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Why can't great artists be mothers?


For the New York Times Live, Jacoba Urist writes about motherhood and artistic practice, which to her make strange, if productive, bedfellows. She begins with quoting Tracey Emin saying, basically, that she knew she couldn’t be a great artist and parent at once, so the artist did’t have kids; and Urist finishes with a list of artists who are also mothers doing interesting work. It remains to be seen why she doesn’t also lump fathers into the mix. Read Urist in partial below, or the full version here.

The art world is full of enduring stereotypes. There’s the myth of the starving artist. The crazy artist. The hermit artist. And then there’s the childless artist— a woman (yes, she’s usually female) so fervidly dedicated to her craft that there’s no room in her life for motherhood. Indeed, some of the greatest visual artists — Georgia O’Keefe, Frida Kahlo, and Lee Krasner — had no children. Kids and their constant battery of needs, the argument goes, are incompatible with true creativity. Art is supposed to be an all-consuming enterprise — and now modern parenting is too.

British sculptor and painter Tracey Emin never had children and doesn’t think she ever could have. Internationally renowned, Emin is known for “confessional” pieces like My Bed (1998), for which she staged her mattress with stained underwear and a used condom: The work is currently on view at Tate Britain after a 15-year hiatus. Nominated for the prestigious Turner prize in 1999, My Bed sold at Christie’s for around $4.3 million last July. Just three months after the record-breaking sale, Emin told U.K.’s Red Magazine that motherhood would have diminished her work: “I know some women can. But that’s not the kind of artist I aspire to be. I would have been either 100 percent mother or 100 percent artist. I’m not flaky and I don’t compromise.” There are good artists who are parents, assured Emin. Only they’re men. Mothers are too “emotionally torn.”

But there’s a group of rising artists who strongly reject the all-or-nothing, children-versus-art premise. Motherhood, they argue, has increased the complexity of their work and intensified their perspectives, whether or not their subject matter is domestic life. And they believe that the art world is slowly warming to the idea that great artists can also be great mothers.

*Image: Cig Harvey, “Kendall at Beauchamp,” courtesy the artist

For artists who choose to have families we are choosing to work in the in-between times of productivity, thinking about distraction and efficiency in completely news ways. If there was a choice between artist mothers and artist fathers, I think artist mothers could better handle the severe multi-tasking that is required to maintain both a household and creative ideas. This also requires less negotiation for the uncertain. There is no time for debate or hogwash. It is about intermittent determination. Whether an artist mother uses motherhood as content in the work is debatable…as the perspective shift of how you see the world anew has so drastically changed in scale, sight, sensorially, academically, with compassion and sensitivity. How better to increase creative perspective than to shift them into an embodied space that could not happen otherwise through the instantaneous exposure and influence of youth.


Beautifully put. Thank you.

I posted this message about the article yesterday on Facebook: So much grandstanding this morning over this article. All kinds of wackos declaring that OF COURSE artist mothers are still creative. Who in their right mind would suggest otherwise? Why are defenders not more aware of the actual challenges that mothers deal with? The real problems are practical. Despite all the hoopla about devoted Daddies (who make up a minute percentage of all fathers), mothers do most of the work of childrearing, especially in the early years. There are only 24 hours in a day no matter how creative you are. Parenting schedules impinge upon your ability to engage in the kind art world schmoozing that many rely on for gigs. You cannot simultaneously be home feeding and bathing your child and putting him to bed and jetting out to openings because they occur at the same time. You cannot be flying to shows around the world and spending quality time with your kid either. They cannot skip school and join you. The reality is that many of us are forced to make choices and give up things related to career in order to raise well-adjusted children. If you have money yes you can hire sitters but if you are never home your kids know it and they suffer. Scream at me if you wish, but those who have children know what the real challenges are. And don’t expect too much help from non-mothers in the workplace who resent the hell out of working moms who set limits to their availability at work in order to maintain a decent family life.


It’s interesting that the swipe at mothers being artists is combined with the admonition of being “emotionally torn.” As if there is a limit on the amount of passion an artist has to spend! I have no limit of passion for my art work, and do have to give up a few aspects of motherhood, just as men do in their professions. Women have had many challenges over the centuries, and have been historically undervalued in the art world; and if children were valued by the art world, that would be new, too. Emin probably sees continued financial and inspirational benefits from separating herself from the world of children and family; or perhaps these experiences will become important to her later, because intimacy is certainly central to her work.

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The fact that so many female artists still feel that they have to choose between pursuing their practises and having children stands in stark difference to the way assumptions around male artists and their options operate - simply there isn’t the same discussion. The systemic problems to do with maternity pay and affordable childcare or lack thereof (in the UK at any rate) are reinforced by an art world hegemony that undervalues female artists generally.