Mother and Child Divided

Jennifer Thatcher on women in the arts

Crib Notes event at Richard Tuttle’s Whitechapel Gallery exhibition in 2014

Crib Notes event at Richard Tuttle’s Whitechapel Gallery exhibition in 2014

One of the few good things to come out of the closely fought election campaign was that all the main parties started offering extra childcare. After all, parents and pensioners can’t afford to be disillusioned by politics and are thus cynically targeted by the parties. One by one the manifestos promised an increase in the number of hours of free childcare for three- and four-year-olds as if playing a virtual gambling game, with David Cameron offering 30 hours a week (double the current allowance) the day after Ed Milliband had proposed 25 hours. Following the Queen’s Speech, in which reinstated prime minister Cameron confirmed his intention to propose the new childcare bill, the BBC reported that: ‘Mr Cameron had said this was an improvement on the “shocking” situation the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition inherited in 2010, “where couples were spending as much on childcare as one of them took home in earnings”.’ Given that the Conservatives have been in Parliament (albeit as part of a coalition) since 2010, and they will only fully implement the increase in hours in 2017, that’s seven years they have presided over this ‘shocking situation’.

It is exactly two years since I wrote an article about the issue of women in the arts for this magazine (‘50/50’, AM367). Since then, I feel that the situation has worsened in many ways. Women artists are certainly getting important solo exhibitions (Tate Modern’s current Agnes Martin and Sonia Delaunay retrospectives), winning significant prizes (Laure Prouvost won the Turner Prize in 2013, Hito Steyerl the inaugural EYE Prize and Adrian Piper this year’s Venice Biennale Golden Lion for best artist) and their work is being added to museum collections, yet they are a long way from being accorded the same status as their male counterparts. As I write, only 13 of the top 100 ranked artists in the global art world, according to ArtFacts, are women, with only one woman – Cindy Sherman, at number seven – making the top ten.

The situation for women today is most acute on the financial front, as wages have failed to keep up with the rise in house prices and rent, childcare, food, bills and travel. According to the 2013 Labour Force Survey published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the number of self-employed women is rising rapidly (80% of the new self-employed during the recession years of 2008-11), while average self-employed income has fallen by 22% since 2008/09. The large overall rise in self-employment is, according to the ONS, ‘predominantly down to fewer people leaving self-employment than in the past’, that is to say, people may not actively be choosing self-employment but are not able to find the secure jobs they wish for.

What is given to women on the one hand – a certain amount of free childcare – is taken away with the other: the closure of Sure Start centres (in the first two years of the coalition government, 401 were either closed outright or merged with other centres, or their services were heavily reduced) and with them access to childcare, free activities and advice, and a steady increase in childcare costs, in part passed down to parents because of inadequate government financing of the ‘free’ hours. According to this year’s annual charity State of the World’s Mothers report, the UK has slipped from being in the top ten of best places to be a mother in the world down to 24th (a slight improvement on last year’s 26th). Child mortality is higher than it should be and twice as high as in Luxembourg or Iceland.

The campaign for fairer pay in the arts continues but seems to have gained little in the way of tangible results. In the US, WAGE (Working Artists and the Greater Economy – ‘Wage Rage’ AM385) has certified only ten organisations since October 2014 as paying artists and freelance arts practitioners fairly. This is depressing, given how low they have set the bar – $1,000 to an artist for a solo exhibition or $600 for a solo project. This is hardly a living wage. You can offer your support by adding your name to the group’s online ‘coalition’: www.wageforwork.com.

In the UK, the Precarious Workers Brigade has been campaigning for living wages for gallery cleaners at the Barbican, and on issues around migrant workers, particularly unfair deportations and exploited labour in the Gulf. Inspired by WAGE, in May 2014 a-n magazine launched its Paying Artists Campaign, specifically campaigning for artists to receive fees for exhibiting work in publicly funded galleries. This followed its own Paying Artists Survey in 2013 of over a thousand artists, of which 71% of those who had exhibited in a publicly funded space in the previous three years had not received a fee and almost 60% had not had their expenses reimbursed; when they did receive a fee, it was most likely under £200.

If ACE seemed fairly passive on the subject of pay and gender imbalance when I last wrote on the subject, the new National Portfolio 2015-18 applications guidance demonstrates that it has been responding more directly to labour concerns in the art world and specific lobbying by such organisations as a-n, as well as upholding its Equality Duty 2011 as set out in the 2010 Equalities Act. The guidance includes expectations of its NPOs, with sections on diversity, fair pay and internships. For example, the applicant’s ‘obligation to promote organisational equality is complemented by a commitment to diversity in their work’. In other words, equality must be applied to the internal structure of NPOs, and not just to the work they present to the outside world. Though it does not specify the rates, ACE nonetheless requests that fees are paid to artists in accordance with those suggested by unions (Artnotes p17), and that they ‘will not support applications from organisations that use artists’ time donated as in-kind support’. Quotas remain a taboo subject, but the Equalities Act specifically encourages positive action (not positive discrimination, which is illegal), taking care to ensure that it is only legal to give a job to a man over a woman, say, when both can be judged to be of ‘equal merit’ – although how this is evaluated is anyone’s guess. On the subject of boards, I revisited the list of organisations that I mentioned as particularly poor or progressive in my 2013 article, and found that while some have increased their representation (notably Ikon, which previously had no women and now has three – albeit from a total of ten), many boards have reduced female representation (such as the De La Warr Pavilion, which now has two women out of nine, down from four out of ten).

