Are Women Afraid to Embrace Their Inner Artist?
Even though this article is five years old, it was recently posted on LongReads and it really spoke to me. Jenny Holzer is a conceptual artist who was part of the New York downtown art scene in the 1970s and 80s that produced artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Holzer said she grew up drawing and painting and attended several colleges before landing at the Rhode Island School of Design and enrolling in their painting program, but never really fully embraced the idea that she was an artist until much, much later.
“The idea of being an artist worried me for a long time. A lot of my family helped people for a living. One set of grandparents included a doctor and a nurse, and the other set a capitalist and a schoolteacher. I was uncertain that art’s wonderful lack of utility could ‘do good’ in the same way. I enjoyed Rhode Island, but I was nearly kicked out for painting my studio – windows, walls, ceiling, door and floor – in a washy blue. This blue was hardly radical but it was too odd for what was then a relatively conservative painting department,” Holzer said.
Several of the women I’ve been profiling in my 52 Weeks of Directors posts have made similar comments. Lynn Shelton didn’t start directing until 40, Ava DuVernay had a successful career as a publicist before deciding to make the leap, Mimi Leder spent ten years working as a script supervisor before getting her first chance at directing, and even Kathryn Bigelow has said of her first films that they weren’t really films, but more of art pieces.
Are women afraid to embrace their inner artist? Are we raised to think we have to be practical first rather than chasing our dreams? Why do we tiptoe around the idea for so long and not fully embrace the labels of artist or director or writer?
Obviously this isn’t true for ALL women, but it does seem like it’s something I’ve heard a lot when women are discussing their careers in the arts. Maybe it seems a frequent occurrence to me because I’m in the same boat. I’ve floated around in a couple different career paths while always trying to find something to fulfill my creative side. Maybe I need to fully embrace that creative side, maybe that’s what I’m really meant to do.
On the other hand, I find it incredibly encouraging, because that means we can do whatever we want at whatever age we want! And still have plenty of time to build a career and be “successful”.
While at RISD, Holzer was accepted into the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program–the same program Kathryn Bigelow was a part of. Holzer goes on to describe how she researched and cultivated her idea to make art with text, but says, “At that time, I had no interest in showing in a gallery space. I still wasn’t sure I was an artist, or that I could be or deserved to be – I thought of my practice more like standing on a soapbox, but without actually being there. The anonymity was critical. I wanted people to consider the ideas but not give more than passing thought to who produced them. Sometime during that period, my work became noticed, through the kindness of Dan Graham who saw my posters and mentioned them to the curator Kasper König, and I began to have an official art career.”
Holzer describes her success as not an upwards trajectory, but one with dips. In the late 80s, she showed at DIA in New York, the Guggenheim, and then represented the U.S. at the Venice Biennale in 1990, the first female artist to do so.
“During that time, I also had a baby. Those three shows all took place within a few years, and that was an insane time. I worked on DIA when I was pregnant, had a young child for the Guggenheim, and my daughter celebrated her second birthday at the Venice Biennale. I don’t recommend that. I see why guys don’t do it. Although it was a great period for learning-realizing, art is hard (and it should be). The rest of my life was desperately difficult at moments.
It’s tough on relationships when you’re obsessed by art, and to be honest, I think it’s harder for women than for men. Successful male artists appear to attract adoring people while successful female artists tend to make partners and acquaintances angry, and babies (properly) confused. What is considered a good thing in a man is potentially troublesome in a woman but I was determined not to crumble, tempting as it was. It’s almost impossible to balance one’s personal relationships and mothering with the art imperative. I still apologize to my daughter with some regularity,” Holzer said.
This really isn’t anything new. We know the standards for women are different in film and art is perhaps an even harder world for women. (If you think about the art museums you’ve been to, how many works by women do you think you’ve seen? Can you even name ten artists who are women?)
I’m not presenting a solution to any of this, but wanted to raise these thoughts and questions. Maybe reading these women’s accounts will help others fully embrace their own inner artist.