Friday, April 16, 2010

The short life of art in the United States

Michele Barrett, Women's Oppression Today: Problems in Marxist Feminist Analysis:

It is immediately clear that the conditions under which men and women produce literature are materially different.  This important question has been curiously neglected by recent feminist work, and the most systematic exploration of this issue is still, fifty years after its publication, Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own.  Naive as this essay undoubtedly is in some respects, it nonetheless provides us with a very useful starting point.   Woolf bases her arguments in this book and in related essays on materialist propositions.  Writing, she argues, is not "spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures": it is based on material things (health, money, the houses we live in).  These material conditions must govern the writer's "angle of vision," his or her perception of society.  They must influence the art-form chosen, the genre chosen with the form, the style, the tone, the implied reader, the representation of character.

Woolf argues that a crucial difference between men and women has lain historically in the restricted access of the latter to the means of literary production.  Their education was frequently sacrificed to that of their brothers; they lacked access to publishers and the distribution of their work; they could not earn a living by writing as men did, since (before the Married Women's Property Acts [GB]) they could not even retain their earnings if they were married.  Relative poverty and lack of access to an artistic training meant that the bourgeois woman encountered specific constraints on her creative work: Woolf suggests that one reason why women have been so prolific in literary production and almost absent from forms such as musical composition and visual art is that the latter requires greater financial resources than "the scratching of a pen" ("For ten and sixpence one can buy enough paper to write all the plays of Shakespeare...").  Less plausibly and more controversially, she argues that even the choice of literary form was affected by women's social position: they opted for the new form of the novel rather than for poetry or drama, since it required less concentration and was therefore more compatible with the inevitable interruptions of household obligations.

Consider the pressure an artist feels as she matures to abandon her art in favor of more practical pursuits. Consumerism makes consumption easy, and production not worth its while unless it generates income. This is why people are forever looking for that "angle" by which an artist can transform the "use value" of her work into an "exchange value" -- otherwise she is discouraged from pursuing her talent at all!

If she cannot sell her work, then her first obligation must be to her employer (formerly, her husband), to develop the sorts of creative abilities that he wants: making it to work on time; anticipating his needs in advance; completing "team" goals set by him; and, what must surely be the greatest creative responsibility ever bestowed upon our working girl by respectable hands, the freedom to "think outside the box" -- to innovate for his benefit.

Because the normal obligation to one's family is mediated through employment, a sense of obligation to one's self and one's interests, particularly for women, is cast as a kind of selfishness, a failure to meet one's "responsibilities," which in her dependency on employment is never anything less than a duty to her boss.

In the United States, the boss spells the death of art and creation for so many; and you might even hear people say they have no regrets. But I suspect you will hear it said with less confidence when it is said by a woman.

What The Heart is a Lonely Hunter told of her, it says about us all.

1 comment:

Ethan said...

Wonderful post. Thank you especially for what must surely be the greatest creative responsibility ever bestowed upon our working girl by respectable hands, the freedom to "think outside the box" -- to innovate for his benefit. It's amazing what doesn't occur to me until someone else says it.