Motherhood is a recurring motif throughout art history, from Michelangelo's mournful figure of Mary in Pietà (1498-1499) to Berthe Morisot's portrait of her sister anxiously eyeing a sleeping newborn in The Cradle (1872). Much of art history presents motherhood as fully consuming. The central maternal figures of early painting and sculpture are not presented -- nor are they perceived -- as multi-faceted women with hopes and ambitions that run parallel with, or perhaps complicate, motherhood. The 20th century rise of feminism presented a shift in visual culture wherein artists began to contend with the social expectations of women and the complexities of motherhood. It is largely within recent contemporary art that we see artists address the unique challenges of working motherhood. This is often evidenced in the work itself, such as with Mierle Laderman Ukeles' 1969 declaration of herself as a "maintenance artist" in the development of works that engaged both domestic life and sanitation work. Another work on par with this, Mary Kelly's Post-Partum Document (1973 – 1979) was an early conceptual work that explored the mother-child relationship. The first iteration of Kelly's work shown at the London Institute of Contemporary Arts featured soiled diapers among other documentation, causing a public uproar.
Mary Kelly, Post-Partum Document, 1973 - 1979
In October 2011, Mierle Laderman Ukeles gave a moving talk-cum-performance about her work at the Creative Time Summit in New York, archived in a video now available on YouTube. During this performance, the artist delivers a manifesto written in the early '70s that discusses the merger of her life as a wife and a mother with her work as an artist. "Here is my manifesto," she recites, "written as a young artist, age thirty, who decided to survive even though she became a mother-maintenance worker and fell out of the picture of her autonomous, avant-garde Western heroes. I had an epiphany: If I am the boss of my freedom, then I name maintenance art. It is art and art history that must change."
Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Creative Time Summit 2011, New York
This short video provides a resonating counterpoint to the recent dialogue around work and motherhood generated by other high profile female professionals. Anne-Marie Slaughter's article for the Atlantic Monthly last July, titled "Why Women Still Can't Have it All," chronicled the overwhelming difficulties of dividing one's time between career and family and critiqued the ways in which conventional business models eclipse the capacities of women who aren't "super-human, rich or self-employed."
Renée Cox, Yo Mama and the Statue, 1993
Facebook executive Sheryl Sandburg's recent book Lean In advises women to engage more deeply with corporate careers in the hopes of cultivating top tier female leadership, a notion that found its genesis in her 2011 commencement address at Barnard College. Both viewpoints have been met with much discussion. In the midst these debates, New York's School of Visual Arts organized a panel discussion titled "Taking Custody: The Double Life of the Artist Mother." Now archived on Vimeo, the video features seven prominent artists talking about their careers and motherhood, including Suzanne McClelland and Renée Cox. (Cox was the first pregnant woman to attend the Whitney Independent Study Program in 1993, which resulted in her Yo Mama series of images of empowered maternal figures, including a seven-foot tall statue featured in Marcia Tucker's seminal Bad Girls exhibition at the New Museum.) The conversation careens through the concerns that many women artists face: when to have children, how much time to spend with them, when to work, when to travel, and so on, with an emphasis on finding one's own answers.
"Taking Custody: The Double Life of Artist Mother," School of Visual Arts, New York, October 2012
The prevailing impressions are multi-faceted and complex. Essentially each woman must choose for herself what is best for her own life. If motherhood matters to you, the general message dictates, make it happen. Don't wait for permission. Though the din of so many opinions about working motherhood is sometimes overwhelming -- Let go, Lean in, Soldier on -- it is humbling to recognize that we live in a time when so many opinions are being voiced and that so many ways of working exist. We don't have to agree in order for things to change -- it is enough to model our own ideals. With the diverse working styles of so many women underway, art and art history is changing, just as Ukeles demanded, and only for the better.