Although I am only at the halfway mark, The Blazing World, by Siri Hustvedt, has already had a major impact on me as an artist and a woman in my forties. I've not been able to stop thinking about some pretty big questions. What does it mean to be an artist, and an older, female artist at that? What is the nature of memory? What will be my legacy (although I don't plan on resolving that for quite a while)?
Hustvedt's novel is a posthumous look at the life and career of a fictional New York artist, Harriet “Harry” Burden. The book is a compilation of excerpts from Harry’s own writings, interviews with family, friends, and art world contemporaries that attempt to form a cohesive picture of the artist through fragments of text and individual memory. It’s a really effective technique because structure and meaning of The Blazing World parallels the interest in memory and truth that informs Harry’s own work.
Hustvedt sets the novel in the contemporary art world in New York at the turn of the 21st century, and it is a scathing indictment of this time and place in history, especially in its treatment of female artists. Harry, who was married to a very prominent art dealer, essentially goes unnoticed, both as a person and as an artist. After her husband’s death, she decides to not go gentle into that good night and instead concocts an experiment to see how her work would be taken if presented under the guise of a young male artist (or three). Predictably, this strategy works like a charm, but not without ramifications. I have not finished the book, so the exact toll this experiment takes on its participants is unknown, but suffice it to say that no one escapes untouched.
On a personal note, as a practicing female artist in my forties, I can relate to Harry and her feeling of invisibility. Part of that is my own doing, as like Harry, I have not been knocking on doors and putting my work out there into the world. However, I definitely started to feel a change in the way I am treated and viewed culturally when I left my thirties behind. In spite of the celebrity magazine that trumpet “40 is the new 30,” there has not yet been a widespread shift in contemporary society.
The art world also places a high value on youth. Having worked in the art world in the Los Angeles of the 1990’s, I can vouch for the obsession with the next hot young artist by the gallery system, and how these potential candidates for art stardom were snapped up and disposed of with ready abandon. I was fortunate enough to work with gallery owners who did not participate in this cycle and nurtured their talent, but it was certainly going on all around me. Some of the artists survived and prospered, but there were a lot of casualties that were never given the opportunity to make mistakes or mature into the great artists that they could have become.
The third aspect of this novel that really got me thinking was about the practice of being an artist. Is just making art enough? Does the work, or I, need to be seen to have meaning? For Harry, her lack of recognition, marginalization by the art world, and the strong need to be recognized were the trifecta of frustrations that led to her drastic actions. Harry’s crisis has caused me to look for my own fine line of balance between pure pleasure from the act of making art and having what I have created seen and appreciated by others. From reading The Blazing World, I’ve realized that for me, while making still is the most important thing, participating in the greater dialogue of my peers in the art world carries more weight for me than I have previously acknowledged. So although I won’t be making any drastic changes, I will be poking my head out of the studio a little more often, and I look forward to seeing you all out there!