Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Reconciling the Creative Mind and the Maternal Heart

Yesterday, Radio National’s Book Show aired a particularly warm and insightful take on The Divided Heart by feminist historian Clare Wright (downloadable here).

She said:
As a mother, writer and feminist, I pored through The Divided Heart with the zeal of a seeker—a seeker of truths, a lost soul, a fellow traveller. It’s the blind emotion contained in the book that runs so defiantly, so refreshingly, against the current grain of arguments and, dare I say it, motherhood statements about work–life balance, working families and diversity of choice in the marketplace. Rachel Power has achieved something precious and unique…

In seeking to resolve the irresolvable and confounding contradictions of motherhood, Rachel Power has asked some pretty darned impertinent questions. By doing so, she’s started a public conversation that will surpass the discrete kitchen table confidential and inspire artful solutions to a timeless predicament.

I was pretty humbled by this, to say the least, as Clare is someone I greatly admire—you might know her from the ABC quiz show The Einstein Factor or for her fantastic book Beyond the Ladies Lounge: Australia’s Female Publicans (Melbourne University Publishing, 2003). Apart from her heartfelt personal response, she made a couple of important points that have not been made elsewhere.

I agree with her argument that The Divided Heart is a snapshot of class as much as gender realities (something Rachel Cunnean also touched on in her write-up). As Clare notes, money can make all the difference in enabling a parent to justify time away from children (and paying for childcare) to pursue a vocation that usually attracts an unreliable income at best—even for many with high profiles in their field.

First up, Clare mentioned American feminist and mother of six Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s lovely statement about being “anchored here, surrounded by small craft, which I am struggling to tug up life’s stream”. How much has really changed for women’s internal experience of combining mothering and a vocation over the centuries? It seems guilt and ambivalence remain almost universal characteristics in the woman artist’s experience of reconciling their twin passions.

I have been criticised by one reviewer for not being analytical, tough, rigorous—or indeed positive—enough in tackling the subject of art and motherhood. I can understand that this might be what some readers are looking for. But I wasn’t interested in entering other women’s houses with my investigative or scholarly hat on, summing up their choices and making judgements or creating theories; nor did I really have the distance from the subject to do so, still so mired in the very experience that I was writing about.

Nor did I want to pitch a utopian vision of how things should or could be. Instead, I was seeking the truth of women artists' experiences—and I think it’s that raw honesty that most readers have responded to, often with gratitude for the solace it has provided. Motherhood is, above all, an intense experience, whatever the context—and I think this has fascinating implications for an artist and her work.

Clare said she has found books on contemporary motherhood generally fall into two categories: “how-to manuals, aimed at self-improvement, or issues-based monographs, pitched in the national interest. The Divided Heart defies this trend—it contains not a whiff of polemic nor an ounce of advice—and unlike most motherhood books, it’s written from the frontline.”

She described the artists’ testimonies in the book as “honest, tender, intelligent, reflective”. When read together, she said, they “provide a fascinating, almost voyeuristic, window into the inner working of both the creative mind and the maternal heart, and the indivisible relationship between the two”.

The other criticism I’ve copped (in the current issue of Arena Magazine) is that in discussing motherhood in relation to an artist’s identity I risk binding her to the fact of her motherhood only. I’d be interested in what others think of this argument. Certainly some of the women in The Divided Heart are struggling to navigate a path between celebrating their womanhood (and motherhood) and yet not be defined by this in the public mind. But whose fault is this--individual women or society's limiting gaze? I find it pretty crude and even dangerous to suggest that we should avoid talking about the fullness of our experiences as women lest we undermine our broader cause. It seems akin to suggesting that we can’t question aspects of feminism without undercutting feminism as a whole. Should we limit ourselves to neutral territory, rather than talking about what differentiates us, in order to create an illusion of equality?

At the end of the day, The Divided Heart isn’t only about ambivalence—it is also about how the very intimate and profound experience of mothering impacts on an artist’s work and identity—a subject I find endlessly fascinating, and not at all limiting when dealt with seriously and not superficially. And it’s always important to have these debates…

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Not only rock 'n' roll--Goran Bregovic at MIAF

I saw the most extraordinary gig as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival last week. In fact, it was so extraordinary I went back and saw it again—firstly at the Arts Centre and then a somewhat wilder version at Becks Bar. Anyone else who was there will already know who I’m talking about. It was Serbian composer and musician Goran Bregovic—surely one of Festival Director Kristy Edmunds’ greatest coups (and she’s had a few!). I have truly never been to anything like it. Even in the usually tame Hamer Hall, the atmosphere was electric and the audience was going nuts—dancing in the aisles and yelling for more… It is a cliché, I know, but his is the kind of music that plants a seed of pure joy.

What I previously knew of Bregovic’s music was through his soundtracks for films like Black Cat White Cat, Time of the Gypsies, Underground and Queen Margot. (My friend Pia was told by the leader of her Bulgarian choir that she must go and see this man at the Festival—he is the real deal.) He came with his Orchestra for Weddings and Funerals—a masterful combination of two superb Bulgarian women singers, percussionist and singer Alen Ademovic (also divine in all sorts of ways I won't go into here), a Serbian male choir and a gypsy string orchestra, with Bregovic’s own 70s rock sensibility. Not great footage but you can check them out here.

