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The Ruthless Artist (The Woman Upstairs)


Miniature Art Studio, Eric Fischl, by Joe Fig

Miniature Art Studio, Eric Fischl, by Joe Fig

Hello readers,

When I first started writing this blog in September of 2012, my goal was to shed light on the lack of balance between the forces of masculine and feminine energies as observed by myself in the social and cultural world around me.  This preoccupation still concerns me deeply, and it is interwoven with my concern that modern society, while very adept at entertaining itself and building technologies,  is not sufficiently committed to personal growth and introspection.

The fact is that self-awareness and introspection (more feminine traits) are as central to our survival as a species as are extroversion and the desire to exert a physical influence and impact on our environment (the more masculine side of humanity).  I ponder and think on and on, introvert that I am.  I wonder about the kings of old, masters of war and manipulation, many of them, and yet how they surrounded themselves with sages and advisers to complement their own perspectives with those of wisdom and experience.  We now live in a world that marginalizes introverts, seekers of wisdom, and elders.  Grandparents need to stay young and active to be included, and few cherish the old and wise for their experience and perspective. And yet, the world needs all of these…the quiet, the not-so-greedy, those in quest of a form of power that does not take advantage of others, but that rather benefits us all.

To come to my topic of today’s post: the ruthless artist.  I recently finished reading a novel by Claire Messud, “The Woman Upstairs”.  It speaks of the human heart, of solitude, of desire for love and for recognition, both personal and beyond.

the woman upstairs

The “woman upstairs”, the protagonist of the novel, Nora Eldridge, is a third grade schoolteacher who has dreamed of being an artist.  In her heart and soul, she wants to be and feel fully alive, and to share that excitement with people whom she finds alluring and exotic.  Her own desires, anger, and imagination are highly active, but she lives within the confines of her imagination, rarely sharing with the world the richness of her soul.  Essentially, she is an observer.  At one point, she comments in the book that she is not sufficiently ruthless to pursue art as a career.  That in essence, an artist is a ruthless being.  The story eventually proves her hypothesis to be true.  As artwork, Nora creates small and intricate dioramas recalling the works of contemporary artist Joe Fig which depict crucially tragic moments in the lives of mostly introverted artists, women who, like herself, have suffered loss and solitude, with only small glimpses at joy.  Joy is depicted in the dioramas as a golden bee, a presence that is meant to comfort in the presence of so much loss, sacrifice, and grief.  In reality, Nora has lived a careful life, and she has been a good daughter to both of her parents, caring for her mother through a slow and agonizing decline and death from Lou Gehrig’s disease. She has few friends and the depths of her being are perceived by few.

When a new student, Reza Shahid, comes to join her third grade class, Nora finds herself falling in love with him, his Italian video and installation artist mother, Serina, and later on, his father Skandar, Lebanese historian and professor at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris.  They are foreign, exotic, successful, but also afford Nora a glimpse of what it might be like to be beloved, to be a part of what is important and vital.  For the Shahid family, a year in Boston is a somewhat unimportant interlude in their busy and socially connected lives.  For Nora, however, the Shahids take on a legendary quality, serving as what she calls “a Black Monk” force of inspiration, providing larger than life meaning in her own existence.  During that fateful year, Nora shares a rented art studio with Serina, who is preparing an installation “Wonderland” inspired by Lewis Carroll that will be key to launching her international art career.  Nora serves Serina and the rest of the family, holding her deepest feelings for them secretively in her own heart, and they temporarily enfold her into the embrace of their Boston interlude, easily leaving her behind at the end of Skandar’s fellowship at Harvard.

Installation by Cristina Lucas, Spain, on the theme of Alice in Wonderland

Installation by Cristina Lucas, Spain, on the theme of Alice in Wonderland

After the Shahids return to Paris, Nora feels forlorn, abandoning her burgeoning art ambitions and projects.  It would seem that sharing in the glow of the Shahid’s universe had temporarily given her unforeseen hope, energy, and purpose, to which she tries to grasp after their departure.  For Nora, the Shahid’s filled her heart, mind, and body, and she idolized all three in different ways.  After a few years of careful cultivation of the remnants of this dream, Nora decides to take a year’s sabbatical from teaching.  She travels to Europe, and of course, visits Paris.  She realizes soon after that the Shahids are no longer who or what they were.  Reza is now an awkward teen and no longer a golden or graceful child.  Serina has aged as well, and lives the life of a successful artist.  They seem kind and friendly but somewhat aloof.

In a crucial revelation, Nora consults l’Officiel des Spectacles to see what art and cultural events are going on in Paris during her visit, checking of course to see if Serina is represented in any shows. She finds a small gallery showing videos from the Wonderland installation.  Mora watches all of the videos.  In the far corner of the gallery on one of the flat screen tv monitors is a sold out series of grainier videos, dating back to the Boston cohabitation.  Nora watches eagerly, hoping to see a younger Reza and his classmates when they visited the installation, fearing that an altercation that broke out and her interception and correction of the children’s behavior might have been included.  Instead, she is shocked and horrified to see herself filmed without her knowledge, partially nude and drunk in a very private moment she had experienced when alone in the installation then under construction in Boston.  So deeply hurt by the betrayal, Nora loses consciousness in the gallery.  She manages to make a quick recovery, and never again makes contact with the Shahid family.

The hurt turns to anger, a roiling anger that overtakes her being.  Of course, the Shahids never asked to be idolized, nor were they ever aware of the degree to which Nora’s heart was dedicated to their relationship.  Yet the betrayal of her friendship and kindness to the Shahids is revealing.  It does show the ruthlessness of the artist, Serina, to whom the coolness of the images of Nora on film are worth more than the friendship itself.

Why doesn’t Nora value her own art, her own creativity, her own being as much as the Shahids?  Does she feel isolated because of the type of person she is (an introvert), which is not valued extrinsically by today’s society? Nora calls today’s culture and values “the Fun House”.  A scary place where your reflection peers back at you distorted and menacing.  The Shahids are at home in the Fun House, yet they seem at ease, peaceful in the flow of experience that is each of their lives.  Nora is constantly second-guessing herself and doubting in the validity of her own thoughts, feelings, and ideas.  And yet…don’t we need people, artists, creations who are not so confident, not so dominant, questioning?

I think we do.  We need the feminine, even though it is not cool to be passive, nurturing, giving more than receiving.  We have been conditioned to know that it is important to be important, to make sure other people don’t guess at our vulnerabilities, and to know when and how to show vulnerability under a mask of power.  This is the ruthlessness of which Nora speaks.  Yet I wish for her and for myself and others like her that we could cherish ourselves and the feminine in ourselves, to keep our heads up…even if few choose to see or acknowledge the gifts that we bring to society.  The balance will shift eventually, but we are here now, and we are filled to bursting with a different kind of energy, a different variety of beauty which might be smaller, more complex, and less showy.

Artists don’t have to be ruthless with the hearts of others.  We can be compassionate, especially, and first of all, with and to ourselves.

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