Invigorated by the debate sparked by her recent piece, Leah Hager Cohen continues the conversation evolved by her commenters. (Rick&Brenda Beerhorst/Flickr)

Earlier this week, Cognoscenti ran a piece I wrote on the debate over gender disparity in the arts. Because I wrote from a place of genuinely not knowing (that is, I recognized my discomfort with the idea of fighting for equity in art, but was also surprised by this reaction and unsure where to locate it), I was especially eager to see what commenters might contribute to the conversation and to my own thinking. So I’d like to say thanks to many of the people who weighed in. You offered intelligent perspectives and shared them with generosity, integrity and commitment. You also got me thinking about how we think about this issue — and about whether it would be useful to find different ways of framing the questions that could lead to other avenues of understanding.

SMB commented that I failed to discuss how bias plays out in “the marketplace,” where success in the arts delivers practical benefits, from academic positions to money that buys time for more writing. Donna Herbert weighed in on Facebook, “Equity comes not from the creative process itself…It’s about who the gatekeepers are.” And Kim Triedman (a fellow Cog contributor) pointed out in the comments that “it is sadly now a fact of literary life” that writers must also be publicists for their work.

Under what conditions would it be possible for us to step back — really, really far back — in order to view the issue free from the automatic assumption that parity in the marketplace is our paramount goal?

Absolutely. I’m not denying that inequity exists and people get hurt by it. These points are important when we think about art as a means to earn a living, advance in our careers, and reach an audience. They relate to art distribution: if we don’t all have equal access to the channels of distribution (and VIDA and others have made emphatically clear that within the literary establishment we do not), that’s an important social justice issue. But I’m what I’m asking here is a whole different question, one related to art making. Maybe I’m crazy to try to separate the two. Yet I can’t help but think there could be value in it.

A few items that helped crack open my ways of thinking about this:

1. A friend who has spent years studying art in Bali and working with Balinese artists in theater, dance, music, and puppetry, tells me how traditionally, when Balinese musicians release a recording, they do not list their individual names on the CD. Only very recently, she says, has this begun to change. The custom — and more than that: the very definition, the very understanding of what art is and what art means in this culture — has been to value the thing made, without affording emphasis or special relevance to the makers. As she explains it, in the Balinese view of art as a spiritual process, “artists” are simply those through whom the gift passes.

2. In the west, especially in capitalist societies, we are accustomed to placing great importance on the individual. In art, this means we focus attention on the one whose name is signed to a work. We give credit for the thing made to the “maker.” We tend not to ask questions about multiple makers, or about all the various kinds of energy behind the maker, the anonymous or uncredited laborers and supports that helped enable creation.

3. Something I love about the novelist, poet, essayist and farmer Wendell Berry is that many of his more than 50 books include in the author bio: “He lives and farms in his native Kentucky with his wife, Tanya Berry.” His author photo is often a picture of him together with his wife. In words and images he signals that he does not consider himself the solitary creator of his work. In this land where individualism is glorified and the persona of the maker often receives as much as or more attention than the work made, his choice is both wildly unusual and quietly radical.

4. The novelist Gish Jen published an excellent little book this past spring called “Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self.” In it, she points out that the western tendency to privilege the qualities of “individualism, the isolated, the particular, and the extraordinary” in art is simply that: one tendency, perhaps culturally determined. It is not the only lens, much less the “correct” lens, through which to perceive value in art or to think about its provenance or its uses.

These examples of alternate perspectives get me thinking: Under what conditions would it be possible for us to step back — really, really far back — in order to view the issue free from the automatic assumption that parity in the marketplace is our paramount goal?

I understand that some readers may feel dismissive of my posing such a question, since I have admittedly already enjoyed some success as a writer. Gofigure left a comment scolding me for being hypocritical and selfish, writing: “You can’t reap the benefits…and then yank the ladder up behind you.”

I also know that what I’m proposing means giving up a lot of stuff we think we need or have learned to hold dear: notions of personal excellence and personal worth; individual attachment to the products of our labors; expectations that our art will build our reputations or secure financial stability; even the very human desire for posterity.

But truly: I’m not talking about yanking up ladders. I’m not even talking about a place you can get to with ladders. I’m talking about a drastic reorientation, the leap from viewing the earth from the surface of the earth to viewing the earth from the moon.

Read the original post: “The Debate Over Gender Disparity In The Arts — And Why I’m Sitting This One Out” (8/14/13) 

Tags: Books, Gender, Writing

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