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//Dangerous Liaisons, or on the Limits of Freedom in Art and in Life// – Elżbieta Korolczuk

Dangerous Liaisons, or on the Limits of Freedom in Art and in Life – Elżbieta Korolczuk

Elżbieta Korolczuk (b. 1975) – sociologist, researcher at Södertörns University in Stockholm, gender studies professor at the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, co-editor of Pożegnanie z Matką Polką? Dyskursy, praktyki i reprezentacje macierzyństwa we współczesnej Polsce. Member of the Porozumienie Kobiet 8 Marca and co-organiser of feminist manifestations in Warsaw.

The freedom of art in society and the freedom of an artist in art enjoy have acquired a fetish status. It is so mostly because freedom, understood as unhindered expression, is just necessary for all creation, it is an inalienable right of all artists and belongs to the catalogue of human rights, such as the right to freedom of speech in the public sphere. Secondly, the sense of personal freedom and independence from other people – not only in terms of intellectual and aesthetic influences but also in relation to family and emotional ties – are often considered indispensable when trying to create new, original works and become a truly creative individual. However, in practice freedom turns out to be a relational value, and the process of negotiating or determining the limits of (in)dependence of individuals or groups always takes place at the intersection of the individual and the social, the cultural and the political; it is a process, not a state, and individuals are constantly wrapped up in a network of emotional, economic and symbolic ties.

When we reflect upon the ways in which contemporary society interprets freedom, we can detect a certain paradox. While artistic freedom in today’s commercialised and ‘grantified’ world of art seems increasingly illusory, in the private sphere freedom understood as independence from institutions and other people, including the closest family, as the right to shape one’s own life in accordance with one’s preferences and desires, seems more and more attainable, almost up for grabs. Although these processes apply to various spheres in life, they interact with each other, and the fears and hopes experienced when negotiating freedom in modern society are reflected throughout seemingly unconnected areas. This is one of the reasons why it is necessary to look more closely into some of the elements of the relationship between family and art, a topic that so far has been rarely explored, with most studies undertaken by feminist critics or artists.

When it comes to art, it seems that liberty is still defined as freedom ‘from’ – from limitations, bans and social norms. This situation probably results from where the danger lies, which is in the indifference of viewers, the detached lack of interest in what the artist has to say, as well as in the perspective of censorship, applied not only by the politically engaged protectors of ‘true’ values but also – quite often much more effectively – by the ‘invisible hand of the market’, for instance in the form of lawyers that successfully block the release of a document criticising a powerful corporation. Opposition to political and economic intervention of the government was expressed for instance in the topic of a recent conference entitled ‘Censorship, Democracy and Gender. Feminist Criticism and Resistance Strategies’. In the eyes of creators and critics, art is a battle field, an arena of conflicts involving genders, classes or races, while the scope of artistic freedom is quite often subtly yet effectively limited, not only by institutions but first of all by the dominant patterns of thinking about reality. Art, valued for its usefulness, is considered a private issue, with potential public support subject to a number of institutional restrictions, so that the money expended brings measurable profit. Between the neoliberal market and the neoliberal state, there is not much space left to be claimed, while artistic freedom often becomes a synonym of the commoditisation of the relationship between the artist and the viewer.

Meanwhile, although art seems to be subject to ongoing institutionalisation, in the sphere of family life we notice a completely opposite trend. The French philosopher and sociologist Marcel Gauchet said that the 20th century brought about a ‘de-institutionalisation of family’, which means that the main goal of family no longer lies in forming a community to nurture social ties. It has turned into a voluntary and potentially transitory relationship form. Founded on feelings, it has become a completely private issue. Gauchet claims that this marks the end of an era in which, in view of the dominant role of the state, the whole (society) was more important than the elements, collective bonds trumped the desire for freedom, and collective interest was placed before individual pursuits. This also means a shift in the process of socialisation, because family no longer takes care of producing citizens, playing the role of a shield against reality. As a result, the author claims, the liberal individual has triumphed and no longer has to belong to any specific population, simply because it can survive without the support of any group. It doesn’t mean that the effects of such processes are exclusively positive, because freedom may also cause various personality disorders and lead to the atrophy of social ties. The philosopher thinks that this new age of freedom and individualism is burdened with the double fear of being lonely on the one hand and becoming attached to others on the other.

Gauchet ascribes the responsibility for this changes to specific ideas and social movements, including feminism, although he does not analyse whether women and men may exist in the same way without the support of community or what kinds of effects are caused by the shift in the relationship between the state and the individual for people, whose identity is to a varying extent determined by gender, class and ethnicity. In the same vein, the issue of artistic freedom is rarely analysed as a phenomenon tied into the social hierarchy of power, both real and symbolic. Meanwhile, all of these elements are intertwined in life, determining both the social perception of art and the possibility of negotiating the roles played in private life by creators.

