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The price of great art: On Sally Mann


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At Public Books, Anne Higonnet reviews photographer Sally Mann’s new memoir Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, in which the artist details the personal and familial sacrifices she made for the sake of her work. Higonnet wonders why it’s acceptable for great male artists to be terrible fathers and husbands, while we hold female artists who have families to a higher standard. Here’s an excerpt:

Artists like Mann are miraculously able to suppress genuine scruples and guilt. Otherwise, they would not be able to defy convention the way they do. Or concentrate. Good art requires a mind that operates continuously below please and thank-you, below obligations and errands. As Mann puts it: “in that ardent heart there must also be a splinter of ice.”

The catch is that society still has a low tolerance for splinters of ice in the hearts of women. Maybe there can be exceptions, but not if they are mothers. Mann had three children, and they posed for her most controversial photographs. Those pictures of her own children contradicted sacred stereotypes of sweet, cute, miniature innocence, wreaking on the history of childhood what we now like to call creative disruption. It hurt. Even now, Mann cannot escape the demonization visited on Immediate Family. When the New York Times excerpted Mann’s memoir, the excerpts concentrated on Mann’s admission that her photographs of her children had unpleasant consequences.

Since when did anyone challenge Manet’s art because he was a Bad Father? Or Picasso’s? I cringed when Mann pleads her case, listing the lunch boxes she packed, the recitals she attended, the miles of hair she braided. I didn’t cringe because I agree or disagree with how Mann defines a Good Mother, but because she has been obliged to defend herself. We may or may not feel that art is worth a personal price. Whichever way we swing, let’s put selfless maternity among the prices that might be paid.

Images: “Jesse at Five” (1987) by Sally Mann via SF MoMA