Friday, July 13, 2007

How to rescue a reputation

I had dinner last night with a Boston musician who brought to my attention the strange case of French composer Germaine Tailleferre, who was a member of the French circle of composers known as Les Six. Somewhat unlike Milhaud or Poulenc, who seem to have some lasting visibility, Tailleferre has never even entered my consciousness, one of the most accomplished female composers practically ever. The fact is, I could probably name all the female composers I could think of on one hand-- which is not to say that many incredible composers do not exist, just that I haven't been informed of them or successfully sought them out, and not for lack of trying. But beyond say, Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelsohn, Ruth Crawford Seeger and Hildegard von Bingen my well runs near dry. I can think of the recent film composer Rachel Portman, or I don't know, Joanna Newsom? and I start to struggle. Wow. I know I shouldn't be surprised, but I am surprised.

I tried to do the same thing with visual artists recently and found that, excluding the last three-quarters of a century in which the contributions of artists like Frida Kahlo, Agnes Martin, Eva Hesse, Georgia O'Keefe, Louise Bourgeois (who I'm not as personally fond of), and abstract expressionst painters (Frankenthaler etc.) it's equally hard. It makes a discovery like Gego's artwork at the Drawing Center in NYC right now especially exciting for me because the depth of my awareness seems suddenly so depressingly minimal. And if I try to start before, say, 1920 it gets almost blindingly murky. A friend of my mother's responded with the British artist Jessie Marion King, who is certainly another excellent example of yet again a brilliant female artist whom I had not been aware of. So maybe the story if my own failure here, but I wonder how pervasive this problem is.

This very post seems to resort to a terrible tokenism, as if reducing these artists to their femaleness in a way that would be as epistemology un-useful for men. It becomes a shorthand for "outsider" in a way I'm not sure to be helpful. The story may be one of lack of access to resources; perhaps this is why there are plenty of well-known women writers going back a few centuries (let's see, from the top of my head - Frances Burney, Helen Hunt Jackson, George Eliot, Louisa May Alcott, Baroness Orczy, Lafayette, the Brontes, Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, etc.). Perhaps here there has been a stronger and more concerted job to refocus attention? Or is it easier for a woman to be accepted for her writing? I would postulate the need for prohibitive insidery art school or music school educations perhaps except then I would expect more well-known visionary 'outsider' artists like Grandma Moses or Charles Ives, which I'm not totally aware of. Certainly with the case of music so much depends on navigating the limited outlets for performance-- Tailleferre in fact even composed for Diaghilev, so she clearly was able to achieve enormously on this front, though might she be the token-ish exception?

How do you even rescue a reputation -- and do you want to? One of the great pleasures in life must be discovery, and then sharing. It's hard to share discoveries of the obvious; that's why they call it obvious. But then again, no one has any problem still taking pleasure from the good old pleasures.

So I guess the final question is what I want to have happen through increased visibility for women artists of the past, or what I want to happen to me. I don't much think that there is a women's way of seeing the world I want access to (eww) and even those French feminist ideas about "women's" writing I think have offered tools and new approaches that have become wonderfully available to everyone, myself included. (Feel free to accuse me here of being part of a force of gentrification; capitalism has its ways of using well-meaning creative people to clearcut the danger zones, then raise the rents...) Even some idea of eventual fairness reeks of something like retroactive religious conversions or victor's justice. Just a richer canon of choices? One life to live. One life... But then there's the idealist who lifts up a head (his or her, hmm) and says at varying volumes:

Here are some metaphors... Whack away.

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