Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Cat's Eye

“I don’t want to go,” I said to Ben.
“You don’t have to,” he said. “Call it off. Come down to Mexico.”
“They’ve gone to all the trouble,” I said. “Listen, you know how hard it is to get a retrospective anywhere, if you’re female?”
“Why is it important?” he said. “You sell anyway.”
“I have to go,” I said. “It wouldn’t be right.” I was brought up to say please and thank you.
“Okay,” he said. “You know what you’re doing.” He gave me a hug.
I wish it were true.

And those are really the first words addressing this retrospective the woman artist is having in her home town in Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood. They come in after 92 pages of childhood, girl friendships and games, poverty, a wayward family – all things which are familiar to me actually, art aside. And those kinds of tales probably cast a much wider net as regards readers. But I’ve been waiting for the moment when you just know that this girl Elaine will be an artist, though this story seems more about relationships, not art.

And why would it matter? Because to become an artist is one thing, to stay an artist is another and I want to know how she navigated it, especially back in Postwar days. I'm hoping I hear more about it. One thing I found accurate is her recount of loving small things, of liking bits of paper, tin foil, just simple objects that came her way as a child. As she ages, she wants things more. But Elaine expresses this not just as acquisitiveness or as girlish vanity, but more as an artist who collects and examines something for its own thingness.

As someone returning for a big show, she’s also not wild about discussing what it is to be a “woman artist.” When the local press come to talk about feminism, she’s not buying. But I don’t think I was either back in 1988, when this novel was published. This may be the ideal time to read this book too because I am heading to southern Oregon tomorrow - my childhood home, where the girls were, with its own complexities.


Eva said...

I am almost done with this wonderful book - which held so many moments, for the woman artist, like my own. Once Elaine has grown up and conducts dual affairs with art men, I began to take big notice. She's screwing her painting teacher and a fellow artist at the same time while quietly (why is it always "quietly?" - that is for another post) pursuing her own path as a representational (and supposedly feminist) painter. Her teacher is a throwback to another era, her boyfriend an artist who lights upon every new trend with absolution.

But since she doesn't have to worry about the fashion, she finds her own voice, paints her own way and it all evenually amounts to something. This part of the story I enjoyed immensely. The fact that she receives some kind of success almost in spite of herself however does not ring really true though. I think most of the time there are few miracles or accidents or quirky happenstances when it comes to success in art.

Eva said...

Also, something I've noticed in all these novels about women painters: she's always chasing the big fine masters of art history. She's as good as all of them, her technical prowess beyond a doubt. Elaine chases the Dutch, Mary Gordon's character the Italians, Emma Dial the Spaniards. And of course they all kick ass.

How good do they have to be to be as good as the men around them, those in real time? Could she be an Expressionist and be seen as good? Could she be a colorfield painter? I guess I am wondering if any of them get to joyously throw the paint around, be good at it and let that be. Throughout Cat's Eye, Elaine never has that option. She sees Pop, Op, Conceptual art and many isms come and go and all the social stimuli that accompanies them, but she's still off there rendering somewhere....

Maybe it's just easier to write about an exceptional artist through the filter of representational painting.

Anonymous said...

Margaret Atwood is one of my favorite writers. Her books always contain characters who live interesting lives and have interesting jobs. Her main characters are never boring. 'Life Before Man' is also very interesting.

Eva said...

I'm definitely checking out more of her books. Thanks to those here who recommended her to me.

Tracy said...

Hi Eva, I read Cat's Eye 20 years ago when I was even more of an idiot than I am now ;) I loved it but after reading your comments about it, I have realized I better dig out my copy and read it again. I have a whole different perspective on being a woman AND an artist now.

LOVE Margaret Atwood, btw. The Handmaid's Tale still haunts me and I often think about it when I go to use my debit card, pondering whether this will be the day that it begins (or ends) for us......

Anonymous said...

It was along time ago but i remember that reading Cat's eye really got under my skin. I was traveling when i read it which always makes you slightly more receptive for some reason. The parts about her struggle growing up was what threw me for a loop because I had a similar time with not fitting in. I remember when the mother became aware some how of her daughter's,(elaine's) trials she said something like if only i knew what she was going through i could have helped her... which begs the question; why were mothers so oblivious back then, but that's a whole other story.

Another book of hers that I loved but was also very intense was "Robber Bride". laurie

CAP said...

I think writers like to think there are technical standards of excellence in painting, but painters know these are largely mythic or seldom sharely universally. In fiction it's just a device to confirm the character's standing within their profession (if we can call being an artist a profession).

Was Velasquez really 'better' at painting that Rubens or Titian? The question is ridiculous really, they're not trying to do the same things, adopt different techniques accordingly. Was Van Eyck better at detail than Dubuffet? We'll never know, frankly.

And I think the same applies to women artists looking for some measure of their worth.

Was Joan Mitchell just a female counterpart of de Kooning or Kline? Although a gestural abstractionist, Joan's personality is so far removed from Wild Bill or Freaky Franz. The paintings clearly announce as much.

I think most artists recognise when their own work finally does reflect these kind of differences - irrespective of questions of influence - you sort of know when you have your own voice even if you don't know if others will value it. That strikes me as the big difference fiction about painters glosses over. In the story the writer just wants to assure you that this artist is a big star. In reality this kind of standing is frankly trench warfare or riven with factionalism.

I think it's different for musicians. There really are very strict rules for measuring expertise and distinguishing between interpretation and execution of a score. If you've ever attended one of those tedious international competitions for piano/violin/string quartets etc, you'll know the intricaices the judges descend to in making a decision.

But I don't know any painter that really concedes to any killer technicians - although I do know of plenty such cases in commercial art or illustration. Killer airbrush and technical illustration goes in for very strict standards because the content is so strict.

(Fine) Art is just the oppositie. Painters envy the soul or attitude or sensibility of betters - the thing that drives the technique - but mere manual facility is not something that gets them drooling.