Saturday, June 2, 2007


For a few years I had been hearing about a novel called Spending by Mary Gordon. When I searched for it online, I knew I had to check out this book. It may be a little late to share it now as it is over ten years old and there are plenty of comments already online. But these comments tend to come from avid readers or book clubs, not from painters.

Story: A smart and caustic 50 year old female painter lives pretty frugally, but she does live as an artist. At least she has a studio – its virtue, she says, is that it exists. She must have some kind of success- after all, her gallery is in the Fuller Building on 57th (and seems to be modeled a wee bit on the Forum Gallery.)

She gives a slide presentation at a gallery one night and explains, for a laugh, that male artists for years have had the muse; why can’t she? She explains the role of this muse: the muse does not just get naked throughout the years. The muse cooks, cleans, take notes and gardens - she does it all. Where is one of these for her, she jokes for the audience.

Then a fellow stands up in the darkness and says: “Right here.” His is a plan all mapped out. He’s collected her work and closely followed her career. He even tells her: “I’ve heard of this same conversation a million times. ‘Where’s the female Picasso? When will we have these kinds of advantages?’ OK - let’s take a gamble on you.” He wishes to provide everything she needs to take it all to the next level. How great of an artist could she be?

She questions the prospect. On her own, all triumphs (and losses) are at least hers. The fact that he’s totally fuckworthy makes her feel a bit of a whore, too. She takes him on in more ways than one.

She also takes the notion of muse and gaze in new directions. She not only lets him take care of her, she paints him after sex, while he’s spent, naked and dozing. She eventually creates a body of work tied to the past (as in the great paintings of naked men in art history, such as Jesus) but still very new, declaring a rarely seen female gaze on the male.

I personally have met female artists fed up with nudes. One told me she witnessed photo slide reviews in which men literally went fidgety in their seat when the male nude came on the screen. She says that many people are homophobic and that’s why the naked man makes them uncomfortable.

Spending gives another view, which I found fascinating. The view of the nude is about power. The artist who gives us the view has the power, not the model. As the artist asks for more and more time, she is asking from the model more than she ever asked when she just took his money.

For when you capture the model, you steal. She takes not just his time and discomfort. It’s almost like how the Native Americans were said to feel about being photographed: it stole a bit of their soul. No longer belonging to the model, the gaze is all about an agenda, projection, interpretation and ownership by the artist.

I was well into the book before I came across the Amazon site with all the comments about the main character in this book. She’s selfish. (!!!!) She’s a terrible mother. She’s repulsive.

Whoa, welcome to artists. Not that all great artists are assholes, but surely no one can expect her to be a saint? Yet we do. We want her to please. But she’s an artist and not up for it. I found her portrayal to be very accurate.

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