Katherine Hattam’s essay “Counting and the Vulgar Reader”

14 May

To view available work by visual artist, KATHERINE HATTAM, please visit http://www.mortonfineart.com.

Katherine Hattam, "The Egoist"

Katherine Hattam, “The Egoist”

KATHERINE HATTAM

COUNTING AND THE VULGAR READER

“The desire comes first”. This phrase, one I read in a book about American artist Eva Hesse, explains most things in my life, and certainly why I decided two years ago, to call this exhibition Consciousness Rising, to create work springing from reflections on the 1970s feminism and the phenomenon of “Consciousness Rising” particular to that time.

I am revisiting and reflecting on that time, my education – literature and psychoanalytic theory disguised as political science – when I read texts like Sanity, Madness and the Family; The Divided Self; The Greening of America – now I physically cannibalize them to provide a grid over which to work, incorporating covers and spines.

Why look back now? Death – less importantly politics – watching Julia Gillard’s resignation speech, for all my criticism of her as leader, there was a huge sense of sadness. Certainly it was different being a woman as a politician – harder…I am not a political artist – that is where my drive comes from – so to death…Both my parents have been dead for years, changing me and the work. But it is the more recent and shocking death of my friend Diana Gribble that feeds directly into this work. It certainly raised my consciousness of mortality but it was her stories of the South Yarra women’s consciousness raising group in the 1970s, stories of young, mostly married women, awakened to the fact of living in a patriarchy and simultaneously – almost without knowing it – finding themselves out of their once happy marriages – she was fabulous talking about this, being funny yet acknowledging its significance, at the same time both mocking it and taking it seriously.

As I didn’t do it, my knowledge of “consciousness rising” is secondhand. I wasn’t asked – it was an urban thing and I was married at twenty, living in far western Victoria on a family property (that life less conservative than it appeared), where women were of necessity integral to the business and daily life, through it was assumed the sons would inherit the land. But, I was commuting to Melbourne University once a fortnight and reading various second wave feminist texts. In fear of ever being stuck at a cattle sale or outside the stock and station agents in town, I always carried a book, at times Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch or a novel, say Anna Karenina or Women in Love. We were reading of student unrest in The Uncommitted, about the personal being political, so I was, through my visits to university, in touch. Importantly, a friend, Winsome McCaughey emailed me information about WEL (Women’s Electoral Lobby) that, significantly, I chose not to act on.

Looking back, I see an intellectually sophisticated, but emotionally backward young woman, navigating my marriage, living in a place and a life more exotic and different than if I had gone to another country rather than to the country. Maybe I was too young; my friends who did join consciousness-raising groups are years older. However, talking about this with my sisters, it was perhaps more the legacy of my intelligent but anti-joining mother. Added to this, she was a Modernist, believed there was only good and bad art, not Women’s or Muslim, Gay or Indigenous art, and would have been horrified, mocked the idea of quota, affirmative action.

It’s taken me pretty much until now to disagree with her. Reading the essay on “consciousness rising” titled “The personal is political” in the 1960s pamphlet “Notes from the Second Year”, I now see what I missed. I get it – women told their personal experiences and, in the repetition, the similarity of experience came to realize that personal experience was political. In a recent lecture, Sophie Cunningham, publisher, writer and Chair of the Literature Board, listed damning figures in all the arts – portraying an extremely unleveled playing field – the visual arts being by miles the worst. She pointed me to the blog, “The Countess”, which does just that, counts. Two examples: 1) the 1986 Sydney Biennial had 50/50 male female artists – the Australia Council, for once, specified that the money would be given on the condition that this would be the case, the only time both things have happened – the numbers have never since been equaled. 2) of the two thousand works in the Kaldor Collection donated to AGNSW, two or maybe three are by women.

An erstwhile friend, a writer, a good one and amusing friend, a man who used to ring me to talk and gossip – it was always interesting and fun, but somewhere in these conversations, he almost directly, and I’m sure, unconsciously, quoted Mr. Tansey in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, saying, “Women can’t write and women can’t paint”. Eventually our friendship ended when we argued over the portrayal of an artist in a novel which enraged me, “That just wouldn’t happen”, I objected – (it annoys me when writers use the character of an artist to explore their own creativity and, unfailingly, get the details of the trade wrong). Hs reply was to call me a “vulgar reader”, a title I now wear with pride.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: