May 26, 2015 / Shira Richter
COUNTING OUR ASSISTS
I think the issue of understanding (or misunderstanding) the depths of mothering and art in our cultures is a skin deep bone deep issue. I think it touches on the foundations of our beings, that's why I say I'm a radical (root canal) fundamentalist.
The fascinating work of evolutionary biologist, woman, and mother Sarah Blaffer Hrdy and her colleagues has exposed a huge blind spot in the research methods of her field, showing how the "true" nature and scope of mothering and care work has been miss-understood. There it is, that word again: "miss-understood". (which can be also written Ms. Understood, or Missed- as in missing something important). I mention her "womanhood" and "motherhood" for a reason- she admits it affected her way of seeing, and asking questions.
Ah how I wish artists and scientists would cooperate more seriously. Similar ideas have been navigating pioneer artistic focus and research for ever. For instance, in the field of film, one is supposed to "look for the conflict". This way of thought is so ingrained; I had to find underground creative tactics in order to make a film about Palestinain-Israeli female friendship. Usually artists seek cooperation with scientists, because scientific research tends to support their own, less verbal research, but very seldom does science seriously seek the knowledge of artists. Art is viewed as an extravagant "extra" and not as a valuable field of research. I won't go into this (huge) subject here, but I'm happy to recommend a book that explores it, albeit through the eyes of the current ruling gender.
The whole of western culture- and I dare say capitalism ("free market"), is based on the "survival of the fittest" Darwinian idea, which focuses on what is thought of as (male) struggle and fight. But Hrdy and co. have found several missing pieces, which have a lot to do with -mothers. I'll be very unacademic in trying to sum it up crudely in my own artistic language: Turns out the "strongest" (or fittest) is actually the most loved and cared for. How else can such helpless dependent and care intensive baby creatures survive? I repeat: the "fittest" actually means- the most loved and cared for. Think of what kind of policy and decisions would be made if this was accepted as the core value of our culture.
The other day I tried to explain this to my partner. It was after I got an exciting email from Sarah Blaffer Hrdy In response to an email I sent her in which I asked for a good size photo of herself holding a colleagues' baby. Exiting because it's not every day that your idol answers your email and is also so nice! The reason I wrote her was because of a photo gone viral of an Israeli male professor standing in the classical pose of a lecturer, while holding a real live baby. In one of the many re-posts it wrote: "when the student's baby cried, this professor did an awesome thing...". Up to the moment of writing this the post has earned 57,234 likes, and 5,632 shares. Wow. It's very important to visualize and clap our hands when instead of kicking the mother student out of class, (like several instances I've heard about -including one at an art college), the professor (who is a great guy) picks up the child and continues. That in itself definitely deserves the photo-op and clapping likes. What got to me is how much clapping a man receives –especially from women, for doing the same thing female professionals have been doing for, well, a long time. (Yes, not all of them, several have put on the patriarchy together with the suit, but I personally know of quite a few). It's not easy to concentrate AND sooth a baby, and women have been doing it forever. The problem is – we seldom get such a standing ovation from our cultures and especially from our own sex. In fact, the sad thing is we usually get the opposite. Is this a tiny instance of envy on my part? Well, yes. Sometimes envy is a normal healthy reaction that points to an unmet need. Unmet needs are sometimes in our heads and hearts, and sometimes - they are in our cultures. I would like to explore this feeling and see where it leads to.
About a year ago I noticed something interesting. Almost simultaneously, and without knowledge of each other, two extremely similar campaigns erupted in entities and countries continents away from each other. "Mothers demand change" an Israeli face book page came out with images of pregnant women dressed as prisoners, captioned: "Motherhood is not a Crime". In Canada, Mirci, and Demeter press, one of the first publishing houses of academic research on motherhood came out with a campaign saying "motherhood is not a liability". Both 'Liability' and 'crime'- are not exactly compliments. ("A liability can mean something that is a hindrance or puts an individual or group at a disadvantage ..." from Wikipedia). Both had strong reasons for their campaign, rooted in the behavior of the environment: Israeli women who are mothers were "coming out of the closet" about being rejected from the work force, or forced to do jobs way below their education, all because they became mothers. Up till now the scope of the phenomena was unknown (6829 members in the group). Few dared admit this. In Canada Micri's, main funder wanted to "close the money Fawcett" because, according to Orielly in this interview by Rachel Epp Buller, their focus on motherhood was viewed as a liability…believing that soon Demeter Press would reach what they called "market saturation" and run out of motherhood topics to publish. Both campaign messages were that mothers mothering and mother work is being considered unworthy of –the market.
