Dangerous Ambition

theblazingworldI’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.

 

19 thoughts on “Dangerous Ambition

  1. It’s kinda difficult even reading your review about a book it was difficult to write a review about. (Even though I enjoy and admire it!) There are some aspects to inequality that are so ingrained, it’s difficult to imagine how things can ever change. I wonder if people felt this many years ago when they were denied access to the things we take for granted now?

  2. This is hugely interesting to me right now because I’m in a job I don’t enjoy, and which is usually split between four and six people. (I, of course, am only one person.) I haven’t received much, if any, positive encouragement in this role, and it’s my first full-time position outside of university. I so identify with feeling like even wanting affirmation is wrong and weak, yet also knowing that it’s NOT. And I wonder how much of this is to do with gender, given that both of my immediate superiors are men. Frustrating, but illuminating.

    • I don’t think it’s to do with gender particularly. Nobody likes to feel unappreciated in their job, particularly if they make an effort to do it well.
      Everybody needs to have good vibes from their colleagues, whether they’re male of female. The recognition may not take the form of actual compliments, but rather be just a general sense that you’re appreciated.
      Being unappreciated is lousy; being unappreciated and overworked is worse, because you don’t get the satisfaction of knowing you’re doing a good job even if no one mentions it. Look around for something else! (Easier said than done these days, I know.)

      • Ha, yes! Sure, I don’t think it’s deliberate or being done specifically because I’m female; I just wonder whether my expectations and those of my superiors are somehow, subconsciously, different, and whether there might be some cultural conditioning at play there, as there seems to be in the Hustvedt book’s exploration of how we perceive art and its value.

      • Response to Elle’s second comment: Impossible to say without knowing your situation… But in my experience a good boss always offers encouragement. If they don’t, it’s either because they don’t pay any attention to what you’re doing (I’ve known that); or because they don’t care.
        When I was younger I had a job that I was convinced for several years I was bad at, because nobody ever complimented me. It was only when an ex-colleague head-hunted me (I was pleasantly surprised, but declined) that my perception of my abilities changed.
        It wasn’t that my bosses weren’t decent people…. I think it was partly that they didn’t really understand what I did (I write manuals for computer software, so am a solitary humanities graduate among engineers!).
        Of course there /are/ bosses who enjoy the power trip of having their staff’s self-image in the palm of their hand. I’ve seen one or two of this type and find it hard to imagine how empty inside they must be:\

  3. Things can and do change even if lamentably slowly. In my field of University research I know many women (of my age and in their 20’s) who achieve very high recognition both within my large (2000+) collaboration and much more widely internationally. I mentor colleagues (actually more female than male) and I can assure you that they all get equal attention from me. I am blind (in a professional sense) to their sex, all that matters is what the achieve and what issues stand in their way and my job is to help them overcome those barriers where ever (and by whom) they are erected.

    “Ambition is understood to be pushy, aggressive, non-feminine.” Really? not by me and not, I am glad to say by many (most I hope) of my male colleagues. Ambition is sex neutral and so is being pushy and aggressiveness which I see in both sexes. Now you can push to move obstacles and you can push your way into a queue and one’s perception will be different, but the desire to get ahead by fair but ambitious means is to be totally applauded.

  4. This sounds incredibly interesting and right up my alley, although I’m sometimes honestly not sure how many more books/articles/papers dealing with the topic of (subconscious) gender discrimination I can take before I become permanently depressed and completely cynical.
    Also, you’re incredibly well read! I loved the connections to make to other things you’ve been reading.
    One question (an open-ended one, I’m honestly curious!): are white middle-class women really the most loath to go after praise? Or is it just that we’re more aware, because by and large we’ve had the time, resources, and education to read all these fabulous books/articles/papers on gender discrimination, yet we still shut up and so it feels (to ourselves, mostly) like we’re more restrained than women from other backgrounds? I don’t know, it just seems to me that white, middle class, cis-gendered, heterosexual (and even queer) women tend to lead very privileged lives in comparison to other women. What do you think?

  5. I’m so fascinated by the ‘It’s the process that counts’ v ‘We need recognition’. Actually I’m sure both are true and both are necessary to making more and better work. And then there are all those female writers who had to take male names to find publishers: Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell; George Eliot; Henry Handel Richardson … . Do you think there’ll come a day when Martina Amis and Philippa Roth – to take just two – dare to discover how it feels … the other way round?

