Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Austin Kleon's Advice to Artists that They should Marry Well

62ยบ ~ 48 hours ago it was in the teens, I love the mid-south!

Breaks from teaching have always been a time for me to catch up on my reading, and this year's winter hiatus is no different. Last night I zoomed through Austin Kleon's Steal Like an Artist. This is a book that one of my colleagues at UCA uses a lot and has been on my reading list for over a year.

This little book is packed full on motivational imperatives with awesome examples of illustrated narrative in the form of erasures and Kleon's own drawings. While there was nothing new for me in the book, I think it would be highly beneficial to anyone at the beginning of their journey as a writer or artist, with one caveat.

I can shout and cheer along with Kleon for 148 of the roughly 150 pages in this book, but there are two pages that made me steaming angry, angrier than I've been in a long time about a book of motivational inspiration. In the section titled, "Be Boring," Kleon gives great advice about staying out of debt and off drugs, about cultivating stability and a professional attitude, and then he ruins it with these two words, "Marry Well," and a quote from Tom Waits.

The "Marry Well" pages are all about how an artist needs to surround himself (and I'm using the male gendered pronoun for a very specific reason) with people who will serve the purpose of being "a maid, a cook, a motivational speaker, a mother, and an editor--all at once" (133). I almost threw the book across the room when I then read Waits' quote: "She rescued me. I'd be playing in a steak house right now if it wasn't for her. I wouldn't even be playing in a steak house. I'd be cooking in a steak house." (Waits on his wife and collaborator, Kathleen Brennan (133).) Let me stipulate that Kleon makes a point of "marriage" as life partners, friends, professional colleagues, etc.

Without spelling it out, both Waits and Kleon are buying into the supreme male privilege of being taken care of by a woman. It is infuriating. It is infuriating because even in today's "advanced" culture, study after study proves that in binary relationships most men do not contribute as much to taking care of the home as women do, and, in general, most men do not cultivate their nurturing qualities to the same extent as women do. (Friends, I'm talking big picture statistics here, not about any individual, male or female or non-binary.)

So where does that leave women and non-binary artists?

In an old interview with Lucille Clifton that I can no longer find, she was once asked what male poets have that female poets don't. Her answer, "wives." Of course men publish and succeed at higher rates than women; they have more time and energy and often more support, if cultural studies are to be believed.

I do think that Kleon and Waits are trying to pay tribute to the extra burden their partners bear, but my question is this: why must their partners bear this extra burden? Why can't the artist get up from the desk or recording studio and help clean the house, cook the supper, and provide nurturing to those who need it? Why aren't we asking the artist to be responsible for negotiating a truly fair partnership where creativity can happen but does not excuse the artist from their full participation in some of the less wildly exciting tasks in life?