I've been thinking lately about freedom and power and the ways in which the two intersect, confront, and challenge each other, particularly as an artist and more particularly as a woman. I've been thinking about how these two related (but sometimes frighteningly divorced) spaces interact in ways both expected and surprising.
Freedom. It's a glorious word and an even more sublime concept. To do what one wishes to do. To do it without apology. Without explanation or justification. To live without the need to ask permission. Freedom.
Power. For women, this one is more fraught. Power carries so many heavy things: responsibility, the way it feels on our shoulders, the way others see us when we wear it. Men seem to wear power with greater ease. But women (and artists) are still not taught how to carry power. We look to men as our models: and that doesn't work. We have so few women as models: which seems only to reinforce the idea that somehow this is not our clothing. It is borrowed. And we don't look particularly good in it.
On Wednesday, I was in New York on business. Business, business, business. Artists out there, do you hear me? You know what I'm talking about. The things that need to get done (contracts, negotiations, marketing, networking) so that we can do the things we want to do (writing, painting, singing, dancing). Wednesday. A day of business in New York (which is a city that pulses and irradiates as the freedom and power capital of the world).
I was both unusually free (no children, no husband, no companion—with his or her own needs) and also focused on the idea of power, as one always is when negotiating. When creating a strategy. When testing new boundaries of what can be achieved. Freedom and power.
But after my midday meeting was done, I revisited the Kerry James Marshall exhibition at the Met Breuer museum, entitled "Mastry." (I'd seen it several weeks ago, in a rush, but this time I could take my time. My train didn't leave Penn Station until 5:00 PM. And I was unusually free.)
I'm including here one of Marshall's monumental pieces (Untitled (Studio) 2014, Acrylic on PVC panels) and his words from a short video produced by the museum. The painting is a favorite of mine, in part because of the subject matter: it shows the studio Marshall visited in the seventh grade, which was the first time (by his own accounts) that he realized that he could be an artist. The museum commentary describes the scene of the painting as "a place of labor where an allegorical catalogue of all modes of art making is on display." To my eye, the brushes could be pens; the canvases could be blank paper; the art students could be young writers. Or singers. Or dancers. Or sculptors. Here are the things we use to create our particular art. But the creation is all one.
The dog, of course, could only be a dog.
Here, then, are Marshall's own words:
"What you hope a retrospective shows, in a way, is that your career was a thoughtful one. Embedded in the imagery is a narrative of change and transformation and growth. Mastery is an important concept. It implies having achieved a certain level of proficiency that gives you the freedom to do what you want without fear of the consequences. In the entire narrative of art history as we know it, there is not a single black person who has achieved the title of Master. Certainly not an Old Master. Mastery means that one is able to self determine, to determine how one wants to be represented, how one wants to be seen. I tried to make a commitment to the craft. Everything about the picture is in my control. But I'm not working in a vacuum. I'm working in a culture that has a history. The goal was ultimately to be free and to not feel compelled to compromise ideals, vision, integrity in order to just fit in. And if ultimately the museum was a place that I wanted to go, I didn't have to abandon the black figure in order to get here. I decided early on you that have to be able to see evidence that I experience pleasure, that I experience pain, that I have desires, that I'm aware of history, that I'm a political creature, that I'm also a social creature. That's what it means to be a complete human being. I think that's true freedom."
For now, that's enough for us to think on the intersection of freedom and power. In future posts, I'll include more of my own thoughts on the subject. As we move into a new year, both freedom and power are much on my mind.