I’ve been wondering whether to ditch the idea of reviewing Siri Hustvedt’s novel, The Blazing World. Not because I didn’t enjoy it or admire it – I did both. But because it somehow seemed difficult to write about. Briefly, the novel concerns neglected artist, Harriet Burden, a woman of great ambition, great intelligence and fierce drive, whose work has been repeatedly overlooked and dismissed by the critics. It is structured as a posthumous collection of disparate writings by and about Burden that trace the development of her life and her last, desperate attempts to prove gender bias by creating three spectacular shows of work that are fronted by men, masquerading as the real artist. This isn’t some pc-driven whine: in the novel it’s noted how many actual women artists were blatantly sidelined, receiving no real recognition until their seventies (Alice Neel, Louise Bourgeois) or their death (Eva Hesse, Joan Mitchell) or indeed not at all – like Lee Krasner who was only ever seen through the frame of her husband, Jackson Pollock. The art world does have a problem with women, preferring ‘their geniuses coy, cool, or drunk and fighting in the Cedar Bar, depending on the era.’
Harriet Burden is driven to the edge of her sanity by the lack of recognition her work has received, and her dangerous ploy, to create work that men agree to show, backfires in all sorts of ways. Her first chosen male artist, a newcomer to the scene, is hailed beatifically and then cannot deal with the fact that he is not the work’s creator. Her second, a gender-bending black man, is too close to the feminine to attract the serious attention of the art world, though Harriet enjoys their collaboration most of all. The last, an already-established rock star of the art world, pretentious Rune, betrays Harriet in the worst possible way. Harriet proves the sexism inherent in art criticism, but she is powerless to change anything, and remains deprived of the satisfaction she seeks.
I thought a lot about Harriet Burden while reading Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives by Anna Fels. Fels’ argument is that ambition is useful to us – ‘coping skills, understanding of reality and sense of self-worth’ are all higher in women who have defined plans for their futures. Women who want to be ‘upwardly mobile via their own achievements’ turn out to be ‘the most psychologically well adjusted.’ But recognition – accurate, meaningful praise from the external world – is consistently withheld from women, and white middle-class women in particular are the group most loathe to go after it. Ambition is understood to be pushy, aggressive, non-feminine. Women will repeatedly say that they have nothing against ambition, that they understand it can be useful, but will stubbornly stick only to ambitions that involve nurturing others.
What I found most intriguing about this book is its insistence on the value and importance of recognition. It’s a tragic myth women tell themselves to try to come to terms with their lot that it’s all about the work for its own sake, Fels suggests. ‘[T]he recognition of one’s skills within a community creates a sense of identity, personal worth, and social inclusion – base cornerstones in any life’. The times we receive recognition are usually iconic moments we remember forever more. ‘Recognition by others defines us to ourselves, energises us, directs our efforts, and even alters mood.’ Fels argues that the times we are happiest and most engaged in our work are the times when we are most valued and validated – and alas for women, cultural validation only comes in the form of praise for selflessness, for stepping down, shutting up, putting their desires away and promoting others.
Honestly? I agree. There is so much of my own experience that resonantes here. Fels notes that: ‘When girls persist in being high achievers, they are subtly penalised by their teachers. They actually receive less attention from their teachers than any of the other student types.’ Yup, that was my experience at school. And the times I flew high and found my work easy and fulfilling were mostly during my graduate days when I had two mentors around me who encouraged me a great deal. When I began working for the university, there was no recognition to be had. In thirteen years teaching, I had two appraisals and only one sentence of praise which yes, I remember to this day (the then Senior Tutor said ‘no one can please all the people all the time, but you get pretty close to it’). The constant lack of recognition undoubtedly contributed to chronic fatigue – I paid out so much energy, and had so little re-energising sense of doing well in return. And I did indeed feel guilty and wrong for wanting recognition at all. Not least because I was aware that it’s so hard to come by. For instance, here’s an intriguing study from Fels’ book:
Two groups of people were asked to evaluate particular items, such as articles, paintings, resumes and the like. The names attached to the items given each group of evaluators were clearly either male or female, but reversed for each group – that is, what one group believed was originated by a man, the other believed was originated by a woman. Regardless of the items, when they were ascribed to a man, they were rated higher than when they were ascribed to a woman. In all of these studies, women evaluators were as likely as men to downgrade those items ascribed to women.’
Essentially, it’s the premise of Hustvedt’s book. Which of course puts women in a complicated position. What else IS there to do but try and find consolation in the practice of whatever work we do, in the full awareness that it’s the only reward we’re likely to get? Another interesting book that’s been holding my attention lately is Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Approval and acceptance are hugely important, they agree, but to jump on the bandwagon and produce commercially successful art is often to lose your identity as an artist, whilst standing out for your own vision is always fraught with inevitable misunderstandings: ‘The problem is not absolute but temporal: by the time your reward arrives, you may not be around to collect it. Ask Schubert.’ It’s a great little book, actually, that has made me laugh a lot, and has some pithy advice.
The lesson here is simply that courting approval, even that of peers, puts a dangerous amount of power in the hands of the audience. Worse yet, the audience is seldom in a position to grant (or withhold) approval on the one issue that really counts – namely, whether or not you’re making progress in your work. They’re in a good position to comment on how they’re moved (or challenged or entertained) by the finished product, but have little knowledge or interest in your process.’
Sensible words, but I doubt they would have helped Harriet Burden. Ambition is like a virus, I don’t think you can just will it away, but it is also a very high-risk strategy, particularly for women and I can’t see that changing any time soon.