At this stage, then, it is difficult to tell if any of this guidance is having a positive effect for women, and indeed it covers only publicly funded arts organisations. Furthermore, the arts workforce is often not unionised, and I have never seen this encouraged by organisations – quite the contrary. Indeed, as a freelance writer and lecturer, I am constantly asked to do things for free, or for a fee that does not – or only just – covers my costs. Freelance rates for teaching and writing have stagnated, and it continues to be the norm for freelancers to have to chase invoices. When a curator asked me recently to write a text for free last month, I responded that to agree would be to set a bad precedent. He conceded that he himself works according to the same principle. Then why ask? Increasingly, artists are finding that they have to pay administration costs to even apply to artist residencies, and if they are accepted (from a huge pool of desperate, ‘emerging’ artists), they are rarely fully subsidised. How are artists and other creative practitioners expected to support themselves, let alone a family? And if residencies have become an important way for artists to network and travel, they almost never mention the possibility that one might not be on one’s own. Artist friends with children who have taken up such opportunities have therefore often not mentioned the fact until they are accepted, when they hope to negotiate.

The art world continues to ignore the issue of crèches – with the only notable exception being the Women of the World Festival at the Southbank Centre. As part of the Folkestone Triennial in 2014, we organised a crèche for children between three months and five years, so that parents could tour the artworks alone (there was also a buggy walking tour). It was not difficult to organise a mobile crèche (there was a local company) and the event was much appreciated by the parents. This is in contrast to the resources wasted to provide workshops for children that the parents must also attend rather than being offered the chance to see the exhibition and/or collection while the kids are being entertained and supervised.

The difficulty, then, of making a living as a creative practitioner is leading many, I would argue, to undertake PhDs – both as a means of financial support for those who get grants and also as a means to ensure university teaching work, which is becoming increasingly difficult to find without a doctorate (‘Rebel Without a Course’ AM345). And many of the most committed critics of the exploitation of women and parents can now be found in academia. Indeed, I was astonished at the high number (115) of delegates – almost exclusively women – attending the ‘Motherhood and Creative Practice’ conference at London South Bank University, 1 and 2 June this year. Even the organisers were surprised, having expected to run a seminar for 30-40 people and instead receiving 110 abstracts in response to their call for papers. As a number of delegates commented, there was a feeling of solidarity and power in coming together in such numbers to discuss the issue of maternity, a situation that would not have happened five years ago.

Although there were artist presentations included within the programme, the fact that presenters were not paid for their contributions and indeed had to pay for their own tickets to attend heavily skewed the delegate list towards PhD candidates and tenured academic staff – artists included. This might have explained why the material conditions of women in the arts and parenthood more generally (labour conditions and pay, childcare, equal career opportunities) were less significant than theoretical positions, such as the definition of terms. ‘The maternal’ was problematised by Griselda Pollock, indeed by several speakers, as being too much about sexual difference, as seeming to offer a binary feminine versus masculine experience, while ‘mother’ was also seen as conflating too many things, from the moment of pregnancy, to birthing, motherhood, to affective and physical labour, childhood, and girl-woman and mother-daughter relations. Bracha Ettinger led the psychoanalytic approach to the maternal and was particularly persuasive on the need to eradicate what she called the ‘ready-made-monster-object’ or the blaming of the mother for just about everything – a situation she paradoxically argued was often worsened by psychoanalysis itself, with the analyst taking the place of the ‘good mother’.

Some of the less mainstream papers were the most illuminating: Sally Sales argued against the categorisation of the ‘failed mother’ in relation to adoption laws in this country that continue to vilify mothers and withhold support; Lois Tomkin, Alison O’Neill and Jo Paul movingly discussed the pain and increasing frequency of circumstantial childlessness; Lulu Le Vay drew our attention to the ‘heterosexualising’ of gay characters in US sitcoms. Penelope Mendonça has written a graphic novel, Mothers Storying the Absent Father, based on interviews with single mothers, creating a bitterly humorous and frank account of the issues facing them – from shame to domestic violence, class issues and jealousy – told from the point of view of protagonist Vanity (a reference to Annie Leibovitz’s 1991 Vanity Fair cover photo of a heavily pregnant Demi Moore). The argument that becoming a mother can create empathy and political radicalisation was made most strongly in relation to Mary Kelly (Interview AM346), whose work was frequently invoked at the conference. Recently shown at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, My James, 2008, is a moving, fictional postcard (one of a series) written by the mother of Civil Rights activist James Earl Clancey, murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964, to tell her son that his murderer had finally been indicted – 40 years later. The postcard is printed on large panels of lint, gathered over a long period from Kelly’s own washing machine, offering a domestic filter to the grim news.

