure.
The smoke from Hunter’s cigarette is drifting in tendrils around his face as he gives me that devious half-smile. He’s still wearing his Aviators even though we’re in some dark seedy restaurant with holes in the booths. I watch him sling a few back, and have a feeling he has more chaos to share before the night is through.

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