  6. Interesting and thorny issues. If anyone can tackle them intelligently and creatively, it’s you, and I enjoy reading about them in your hands. These are issues I wrestle with: recognition vs protecting the art. And so my happiest times are when I’m writing away, the least happy the anxious time when the work comes out. And yes, there have been all kinds of studies like those, supported by stats in, for eg, the publishing industry. Things change, albeit slowly. And there is still far to go. And the the backlashes in countries where women’s rights among others, gay rights typically, flip back a century or two. I’m thinking specifically about Russia here. So talking about it matters more than ever.

  7. This sounds almost too frustrating to read. What it brings to mind for me is the context, the way the art market is controlled and manipulated by the predator class who deem what and who will receive recognition. This is systemic, and there is no overcoming it but by replacing the whole capitalist, patriarchal gallery-to-investment pipeline with something else. As a visual artists, this is no theoretical problem for me. For my part, I want no part of that rigged game, where recognition, even when it comes, is but for the very few, and selection and exclusion, in the end, have little to do with aesthetic merit. I post on this just today on my blog. Change will only come from a cooperative challenge; as individuals, we play the game and accept complicity with the marginalization of almost all who are not bought off and go commercial–with greatest disadvantage to women, and women of color most of all–or refuse, seeking recognition and support by other means.
    I was delighted to read of the consternation of the art establishment brought on by Picasso’s granddaughter’ announcement that she would sell the majority of the 300 some pieces in her possession, without regard to their wish to keep them in storage, to leak out a few at a time, lest the market value of works in the hands of collectors plunge with a resounding crash! What a sweet sound that would be.

  8. I am glad you decided to write about the book! It sounds quite good so I will definitely have to place myself in the library hold queue for it! Now, when are you going to start reading How to Be Both?🙂

  9. This is such a thought-provoking post. I’ve been lucky enough to work in environments that have placed a high value on recognition, not just through formal (often annual) appraisals, but more regular ways of recognising and valuing individuals for their contributions. In one company, it was clearly evident that the guy at the top truly believed in the importance of this kind of culture, and it really set the tone for the entire group. He made it work. It’s frustrating to hear of your experience in university teaching though, that sounds so tough…

  10. I just finished reading What I Loved by Hustvedt last night. She writes very well, no doubt about it, but I can’t say I enjoyed it. There is something about her writing, which I can’t quite put a finger on, that seems tedious at times. Oh well, can’t love ’em all, I guess.

  11. Like you, I find it hard to comment on this book, although I did enjoy it and find everything Siri Hustvedt writes absolutely worth reading – so much heart and head, equally. It certainly didn’t absorb and move me so utterly and consistently as What I Loved or The Sorrows of An American, but I did find it engaging and thought-provoking and endlessly surprising. And it’s not without strong depictions of character and relationships, as well as experimentation and polemic.

    I love the threads you’ve drawn outwards into Anna Fels’ non-fiction work and into all our lives. Your points, and Hustvedt’s theme, certainly resonate with me. It was only in middle-age that I began to realise sidestepping material ambition wouldn’t spare me from a deeper frustration and longing for acknowledgement.

  12. I’m glad you liked The Blazing World, as I really admired it too. I recognize myself in the book on women and ambition — I have a fraught relationship with my own ambition, and it most certainly has to do with the cultural messages about women and achievement I’ve received, as well as other factors mixed in there. Ugh. I sometimes think that the most useful thing I can do is to pay attention to how I respond to my own students — to make sure I’m as encouraging as I can honestly be, and to be as equitable in my attention and encouragement as I can.

  13. Well, damn. I read a book by Siri Hustvedt a few years ago and felt utterly weak and pointless after finishing it, and I decided the Hustvedt/Auster franchise was not for me (having had a similar feeling in response to a Paul Auster book). But these are themes that are very fascinating to me, and if there was one thing I loved about the Siri Hustvedt book, it was her ability to describe fictional visual art that sounded unique and strange and worthwhile. Which it sounds like there will be more of in this book? Plus themes about women and the problems they face?

    What I find almost equally frustrating to the inequalities women face in the workplace (as you say, numerous studies can attest to the role of gender in undervaluing women’s work) is when people decline to believe that gender is playing a role. I get the impulse — it’s nasty to think that you’ve been socialized into treating people unfairly for reasons that don’t align with your explicit ideology — but over the long term, it becomes unbelievably crazy-making. Even when believing in the abstract that gender plays a role in what work gets valued and praised, people have a strangely hard time admitting that any specific instance involves actual, real-life, encountered-in-its-natural-habitat sexism.

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