August 08, 2011


I had seen Andrew Neel's documentary about his grandmother, Alice Neel, so I knew a bit of the arc of Phoebe Hoban's Alice Neel biography already, but even so it didn't make it any easier to take. Neel's long road to popular success, her triumphant acceptance into the art world in the mid-seventies is a wonderful story--inspiring, and untypical. For every Alice--and there was only one--but for every bigger female art world known name, there were still many, many than languished, but Neel's talent was singular and she painted for fifty years with hardly anyone noticing and giving a shit.

Then there is Neel as mother. Neel who stayed with a man for 16 years that beat her, and worse, tortured and threatened her young son that was not his. Her children loved her, love her, miss her. It is hard to reconcile, as a mother, that she often subverted her role as a mother, that her art always came first. You think, for a slim second, there is something brave in that--it is manly, for vision to come before duty. It defies "motherhood". It uncomfortable to read, to consider--the neglect and willfulness, staying with someone who hurts your kid because he supports your art, and/or because you are sick and twisted up in all manner of dysfunction. Or losing her first two children, her daughters, one, perhaps, in part because she was too poor to afford heat--the other shipped off, relieving her, freeing her to dedicate herself again to painting. But then, as it is now, you are presumed to be giving up yourself and your life--however it existed--for your babes. And she didn't. At all. She is perhaps no different then Keith Richards dragging his little son on tour for years to live off room service ice cream and wake him up when he nodded off with a cigarette; loving your kiddo--but your artful pursuit always a given. How bad of a parent does that make you?

I thought of art-making as instinct until I had William, and now, I think of it, like everything else, as a choice. It would be easier, much easier, to be only a mom--not to write, not to fill his every nap and night time with work or trying to keep up on music or reading or ideas. I think when you become a parent, everything outside of that relationship shifts to being a choice, even the things that seemed immutable, automatic and absolute before--those are secondary, or at even further down the list. Your old hours seem a luxury, you cram where you can--your inner artiste has been deputized to other duties.

To have both--"a life", or a job, or a modicum of creative fulfillment--and a family is to "have it all" though, right? Really, just to feel human and a continuing participant on Earth--BOTH seems the minimum. That choice of making art is choosing to live, choosing to continue your existence--beyond being a vessel, a minder, a milkmaid and a parent. But as moms, we are supposed to begin and end there, in that purpose. Reading about Neel, haphazardly balancing art and motherhood, demanding to live to fulfill her singular purpose all else (kids, lovers, friends) be damned--I feel empathy and something like contempt. I feel angry for those kids, now old men, that suffered so the world could have their mom's brilliant, important work.

Posted by jessica hopper at August 8, 2011 09:56 PM | TrackBack