In 2010, the Whitney Biennial made history when, for the first time, over half (52 percent) of its featured artists were women. In 2012, the numbers returned to their typical proportions, with women representing roughly 35 percent of all artists. At this year’s biennial, about 32 percent of the artists represented are women. What’s most frustrating about these numbers is that they haven’t changed much since the mid-nineties, when the Guerilla Girls first charted gender bias.
I looked up these statistics while reading Siri Hustvedt’s new novel, The Blazing World, which is set in the New York art world and tells the story of Harriet Burden, an accomplished, middle-aged artist so frustrated by her lack of stature that she arranges for three younger male artists to show her work as their own. Burden believes her artwork will be better received if exhibited by young men, rather than an aging widow. It’s an experiment of sorts, an artwork in and of itself, which she calls Maskings. At the end of the experiment, she plans to reveal herself as the true artist. In her journal, Burden calls it her “fairy tale”:
There will be three masks, just as in the fairy tales. Three masks of different hues and countenances, so that the story will have its perfect form. Three masks, three wishes, always three. And the story will have bloody teeth.
Unfortunately for Burden, her fairy tale has an unhappy ending, and instead of merely revealing the art world’s biases she ends up discovering some unpleasant truths about her own life. Of the three artists she works with, only one plays his part and remains friendly with her after their collaboration. The other two betray her, one breaking off contact, and the other disavowing their relationship — and then dying. Burden does not live long enough to set the record straight and dies with an uncertain reputation.
To back up a bit, Burden’s story, and the story of Maskings in particular, is presented as a scholarly work, a posthumous study of a controversial artist. Instead of a straightforward biography, the work is an anthology of interviews with people close to Burden, articles and reviews about Maskings, excerpts from Burden’s journals, and other miscellaneous writings, including experimental fiction from Burden’s son. The anthology is edited and footnoted by a professor of aesthetics, who describes Maskings as a work “meant not only to expose the antifemale bias of the art world, but to uncover the complex workings of human perception and how unconscious ideas about gender, race, and celebrity influence a viewer’s understanding of a given work of art.” The professor/editor also explains the origin of the title, The Blazing World, which is taken from a utopian fiction by Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle. Cavendish is one of Burden’s many intellectual fascinations, a sixteenth-century writer and thinker whose work went unrecognized in her time.
Are you still with me? With the exception of the journal excerpt, almost all of the information I have conveyed so far is revealed in the first five pages of this abundant (and sometimes too abundant) puzzle of a novel. I was game for the challenge, but there were times when the format was wearying and I became frustrated with the uneven narration. But by the end of the novel, I felt the anthology format was the most authentic way to present Burden’s life. She wasn’t someone the culture took interest in, so it stands to reason that the information remaining upon her death would be fragmentary, inconsistent, and unrealized.
So who was Harriet Burden? Who did she love? What was she like? What did she think about? What were her worries? Her pleasures? These were the questions that ended up interesting me more than the actual machinations of the plot, which center around Burden’s three-part artwork, Maskings, and the fates of the men Burden colluded with. Some of this has to do, I think, with the difficulty of rendering visual artworks in prose. Hustvedt has written about contemporary art as a journalist and critic (as well as in a previous novel, What I Loved) and she conjures up Burden’s sculptures and installations with wit and authority. But there is still a huge imaginative gap between reading about an artwork and seeing it in person — one that doesn’t exist, I think, when describing people, places, or things. I often felt an intellectual connection to Burden’s ambitious installations, but not an emotional one.
Another reason I lost interest in the Maskings plotline was simply that Harriet Burden (“Harry”, to her friends) is a complicated, lively character, more fully drawn than her male masks. As I got to know her as a mother and grandmother, a friend, a partner, and finally, a patient, I became less interested in her elaborate plan to unseat the art world. Maybe it’s inevitable for the personal to overwhelm the political in a novel, but it also has to do with the way Hustvedt shifts the story from one of ambition to an intimate portrait of a family gathering around a dying woman. Burden’s final journal entries portray an artist still raging against those who underestimated her, but they also reveal a nostalgic mother, a mournful child, and a woman still searching for self-knowledge. Crucially, her final entries reveal Burden’s changing relationship to her body as she succumbs to death. Her thoughts return to the birth of her children: “Birth, like illness, and like death, is not willed. It simply happens. The ‘I’ has nothing to do with it.”
Female bodies and images of birth are a recurring motif in Burden’s artworks, an irony that doesn’t escape Burden, a woman who employs male bodies to represent her work. One of her final sculptures portrays a woman giving birth to letters and numbers and hundreds of little people. It’s inspired by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, Burden’s spiritual mother. Burden includes a tiny self-portrait of herself among Cavendish’s progeny, one that is discovered by an art world outsider in the novel’s final pages. It’s the last view we get of Burden, a hopeful wink to anyone who cares to look closely at her legacy.