A good example of the way in which artistic freedom may be interpreted in the context of gender, family ties and the social construction of art can be found in the work of a well-known American photographer, Sally Mann. At the beginning of the 1990s, when she was working on the exhibition Immediate Family, presenting, among others, pictures of her children bathing or sleeping naked during a family getaway in Virginia, she had first showed the photographs to an FBI agent, weary that she might be accused of propagating child pornography. In her interviews later on, she claimed that the agent reassured her that most pictures would not be problematic, although there were some she was better off not publishing. She did withdraw some of the portraits from the display, but many people were still of a different opinion than the FBI representative – Mann was publicly accused not only of exposing child sexuality, not respecting her children’s privacy and using them for economic profit, but also of aestheticising violence and deliberately arranging situations that could be harmful to the fragile psyche of her child models. More importantly, the bulk of all media coverage concerning Mann and her work concentrated on the mental health of the children she portrayed. Let’s take a look for instance at the article published in ‘New York Times’. The Disturbing Photography of Sally Mann (27.9.1992) contained not only a detailed description of the behaviour of the three children during the opening night and a later interview in their family home but also summary of a psychological consultation, which was to prove that the creative passion of the photographer did not compromise the emotional stability of her offspring. The positive opinion of the psychologist was further confirmed by interviews with the children, who displayed no signs of any disorders. Everyone (almost) sighed with relief.

For some, Mann became a scapegoat, a perfect target of a smear campaign run by all sorts of conservatives, eager to hunt all signs of artistic freedom pertaining to the body. Others saw in her a victim of her own artistic strategy based on, for the most part, autothematism and focusing on family ties. At the end of the day, Immediate Family made the artist famous and brought her commercial success, but, as she said in a recent interview for ‘The Guardian’ (29.5.2010), it made her forever ‘the artist that took naked pictures of her children’, despite the diversity of her later work in terms of topics and technique.

Some may say that the scale of controversy fuelled by Mann’s work was due to the strong impact of the Puritan roots of the American culture. However, the discussion surrounding Immediate Family did not concentrate solely on the definition of pornography, focusing also on the limits of personal and artistic freedom in the context of family relations. It was no coincidence that the dispute caused by Mann’s work was for the most part a dispute over the ideal family life, over what intimacy really meant and who had the right to dictate its limits, and most importantly, what freedom meant in this context – freedom of particular members of a family within its confines and outside, and also the artistic freedom of a person that had a family. As it often happens, the majority of critics explained that artistic freedom should be limited as a justified means to attain a greater good, i.e. protection of the helpless, meaning children or ‘family values’, which are constantly in danger and require greater vigilance. However, the question whether the photographer had the right to publicise intimate moments from her children’s lives first of all reveals the tension between today’s vision of a free individual with a full right to make independent life decisions, and the fact that during our childhood, and quite often also in the older age, we are neither independent nor self-reliant. The logic of freedom understood as full autonomy and lack of dependence on others, so cherished in art, in family life is simply a poor idea (and I am referring to a whole array of possible families, not only the heterosexual nuclear family).

It is of course hardly a coincidence that these questions sprung up in reaction to works authored by a woman, because gender is a crucial element of the process of negotiating and determining the cultural limits of freedom, both on the artistic and personal plane. Mann was not only criticised as an artist that violated the boundaries of the intimacy of potentially vulnerable individuals, i.e. children, but also as a bad mother that exploited the bodies and experiences of her daughters and son instead of protecting their ‘innocence’. In any case, the artist herself adopted a strategy of ‘motherising’ her decisions. In interviews, rather than defending her artistic visions, she explained that she did what thousands of other mothers did – she registered her children growing up, documenting the games they played, the smashed noses, the moments spent copying adults or sleeping. This strategy, albeit effective in the sense that Mann’s work was not censored and her career took off, in a sense undermined her public image as an artist and sentenced her to the fate of a person whose projects are forever shadowed by a family scandal.

Mann’s story also suggest that the age of independence which, according to Gauchet, was to create the new, contemporary personality, no longer ‘formed by dependence’, has not arrived for everyone, neither does it cover all areas of life. As it turns out, women are still often judged in the context of relationships, including the family, and whether they take good care of those that depend on them. This interdependence is not, however, judged positively. Artists-mothers are scrutinised in terms of how close they are with their children as mothers and to what extent they are able to present themselves as people who have no gender, family and private life.