These examples teach us that in order to survive financially, instead of being proud of accomplishing the hard work of building a family rich in human relationship and knowledge, we should hide our mothering accomplishments from our CV, our job interviews, and our professional life. (This is why I cringe every time I'm expected to send a classical CV to an art proposal. I feel that what is most important to me- is a liability to my CV).
Remember the viral baby- holding- guy- professor?
Well, to test the visual allure of an academic holding a baby I posted a photo I took way back in a conference in 2009 of Griselda Pollock, Scholar of international, postcolonial feminist studies in the Visual Arts - holding and soothing a colleagues' baby. So far (six days) it earned 35 "likes"- and 3 shares. No competition with the male professor. Maybe the problem is the missing mathematic equation on a board behind her. Primatologist and evolutionary theorist Susan Blaffer Hrdy gave me a great story about trying to visualize her "allo mothering" (mothering another womans' baby/child) in a popular scientific magazine:
Regarding the photo you requested: I am glad you noticed, and am happy to send you a copy. The photographer was Anula Jayasuriya, who is also the mother of that baby ... In addition I also attach an article about my work, rather ironically titled "Sexual Stereotypes", that appeared in the British science magazine, 'Nature' whose (ironic!) cropping of that photograph might interest you. When 'Nature' asked me to send a photograph, I deliberately chose that one: Woman Scientist Holding A Baby (Indeed, Serving as Allomother for another Woman's Baby), because, like you, I had a point to make. The editors had their own ideas of how women scientists were supposed to look; they cut the baby out. (My bold)
So In 2002, like now, a woman's mothering abilities of another baby don't merit her much viral Appreciation. No standing ovation.
Am I clear in making the point- professional academic man acknowledged visually (photographed) and rewarded for holding baby, while professional women scientist/theorist censored, or not really appreciated for holding baby?
If we think of the major discoveries' of Hrdy and co, you see the same phenomena repeating itself here. We, as a culture, seem to keep missing the value of the knowledge begot through real female mothering.
Why am I so interested in the "clapping hands" regarding both mother work and artwork?
This is a good question. And it's one I've been asked – especially by other women. What I've been told again and again is - "We are doing it because it's our choice. Because it's important". "Doing it is the reward, I don't need credit as well". "Wanting credit is from the ego…"( "ego" as negative).
Naomi Wolf, in her book Misconceptions writes: The message you receive from your work environment about how valuable your work is affects your psychological well-being. Every day I was getting the message that the work the women I knew and I were doing had little value.
What I'm trying to show here is how on one hand we women can be conscious feminists, who realize how our surroundings devalue our work, and on the other hand wanting "Clapping hands" is viewed as something negative.
I'll finish with an example from basketball. Don't ask, but I'm partly to "blame" our twin boys are serious players in the basketball league. Although the (Darwinian?) competitiveness goes against my beliefs, I do my best to try learn what it's all about. What fascinates me is the way every single move and action has a name, and a status. That's how men do it (a realization I was taught by "fire with fire" by Naomi Wolf). They value every thing they do and have even found a way - to stop the ultimate unstoppable- Time (!). My favorite status is the Assist; the instances in which a player throws a ball to another player who goes on to score a point. Collecting Assists is valuable for the career of a player. So, if you think about the many instances in which something materialized in the world because of something you said or did, that inspired, encouraged, affected, helped, or supported someone else, it's very possible you have accumulated enough Assists to be considered an extremely valuable player. SO, how many 'assists' have you accumulated lately?