By Laura K. Deal
I went to see I Live for Art at the Boulder International Film Festival expecting to be intrigued by other people’s perspective on creativity and the struggles involved with creating art. The gender-neutral language of the description led me to expect, without much conscious reflection, that the film would include female artists. When I realized every face on the screen was a man’s face I started counting–five so far, and all but one white. It got to six men featured, plus a couple of male back-up musicians. Deep into the film we had our first images of girls–little girls, dancing with the delight of dress-up and freedom at a festival. Then young women, also dancing at the festival, unabashed in their displays of physical beauty (as were the men, to be fair, filmed dancing at the festival). Never a woman’s voice, just the implication that women’s creativity is limited to dance.
While I was too frustrated (and suffering a headache from the soundtrack) to stay for the discussion with the film-makers afterward, a friend who did stay reported that the directors, both women, said that they felt, as directors, that their voices were represented in the film. To me, that attitude feels like affirmation of the male bias in society, where even women find men the only appropriate subject, and their own voices stay in the background, hidden behind the facade of masculine creativity.
I’d love to believe that we’re post-sexism enough that we can regard males’ voices as representative of human experience. However, I felt so little connection with the experience of the men in the film that I commented to my spouse afterward that it seemed to me the experience of creativity differed at some fundamental levels between men and women. He asked me how, and I struggled to find words to wrap around a gut feeling, but the first thing that came out was that they all had an assumption about their art that I’ve never felt, which boils to down to a self-assurance: the idea that of course I will pursue my art. Even though they expressed moments of profound doubt about the process itself, none of them questioned their fundamental right to spend their lives creating art.
I’m not sexist enough to think that this double-handful of men represents all men’s experience either, but recently I’ve encountered this deserving attitude among other male artists, and when I think about the female artists I know, I perceive a depth of questioning not present in the men. In certain fields, entitlement isn’t even well-hidden, such as publishing. (For one example of a discussion of this problem see this New York Times article on how literary books by women are viewed compared to those by male authors, or this, regarding the Caldecott award.)
The more I thought about it, though, the more I had the feeling that another fundamental difference between my experience and the creators in the film is a sense of sacred in the pursuit of art. The only time a discussion between artists in the film got close to that idea, it was squashed under the materialist point of view. Michael Meade, a storyteller and mythologist, provided a refreshing counterpoint, with his discussion of reaching down into the deepest levels of awareness, and Amit Goswami, a quantum physicist, talked of archetypes, but the artists themselves shied away from the sacred in their work. Perhaps that’s why their art didn’t move me in any way.
So if it’s sacred, why don’t I feel the fundamental right to assume that the world should experience my work? As a woman in my fifties, I was raised in a world where women’s voices didn’t matter as much in public arenas. Most of the famous women I learned about were movie stars, not the movers and shakers of political and professional life. The teachers in the elementary schools I attended were almost exclusively women, with more and more male teachers as I grew up, associating women with childhood–something less than the full adulthood represented by men. (This pattern hasn’t changed much, as my daughters experienced the same trend.) Mothers primarily stayed at home, channeling their creative energies into parenting and housework. Abandoning either for a full day of painting or composing music or professional work was a rare choice.
My generation was in the forefront of figuring out how to balance the various callings and rising expectations of changing gender roles. I’ve had the privilege of being a stay-at-home mom, with a spouse supportive of my creative efforts. I’ve come to understand that parenting is the most demanding job there is, in terms of creativity, but it was never the only channel that wanted filling. My problem isn’t doubt about any particular project’s artistic demands, which was the focus of the artists in the film, though I certainly have faced those doubts. My problem is doubt at a deeper level–is it right for me to shift the channel to more introverted, selfish pursuits, away from the demands of motherhood and housework? Even as my children have grown and the demands of motherhood have lessened, I still question, every day, whether the art I’m embarking on is the right way for me to be spending my time. Wouldn’t it be better to serve the community in some way, or get a job, finally? Do something “useful” with my life?
I’m well aware that this neurotic questioning isn’t universal to women, or even women in their fifties, but when the curricula in our schools still include the canons of great male artists, great male writers, and great male musicians, with generally only passing reference to some token women, our daughters are still being taught, at a fundamental level, that their art doesn’t matter as much. When modern films like I Live for Art reinforce that message, it’s clear that we still have a very long way to go.