In the world of art, where rules have been and still mostly are laid down by men, artistic freedom seems to be conditional upon freedom from family, which is construed as a petty-bourgeois cage of sexual restrictions and intolerable social obligations. The collective imagination is still haunted by the 19th-century perception of an artist as a free spirit that, just as Guy de Maupassant, will rather bear his first marks of the syphilis with pride than entangle himself in the wicked boredom of family life. Obviously, this image does not leave too much space for women, especially mothers. Well, they may share the fate of Katarzyna Kobro, who was supposedly forced to chop down her own sculptures to heat the stove and prepare food for her child. And thus through the annihilation of the self as an artist Kobro fulfilled her motherly duty. Even though no one can confirm her story,   it seems that this is the only way in which male (and female) critics are able to connect her public image as an artist with her private life of a mother. In this sense the efforts of Mann to create an image of herself as an artist-mother, a person looking for inspiration and creative joy within positive family relations, may be much more of a transgression than displaying child sexuality. Unfortunately, this strand of her activity was overlooked by most viewers and critics.

This double, public-private identity of artists is hard to swallow for some, not only because of the stereotypes prevalent in the world of art in relation to the ‘gender of art’ or the patriarchal perception of which topics are relevant and which are trivial, unimportant, unworthy of reflection. It stems to an equal degree from the politicised and ‘genderified’ separation between the private and the public, where family and intimate relations belong to the private sphere, while work and creation to the public.

Mann’s story is just one of the examples that the relationship between art and family may be dangerous to people, especially women, that would like to be equally present in both spheres. It points to the resistance against all attempts to renegotiate the imagined divide between the public and the private. In Poland, such negotiations may be even harder since, according to Nanette Funk, an American philosopher, this divide was historically shaped along slightly different lines than in many other countries of the West. Polish women, although ‘ascribed’ for the most part to the private sphere, played public roles within it, such as education or reproduction of national values, while other issues, which in many countries came to form part of the private zone, like religion, in Polish reality became a crucial element of the public sphere. What is more, the dominant rule of social life has been – and still is – the primacy of collective goals over those of an individual, the commandment to sacrifice one’s own desires and individual aspirations always when the collective interest needs it. This logic to an equal degree on the condition that in private life they perform their ‘female’ roles with equal devotion.

Such a ‘genderified’ separation between the public and the private, overlapping to a large extent with the division into the female and the male, restricts the freedom of both women and men. However, should lack of freedom be replaced by individualism understood as psychological independence from others, emotional self-reliance and political mistrust of interdependence? By going in this direction, it is easy to fall into the trap of over-fetishising individualism. The ideal is painted as a rational individual, abstracted from all social relations, determined only by its own desires, feelings and needs. Such visions seems particularly tempting in Poland, because they promise ultimate freedom, ultimate liberation, not only of women, from the endless obligations towards others, from the eternal sense of inadequacy or guilt, from the emotional blackmail of the Mother Homeland, which, like in Bożena Keff’s Utwór o Matce i Ojczyźnie [The Story of Mother and Homeland], hides under the masks of loved ones to manipulate and imprison even more effectively.

Meanwhile, the individual is always a part of a network, and individual choices are to a large extent determined by institutional mechanisms. Awareness of these mechanisms does not mean we revoke the right of the individual to make his or her own life decision. It just brings out the context within which this individual acts. The context in which ultimate freedom does not exist, but it is possible to negotiate closeness and mutual obligations. It happens not only because being in a relationship, love or friendship is a value and some people are ready to give up on some of their individual independence to pursue their relations with others. Interdependence, apart from psychology, also has its political and economic aspect. Reproductive work does not only hold an emotional, economically non-measurable value that is extremely important in everyday life. It also has a deeply economic import, in the sense that it helps sustain the system of production and social life.

Interestingly enough, the last decades haves seen more and more successful attempts at combining the ‘private’ and public identities, undertaken in order to broaden the field of artistic expression and enrich the family life with new meanings. There are exhibitions such as the Mothers’ Art project, initiated by Patrycja Dołowy and Katarzyna Haber, in which artists identifying as mothers explore the experience of motherhood in their works. The organisers wrote that ‘art is usually strongly connected with the private sphere, and for women it basically emerges at the intersection of their social and life roles, making it difficult to establish a boundary that would separate those two worlds’. The strategy of resistance towards the dominating discourse that tells us to be only mothers/wives/sisters or a creative individual/artist consists in recognising and naming, and then vivisecting the very assumption that these roles need to be separated with clear-cut fault lines. The exhibition with its accompanying sessions and publications attracted considerable attention, proving that the audience was thirsty of such actions, although it seems that the main current of art criticism still fails to notice their meaning.

Interpreting freedom only from the perspective of cultural myths or psychological needs and fears is not enough to enable us to notice what happens at the intersection of the political and the private. In this way, art may become a sensitive and precise tool of exploring the meeting of intimacy and freedom, pointing our attention towards the mechanisms of establishing, transgressing, negotiating and living the boundaries between the private and the public.