Writer Micaela Brinsley contends with artists, their history, and exploring art through their own gaze.
Toni Morrison chose to write some of the greatest novels in history after editing the work of others for many years. Susan Sontag too, left a marriage and an earlier sexuality behind in order to live through a more truthful voice. Alice Neel refused to let anything stop her from painting, painting, painting … and there are so many others: Francesca Woodman, Natalia Ginzburg, Kara Walker, Hildegard of Bingen, Sarah Bernhardt, Frida Kahlo … The list could extend forever—the list of those who chose to turn away from the path presented to them at birth and forever intertwine the rest of it with making art.
Choosing a New Path
What might that moment have felt like, the moment each started to consider it a possibility? Could someone have anticipated it—a calling? To be able to look somewhere different than where everyone else seemed to be going. To see another view when she opened her eyes in the morning.
To the left of her at a dining table a parent, and to the other side a different sort of obligation—how strange it feels, to reject it. How twizzled. How much further into a room of a different texture can she go? Once the key has moved through its lock, what was there shuffles out if it doesn’t belong with her anymore. Now, free in the air as if before window panes were invented and barriers erected between her and outside and the taste of it—its possibility.
Accessing it is so difficult, for too many. Time’s branded as the enemy of creativity when productivity’s its real villain, coupled with the pressure of the inheritance of caregiving—not that there aren’t pleasures there too.
But how many disappointed looks do artists have to dispel? How many friends to turn down for dinner, how many mothers to leave behind to do the washing sometimes, how many looks of scorn when they admit that they too, want to join this lucky group; try their hand at what’s been branded a luxury? A luxury not because it’s measurable in material wealth but because so many people are fighting to survive without an accompanying village to help them along the way and the choice of this life, it rejects simple continuity.
The Intertwining of Sacrifice and Creativity
It’s not easy to choose to be an artist. Nothing is guaranteed—not acclaim, not money, nor any sort of recognition for the time or effort and perhaps scariest of all … the possibility that no one in the world will ever understand what was intended by what’s been made. What the work meant to say and the ways it tried to unspin the rules of the world its artist was born into—in order to weave the threads back into a collage of what it feels like, for them, to be alive in the time when they were, when they are.
I’ve been sustained, both emotionally and psychologically, by the work of artists, many of them women. Almost all from some background considered historically underrepresented in the arts. Not out of sympathy or pity or an outsized interest in being ‘different’ than people who like Monet—I like Monet—but because, when looking or listening or reading or watching their work, I eat the effort. I feel the force. I taste the bitterness they must have had to relinquish in order to survive, the bitterness that so many others have had it so much easier.
I hear all of the pages ripped up in their past that with the sounds of satisfaction make up their artistic symphony and that is why artists who’ve been historically underrepresented must be given as much space and attention as possible, to share their work with us, to teach us, to nourish us. Not because they’re this century’s alternative to Max Ernst. Not because they’re a model who secretly was a photographer too, but the critics claim it was really just a ‘hobby.’ Not because they were imitators of Brecht or Picasso or Hemingway, and they certainly weren’t students or lovers or wives just in order to get closer to the knowledge of how to sustain it, the bravery to choose to express their own perspective. But instead, maybe because they knew all along that for most of history, those roles have been the only entryways to the museums, the publishing houses, the agencies, the record companies.
No longer. Women are not artists in order to provide ‘a woman’s perspective.’ Trans artists are not writing poems in order purely to correct the contemporary political agenda—they’ve existed since history began to be written on tablets centuries ago. Artists who grew up in poverty aren’t making work only in order to traumatize or shame others into feeling guilt—or if they are, that’s their prerogative, their personal mission. No single person is a monolith. For any artist, to be written about as if their identity’s their only entrypoint toward connecting with their work is an insult.
Conceiving of Art as Friendship
But I’m going to be writing about some of them for A Women’s Thing so indulge me momentarily, in sharing mine. I was born in 1997. Raised mostly in Tokyo, Japan. My parents are white Americans. Many members of my family are Jewish, many of us are also neurodivergent. I’m lucky to be someone who’s never been hungry except when I forced myself to be for a number of years as a teenager, something too many other girls do too. I’m also, for the most part, a lesbian. None of this matters unless it helps make some connection between my interests and what I’ll be doing here. But I’ve been told by enough people that many like biographies as a way to understand particular truths and so maybe a detail I listed a few sentences ago—it may reveal a reason for my interest in an artist and their work that I’ll be exploring here. An inclination to sit for some time with their particular creative voice. Or maybe not.
I’m not an expert in any of this. I did not study art history, I don’t have a PhD—instead, I studied performance and its influences on everyday life. Though art has, throughout my life, been my dearest friend. As a result, I write about art as a friend would for another—with curiosity about its interests, passion for spending as much time with it as possible when I can, and an openness to being disproved of my impressions and assumptions about it. I hope, in every piece I write, that something will be wrong. But maybe something will be right too, occasionally. Hopefully.
I always like to return to the image of someone looking out of a window. Depending on the hour of the day, windows frame the outside, or the inside of a space, into a picture. A painting. A photograph. A stage. A mirror. A distortion, because of the breath cast onto it that’s been carved through, by a finger on the other side of a thunderstorm.
What are artists looking for, when they gaze through a window?
When observing what they made, how can we learn about all the ways that they’ve looked?