How To Explain Art to Your Mother

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Fred Wise, Tales of Hoffman, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 24 by 24 inches.

As I was procrastinating on this article, I came across Benita Carr’s photography about motherhood at Whitespace gallery. It’s the kind of work that those of us who read art magazines gobble up like hors d’oeuvres at a gallery opening. One example: A naked boy, a wooden stick dangling in his hand and his penis dangling next to that, stands on the back of his naked mother. Her light hair spills over white sheets and puffy blankets reminiscent of clouds, or angels’ wings. The scene is reflected in a mirror through which you can see a blue-sky wall, with stenciled doves, black and white, rising up in the background.
So much to digest: a bite of the Victorian “angel in the house,” a small helping of the phallus, a slice of the mirror stage.
My mother would hate it.
And how do I explain why her sweet little girl, who got straight As in school and still goes to church, is interested in a photograph of a naked child stomping on his mother? In most families you could skirt the issue, tucking it away in the conversational corner reserved for politics and religion. But I’m married to an artist, and just this year we set out to make a living primarily from selling his art.
My mother has gamely supported us, giving my husband a commission or two and purchasing a few pieces that matched her new bathroom.  Still, when confronted with even his more accessible abstract paintings, or “the nudes,” or his drawings of Jesus, her struggle to say something nice is almost visible. Many times she can’t.
My mother prefers art that resembles something she recognizes and taps into familiar, comforting emotions. You know she isn’t alone. You probably love someone like her. The fact is, outside of major cities like New York and museums, there isn’t a big market for art that makes you queasy and doesn’t match the couch.
A triptych in her living room exemplifies her taste – blue-sky background with a few small, round birds, in primary colors, balanced on a wire. It’s art festival art – easy to understand, pretty, decorative.
I like the birds. I love the pop of the primary colors against the sky and the fragility of those creatures clinging to the thinnest of wires.  I don’t particularly enjoy the Benita Carr photograph. I wish it were more subtle and that the composition felt less staged. And the colors wouldn’t match my furniture.  But I know it’s unlikely that my mom’s birds will go down in history as great art. Carr’s photographs may not either, but they’re in conversation with art that will.
Benita Carr, Morning Sun #429 , 2015, Whitespace Gallery.

This is the kind of stuff I find myself telling my mother, as I try to help her make sense of my husband’s work and our decision to toss our hats into the crazy ring of the art world. The irony is that in grad school, where I studied English literature, I was firmly on the side of critics who questioned the distinction between “high” and “low” art, between a mass-produced aesthetic and the laborious toil of the individual artist. Back then, I would have said that such divisions were class, race, and gender based.  Now, trying to make a living by promoting largely abstract art made by a middle-aged white guy, I find myself tiptoeing through a theoretical minefield.
Take, for instance, this exchange with my mom from over the summer.  I was explaining why art festivals weren’t a good market for us, even though we’d just won a prize for Best in Show at one of them.
“People who know about art really like what Fred does,” I said, slightly less defensive than usual. “Those are the people judging the booths. But most of the people buying at the festivals don’t know about art.”
“Well, I guess I’m one of those people who don’t know about art. But what’s wrong with what I like?”
“There’s nothing wrong with it. But people who’ve studied art can see that Fred is drawing on other artists, and art history, and that he’s had some training.” I went on to describe one painting that referred to Hans Hoffman and Fred’s efforts to break away from the influence of Abstract Expressionism.
“I never knew all that was going on,” she said. She may have been impressed.
But I was lying. I don’t really consider art or art history when I look at my husband’s art. I look at the mix of colors and textures, and the emotions they evoke. The abstracts resonate with me because they allow for but don’t require intellectualizing, something that occupies far too much of my brain, something I like to be released from more and more as I get older.
Maybe that’s what I should say.
Two images. Bird on a wire. Stenciled doves like angels trapped in the house, trying to fly. Sky-blue everywhere, everywhere people turning to art to help them soar into the air, sing with abandon.  My mom in her nest, watching the display–no delicate angel, always working, not focusing on her burdens but the task at hand, because that’s just what you do. I was brought up in that nest. I’m glad it’s there. I’ve realized I don’t want to yank my mother from it. She can fly just fine on her own.

Jami Moss Wise is a lapsed academic with a Ph.D. in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She worked in fundraising for 12 years before going into business full-time with her artist husband this year. 

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