The Retreat to Cuteness

Kiddo with bad-but-cute cake

It is a painful but not surprising irony that mothers spend their days surrounded by art supplies  while making little if any art. Instead, as the great god of guilt and inspiration Pinterest documents, middle-class U.S. mothers are masters of crafts for their families.

I have never liked “crafts” of this kind. Some of this is likely to do with internalized misogyny: men make art, women make craft.

But part of it, too, has to do with a sense that greater aspirations are sublimated into the tamed register of the popsicle stick and adhesive googly eye.

I get it, though. I really do.

I’ve had two experiences recently and two thoughts about those experiences that have me thinking about my overall distaste for crafts and the overwhelming likelihood that I’ll spend the foreseeable future making them.

First, crafts are our children’s beginning exploration of art and to the degree that we are supporting our children, we too return to the beginning of our encounters with arts. On the one hand, there’s something lovely about this. Returning to the tactile pleasure of paint, for example, with a finger-painting toddler. On the other hand, as I resentfully noted to a friend, children’s homework quickly becomes a parent’s homework, which, in heterosexual couples, can often mean the woman’s homework.

Our daughters, who are 7 months and 3 years old, recently had the “assignment” of making an “all about me” board. Eloise, the three-year-old, put every sticker in the house on hers and dictated some favorite things to be written on the board. I then printed photos to add to the collection. The 7-month-old, however, has no real interest besides milk, smiling faces, and putting the dog’s tail in her mouth.  I wrote this list on the board, added some cutout magazine pictures that resemble the family canine, and stuck some photos on for good measure.

Our pretty shit craft homework

To be honest, the kids’ boards look pretty shit. I’m a feminist who resents second shift work and I’ve decided I’m (mostly) okay with our children having the worst boards at daycare. But whether they are better or worse versions, the boards remind me that much of a mom’s encounter with the materials of the visual arts is on behalf of the family.

And not just when we’re doing our children’s homework.

Recently, for my birthday, I took an art class. I loved it and I’m also a bit ashamed of what I made. Not because it was bad, but because, knowing it would be bad, I made it for my kid instead of myself.

There are at least two root causes for this behavior that I can think of.

First, the selfless mother is such a trope that it seems almost embarrassing to talk about…but there she is, shaping the way we live. If our societal idea of creative people includes a vision of  people who are obsessive, committed to their process and their art at the expense of all else, well, we couldn’t get much further from the societal vision of the mother, who sacrifices herself  on behalf of the family, the home, the good of the society to which she contributes. The one burns everything else on behalf of the art, the other nourishes everyone else through her selflessness. Craft (of the clothespins and glitter glue variety), then, allows a mother to create on behalf of someone else. She can handle an artist’s tools without fear of being seen as selfish. The time spent on creating is still time spent on behalf of the family.

Second, and I think this is more me, crafting vs. artmaking insulates the ego against failure. I’m honestly not a very skilled visual artist. Writing is the form of creation I’m more comfortable with, but I still like working in paint and other visual arts forms. I’m just not great on it. And so, as I did in the art class I took the other day, I retreat into the idea that I am making “crafts,” not art. In other words, I retreat into the cute instead of the beautiful or the interesting.

The class I took the other day focused on embroidery, which is a traditional woman’s form. However, there are many women artists who have leaned into this feminized form to make gorgeous works. Check out the stunners by Ana Teresa Barboza, for example.

Cute Unicorn Embroidery for the Kiddo

Now, as a beginner, I have no right to expect to make such art, and I don’t, but I also have this sick thought pattern: I know that the art I make will be bad, so I won’t make that art because making bad art will be proof that I don’t deserve to make art. In other words, if I make bad art, it’s material evidence that I’m being both self-indulgent and self-deceived. How embarrassing. Better to make a cute craft for my daughter and shield myself from criticism, whether external and internal.

And, at least for me, that’s the story of how I use the cute to forestall attempts at the beautiful. It’s also the story I’m hoping to rewrite, in your company, in this space, every Wednesday.

In future weeks, I’m hoping to talk less about myself and showcase the work of other women. If you know a mother (or you are one such woman) who works professionally in a creative field (visual art, theater, music, cooking, writing, dance, film, etc.) and who might like to be featured here, please drop me a line with recommendations.

With love and gratitude,

Katherine

One Comment Add yours

  1. RSL says:

    Great to read thank you! I will be pondering these new subtleties to the subject for sure, thanks to you. I consistently struggle w mom vs artist as well as stay-at-home mom vs well, anything. Months of at-peace-with-it can go by but it always comes back!

    Liked by 1 person

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