Bregovic became a teen idol in his home country with his first rock band, White Button. He says: "In those times, rock had a capital role in our lives. It was the only way we could make our voice heard, and publicly express our discontent without risking jail (or just about)...". A philosophy and sociology student, he was apparently set to become a teacher of Marxist thought had the gigantic success of his first record not taken him on this far more heady path. Now he is mixing up traditional Yugoslavian folk with electric grooves to create something truly exhilarating.

At Becks Bar, the Balkan Community was out in force (were there any Eastern European Melburnians at home that night?!), dancing on the tables in a kind of fevered celebration of everything that music stirs up for a culture that has suffered so much. It was like being at some rowdy, hot-blooded, exotic party where everything means so much more than could ever be said--or that any outsider could imagine. I have never before experienced anything like it. Mind-blowing.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Carpe Diem

I have been a little distracted from this blog of late--and that is because I have been trying to fit in a bit of reading around a somewhat hectic schedule. Most recently I have completed Melbourne Uni philosopher Damon Young's Distraction: A Guide to Being Free. I have always felt that living in the relative luxury of the West, freedom has a habit of becoming its own burden. Any life has its limitations, but with most of our basic needs taken care of, we are at liberty to make choices about what we do with the rest of our time--and how easy it is to squander that time on meaningless distractions (which, in my experience, can all too easily become addictions)! There are so many convenient ways of avoiding the central question of Being.

On the all too rare occasions that my partner and I go to a movie nowadays, we seem inevitably to come up against the same dilemma: do we go the Euro art flick or the latest action blockbuster (we're both a tad partial to both). Babysitter in place, a couple of hours to ourselves, the question becomes ridiculously loaded. All too often we tell ourselves: "Ah, we're exhausted, we need a bit of fun, a bit of light relief, let's go the mindless crap." Very occasionally this was the right choice; but more often than not we travel home full of guilt that we squandered our precious time on something so utterly meaningless, even debased, when we might have seen something that actually left us with something--that genuinely moved us or gave us something intriguing to think about. There are certain films that I can say genuinely changed my life--and they were not American schlock (though for some they might be--and this might be a mindful choice).

In his witty, playful and down-to-earth book, Damon encourages readers to live consciously--to question what actually adds meaning to our lives and what merely dissipates our energies. I found there to be so many interesting parallels with The Divided Heart in this book (though in this case those featured are all men). As a parent, life can be so dominated by multi-tasking that our minds can develop a habit of being constantly fractured, in a million different places at once. Art requires a coralling of the self, and if I learned anything from the artists in The Divided Heart it was the importance of carving out that space, however small, where you resist the crowding out of the mind by that revolving 'to do' list and let imagination reign. To give yourself permission to focus on this one thing that you need to do--more than you need to put that next load of washing on.

Damon convincingly argues that it is all too easy to let technological rationality--the "logic of pure availability"--dictate the rhythm of our days, making us blind to our own drives and desires. But it is not a Romantic rejection of technology, or a life of impulsive hedonism that Damon is advocating. Rather he promotes what Seneca called "a politics of character". A life spent lurching towards a better version of ourselves, one that aims to match our values, is the key to freedom and a life lived generously and with attention to what really matters.

I first became aware of Damon's writings after reading his funny and insightful article, Driven by Distraction in The Age. It offers a wonderful take on the contribution children can make to our creative lives, in part because of the discipline and decisiveness a lack of time enforces but also because they are a constant reminder of what's truly valuable in life. In many ways, I think Distraction could be read as an interesting companion piece to The Divided Heart (if Damon doesn't mind me saying so--don't mean to give myself airs!!). He went on to write a very warm review of The Divided Heart in The Big Issue and has, in this era of instant feedback, gone and written a bit of a spiel on nepotism on his blog--check it out. He signed my copy of Distraction: "In writerly, parently fellowships"--and ain't that a great thing. Something we could all do with more of!

Distraction surveys the lives of various thinkers and artists, each providing food for thought on ways of approaching a life lived well. This is no pithy self-help book, but an inspiring guide to seizing the day. Seneca's rhetorical statement that life is the gift of the gods, but "living well is the gift of philosophy" is a great summation of what this book offers--a great gift from a writer who makes complex philosophical ideas relevant to our everyday lives. I highly recommend you get your hands on a copy.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Joanna Murray-Smith's 'Ninety'

I saw the MTC production of Joanna Murray-Smith's play Ninety last night. I don't know if it's touring to other states, but if it is I highly recommend you hire a babysitter.

The play has left quite an impression on me. I can't find a way to respond to it with any objective analysis, as my reaction to Joanna's work is always to be confronted with all it brings up in me about my own life. It is a work that raises so many questions about the masks and layers we operate with, the way we choose to live, the people we hide in, those we are truly real with, the layers we do or don't expose, how ugly we allow ourselves to be, what binds us and what sets us free.

Plot-wise, the title of the play refers to the number of minutes William grants to ex-wife Isobel to convince him they should still be together. At the outset, you really can't imagine how these two people are going to find their way back to each other. For two characters who are in many ways quite unlikeable to ultimately move us so much requires quite an arc--something Joanna manages with her usual deftness. I have rarely been in audience so riveted--and with so many men weeping!

This season has sold out I believe (not surprisingly), but look out for future productions, or the paperback edition I think will be available shortly.