Echoing my own sentiments, there was a sense from the delegates that the achievements of feminism’s second wave had been neglected. In Kim Dhillon and Andrea Francke’s presentation (they work together as ‘Invisible Space of Parenthood’), Dhillon reminded us that there had been a crèche at the Royal College of Art, originally set up by women students in the mid 1970s and later run by professional nursery staff until the 1980s. Now, children are banned (in a clause that also includes the banning of dogs) from almost all areas of the college, so that parents must arrange childcare simply to pop into the library, for example. Ironically, children accompanying parents to this conference had to be given special dispensation notes, as they are not normally allowed into these areas of the college campus.

One of the conference delegates asked what could be done and suggested that the reason for the lack of protests and placards was that we didn’t want change as badly as our radical 1970s forebears did. It was perhaps for this reason that the spirit of Shulamith Firestone was summoned on numerous occasions during the conference. Earlier this year, Verso made the bold move of republishing Firestone’s 1970 The Dialectic of Sex, a radical manifesto that urged women to seize the means of reproduction through the use of technology (artificial reproduction), thus liberating themselves from the sexual division of labour that she believed was the unacknowledged foundation of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel’s analysis of oppressive labour relations. Reading this surprisingly tender book – with its emphasis on love and pleasure – today, nearly three years after her death, there are few reasons for cheer. If it is true that western women have earned much economic independence over the past 40 years, as we have seen, our precarious situation within the economy has not made women’s daily lives easier or reduced feelings of discrimination about motherhood.

At the ‘Motherhood and Creative Practice’ conference, keynote speakers Irina Aristarkhhova and Faith Wilding (who, with Judy Chicago, was a co-initiator of the first feminist art programme at Fresno College) warned of the dangers of biotechnologies in relation to what they called ‘machine mothering’. It is hard not to condemn the exploitation of women in many surrogacy cases that involve women in struggling economies, in which women are in danger of being regarded as ‘mere’ incubators. Conversely, focusing on the negative aspects of surrogacy and IVF (IVF tourism) also threatens to undermine the real advances in IVF technology. Likewise, we must not ignore women’s roles in biotechnological research or vilify men. In The Dialectic of Sex, there is little acknowledgement of the part men play in relation to childrearing. Now, this is thankfully changing, and men’s increasing participation is offering another possibility of reducing the dependence of society on women for childcare.

At a discussion about The Dialectic of Sex at the Freud Museum on 27 April 2015, Susie Orbach and Rachel Holmes reminded us how much the idea of the nuclear family had changed, how culturally and class specific it has always been. Orbach argued that, pre-second wave feminism, it was shameful to talk about maternality, and reiterated that, for her, mothering was a progressive force not a bourgeois concept. Holmes urged us to make use of those women who chose not to have children, and also to remember that, the way that history has been constructed, women often don’t have access to the important historical figures that would be valuable to their causes, arguing, for example, that Firestone didn’t know about Eleanor Marx, who might have offered her the tools to bridge the gap between Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx.

Recently, the broadsheets all reported on 20-year research just published by Columbia Business School that proves that the ‘Queen bee syndrome’ – the idea that top women keep other women out – is a myth. Indeed, the reverse is true: more women at the top mean more women in senior roles. The research this overturns dates back from 1973, which suggests how persistent and convenient the myth has been to those who resist change. There is now added imperative for boards to include more women. There is much to fight for politically: to save nurseries and hospital maternity units, for abortion rights worldwide, to build more schools, for universal access to cheap childcare and after-school clubs so that parents can work and children have opportunities for socialisation, for educational establishments to support students with children – and to be picketed if they continue to exclude children from campuses and to ignore the issue of childcare. Women (and men) must say no to working for free for arts organisations, and should not be asked to do so. Budgets should be based on prioritising the wages of creative practitioners – not dealing with this as an after-thought. Learning departments of public institutions must recognise the importance of parental education as well as the child’s, and find ways to support this by using resources to help carers get the most from their visits and further their careers. But there is no question of ignoring wider societal shifts. The radical technological revolution that Firestone imagined has begun, and women must thus position themselves at the forefront of biotechnological advancements – to influence ethical decisions and fight discrimination and exploitation – while at the same time men must be afforded equal opportunity to participate fully in and to take equal responsibility for childrearing.

Jennifer Thatcher is a freelance critic and lecturer.

First published in Art Monthly 388: Jul-Aug 2015.

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