Books

The Central, Yet Invisible, Labor of Motherhood in Art

Curators, scholars, artists, and designers reflect on the labor and experience of motherhood in the new essay collection Inappropriate Bodies.

Miriam Schaer, “Ida and Tabitha #39” (2014) digital C print (image courtesy Miriam Schaer)

Aside from obligatory annual displays of sentimentality on Mother’s Day (a holiday famously disavowed by its founder for its commercialization), the labor of mothering — as well as parenting and care work more broadly — remains largely invisible in our culture despite its ubiquity. With rare exceptions, this invisibility is just as true in the worlds of art, design, and architecture as everywhere else. Those worlds are the particular microcosm that the essays in Inappropriate Bodies: Art, Design, and Maternity seek to address. The book, published by Demeter Press, gathers 20 texts by academic scholars, curators, and practicing artists and designers, many of whom wear additional hats as activists and arts administrators, to reflect on what one author calls the “mother-shaped hole” in contemporary art.

Inappropriate Bodies cover

In the book’s excellent introduction, co-editor Rachel Epp Buller situates the volume within the growing body of literature that examines maternity in art, which has been expanding rapidly since the 2009 publication of Andrea Liss’s Feminist Art and the Maternal. Buller lays out the key issues that contributors grapple with, which range from the existential to the practical. One of the book’s main goals is to foreground “maternal bodies and experiences” that are “ignored, stigmatized, or censored.” The essays compellingly argue that the condition of “maternity” affects far more people than women who carry babies to term and raise them. These include women who experience miscarriages and undergo lengthy and often failed infertility treatments; alloparents who help care for the biological children of others; and adults who, in caring for disabled adult children or aging parents, take on a “mothering” role not often recognized as such. Inappropriate Bodies argues that women — who still perform the majority of the world’s care work and bear the brunt of its devaluation — exist in relation to their maternal status as a pillar of both personal and social identity, regardless of the specific nature of that status.

Marni Kotak, “The Birth of Baby X” (2011), durational performance and installation (image courtesy the artist and Microscope Gallery)

Successfully centering maternity as a core human experience, the book also looks for ways to resist its “positioning as an inconvenience defining and disrupting the mother’s life.” Some of the book’s most inspiring examples of practical responses to the structural marginalization of mothers come from women, such as Anna Ehnold-Danailov, co-founder of the British theatre company Prams in the Hall, or artist Courtney Kessel, who have built their creative practices by imagining alternatives to the notion that child-rearing and artistic production can only happen in separation from each other. As I worked on this review during a week when I had no access to childcare for my own four-year old, the assertion that “the maternal subject [is] one of constant disruption” rang all too true. Inappropriate Bodies soberly acknowledges the many challenges to turning this fundamental condition into a creative asset; it also points to alternative mindsets and practices which promote creativity while resisting the ethos of maximum professional productivity as the only measure of personal success, particularly in the arts.

Courtney Kessel, “In Balance With” (2015) (image courtesy the artist)

Although there is a definite politics to the book, one thing it might have offered is a far more clearly defined and coherent political agenda which artists can help support and advance. Many of the book’s authors, for example, cite the need for affordable childcare and ample paid parental leave as basic conditions of social support necessary to allow parents to succeed as both parents and members of the workforce. Yet none link these desiderata to either contemporary social campaigns, such as PL+US (Paid Leave for the United States), which advocates for a national paid family leave policy in the US, or to historic efforts, such as the thwarted 1971 congressional effort that nearly established universal childcare in the US. Amber Berson and Juliana Driever, curators of the 2016 exhibition The Let Down Reflex, mention only in passing the radical international Wages for Housework movement, which applied feminist politics to a number of progressive causes in the 1970s. The Hackney Flashers are lauded, but not emulated. It is telling that the manifesto of the Cultural ReProducers — a collective whose crucial pedagogical, activist, and community-building work is discussed in the book — is devoid of the kinds of broad sociopolitical demands one associates with a “manifesto.”

To me, this was a reminder of how important it is to draw on activist agendas and histories from outside the realm of art to inform contemporary artistic criticism and practice, particularly in the present moment when the need for social safety nets has been laid bare by the coronavirus crisis. The argument that universal basic income (UBI), for example, which has gained sudden visibility in the last year, would finally make unpaid “women’s” work into acknowledged and paid labor is the most compelling moral case for this. UBI, of course, would also guarantee support to contingent creatives, so much of whose “labor of love” also goes unremunerated except with putative “exposure.” There is a lot of room for making a common cause here.

I walked away from Inappropriate Bodies convinced that centering maternity, in both individual works of art and the structures of institutional support for artists and their audiences, is essential. It is also essential that artists and progressive cultural institutions actively engage in situating such practices within larger social agendas in order for their concerns to be more than parochial laments directed at an art world that will, Saturn-like, happily continue to devour rather than nurture its children, until faced with consistently applied pressure to do otherwise.

Inappropriate Bodies: Art, Design, and Maternity, edited by Rachel Epp Buller and Charles Reeve, is out from Demeter Press. 

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