Saturday, August 15, 2009

Maternity and artistry


"This blending of personal and professional selves underscores her argument against feminism and maternity being mutually exclusive."

Until I was on the Go bus from Mississauga to Toronto after visiting a friend from Europe the other night, I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to describe Andrea Liss’ Feminist Art and the Maternal (2009, University of Minnesota Press). My writer’s block was unblocked by the jocular expressions of my friend’s nine-month-old son and by feeling his tiny fingers clutching my toes. I figured the usefulness of the book for me would be in the examples of artwork, since my work centres around baby clothing and socialization, but Liss’s style of writing is what really stood out for me, as a model for academic/personal blog writing.

Liss’ unique writing style involves the interspersion of personal memories throughout the text. She recalls meeting an artist at a conference, for example, which segues to a memory of being away from her feverish infant son to attend the same conference. In a blog, this degree of self-disclosure would be unsurprising. In a scholarly book, it is surprising, and beyond that, it is refreshing. The separation of personal and professional selves in the academic world is possible, but it’s an illusion and not necessarily a helpful one. I realize that the notion of the personal being political is hardly novel, but I haven’t seen a book with this approach before so I was quite taken by it. Her assessment of artwork is still authoritative and well written, even if the reader is privy to details of her personal life. Especially in a book about mothering, why shouldn’t Liss include an entire chapter about the impact of her breast cancer on her relationship with her son? And why should a writer’s outlet for sentiment be restricted to a dedication page at the front of the book?

This blending of personal and professional selves underscores her argument against feminism and maternity being mutually exclusive. Also encouraging is the unstated point that maternity and artistry aren’t mutually exclusive. I remember watching an interview with gallery director Olga Korper in a gender studies class I took for pleasure at Nipissing University, in which she noted the challenges that motherhood places on studio output. Liss’ myriad examples of mothers making art provides a positive counterargument. Maybe the issue is quality and not quantity, because the work these women are making wouldn’t exist without their experience of being a parent. At any rate, Liss describes interesting examples of art from the 1970s onwards which range from documentary (women capturing the minutiae of their children’s development) to therapeutic (mothers working through the untimely death of their children). I like that she opens her book with an account of her student’s performance, evidence that she doesn’t restrict her roster of artists to the ‘usual suspects’. This inclusivity strikes me as suitably feminist, although I am left wondering, is anyone focusing on artworks by men about the joys of parenting, assuming they exist?

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