On Having the Courage to be Mediocre
The first was with a client, a 34-year-old supremely talented, wonderfully bolshy director at one of the world’s largest companies. She had recently suffered two miscarriages. Having children had been out there, somewhere, sometime, just as soon as her career ambitions had been realised, so how come the thoughts that filled her head now were how she ached for a baby? That is when she wasn’t worrying about what her colleagues might think about her uncharacteristic time off. Oh and how on earth she’d keep the whole pregnancy thing secret.
The second was with my business partner on the topic of Volkswagen and the emissions scandal that has ripped through the car industry. VW’s deception looks certain to not only have cost the German manufacturer a reputation nurtured over decades, but also asks us to question the values of quality and trust right at the heart of the German culture.
The third was with my art historian husband about comments made by one of Britain’s greatest living artists, Frank Auerbach, in an interview ahead of a major retrospective at The Tate. In the piece, Auerbach suggests that there are no famous female artists because the “physical drama for women before the menopause is entirely different from men’s”. This will continue to be the case he believes; “maybe writing novels suits women better”.
“An old fashioned, unacceptable view, a lot of people would argue” notes interviewer Stefanie Marsh. Yet, whether she is struggling to express her life as art on a canvas, on the page or in the boardroom, we can’t deny that the “physical drama” of motherhood gets in the way. Gets in the way, yes, but entirely prevents her from achieving greatness?
In ArtNews, Linda Nochlin explores this, suggesting that asking the question “why have there been no great women artists?” is simply the tip of an iceberg underneath which there are larger questions to answer about the nature of human abilities in general and of human excellence in particular, and the role that the social order plays in all of this:
But in actuality, as we all know, things as they are and as they have been, in the arts as in a hundred other areas, are stultifying, oppressive and discouraging to all those, women among them, who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class and, above all, male. The fault, dear brothers, lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education—education understood to include everything that happens to us from the moment we enter this world of meaningful symbols, signs and signals. The miracle is, in fact, that given the overwhelming odds against women, or blacks, that so many of both have managed to achieve so much sheer excellence, in those bailiwicks of white masculine prerogative like science, politics or the arts.
The frightening thing is that a version of this article first appeared in ArtNews in 1971.
So the client and I worked our way through a bottle of wine, and told bawdy jokes and remarked on the recent restructuring at her (very male) company, which was driven by its inability to innovate and how this seemed strange when women could create whole humans. I urged her to be a warrior and lean in hard.
But I walked away feeling uneasy. I’d leaned in hard, I’d been a warrior, I’d made the physical drama of it all look like a breeze (one week in intensive care post-birth, one miscarriage, one return to full time work as fast as I could, one exhausted woman years later).
I always groaned at those awful corporate women who boasted that they’d not missed an email in the birthing suite, but in breezing back into the office all too soon, had I let the sisterhood down just as badly?
It saddens me that I thought this was the way to progress my career. It saddens me that I had no appreciation of the power and energy of the feminist movement Linda Nochlin references in her 1971 article. It saddens me that I had no appreciation of the role I should have played in grasping the baton Nochlin and her sisters tried to hand on.
But sadness is not a very powerful emotion; anger has far more energy. I’m angry that my client is grappling with the same shit I had to ten years ago and has to come to terms with losing her babies simultaneously with being terrified that she’ll lose the career she loves. I’m angry that leaders of one of the world’s most valuable brands should have such low regard for human life and such a high regard for shareholder returns.
Striving to achieve greatness, whether on canvas, on the page or in the boardroom, is a wonderful ideal, but I’m angry women don’t accept mediocrity more, because even the most mediocre female exec doesn’t put shareholder returns ahead of human life.