Thursday, February 19, 2009

Transient art

Thursday is the day Derrick and Sylvia come to work with me. Derrick attends a lab meeting here on campus, and then hangs out with Sylvia in my office until I'm done teaching. Usually I take Sylvia in the morning before his lab meeting so he can get a little bit done before his meeting. Today Sylvia and I wandered down to the main office (something that is not at all unusual--the office ladies LOVE Sylvia), where one of them told me about the cupcake portraits of Abe Lincoln and Barack Obama. I'd heard the story earlier, and it got me thinking about art that is transient--specifically, meant to be consumed in one way or another--and gender.

A long time ago I read a book called The Mating Mind, which is about how sexual selection could have acted on humans to produce our large brains and complex culture. Briefly, the claim is that a big brain requires a lot of energy, and if an individual has access to a lot of energy, especially during childhood, chances are the genes that individual possess are high quality. Behaviors that prove individuals have a big brain include art, language, music, politics, and many other very human behaviors that are, in one way or another, attractive to at least some members of the opposite sex.

One of the observations made in the book is that even in a very egalitarian creative situation, typically one sees a 60/40 split between men and women. Almost always there are more male writers than women, even though women have (on average) larger vocabularies; there are more male fashion designers (by far!) even though women buy and wear most clothing; and even though women are far more likely to attend religious services, men are far more likely to head religious organizations. Any number of possible reasons have been posited for this discrepancy, some suggesting women are less interested in accomplishments that drive men, others that women are given less credit for what they do, or seek for less acclaim than men for what they've done. I myself have no real thoughts on the topic (I really have only myself as a data point), but in myself I do see a tendency to put a lot of effort into projects that are transient in nature--a tasty meal, a plate of cookies, a smiling baby. While Derrick enjoys the transient arts as well, he puts quite a bit more effort into projects that produce more lasting results. I realize the microcosm of our relationship has no real statistical significance, but if my experience, where I expend most of my energy in projects that leave no permanent record while my husband's efforts do, are similar to those of most women, it's really no wonder history doesn't record many of us--we simply haven't left enough durable evidence of our lives in the past. I wonder if the explosion of blogs, particularly of "Mommy blogs," will change that trend in the future. I may consume my artisan bread, leaving nary a crumb to the generations that follow, but the pictures I post will be there to see as long as the servers maintain my blog!


  1. With your point about "mommy blogs," I've been talking with Hans about this and I think one reason so many women, and stay at home mothers particularly, keep blogs is to document their existences. They have no workplace that counts their attendance, no obligations (not entirely true because church, volunteer work, etc.), only their families know if they are "here" or not. A blog shows to themselves and to the world that they exist, do things, contribute, etc. Kind of like, if a baby claps its hands and a mother doesn't blog about it, did it make a sound?

  2. Exactly! I'm glad the outlet is there for us now, since it is a very validating thing. I wonder if in the future (or perhaps even now) these blogs will act as recorders of data on the way today's mothers spend their time and mental energies.