ART IS A JEALOUS GOD. Those of us devoted to making something new in the world often find such a calling to be a consuming fire, devouring not only our waking hours but our sleepless thoughts. To stoke the furnace of our imagination, we will throw anything into the flames: our intimate relationships and family histories, our innermost secrets and private worlds. To realize a vision, we are not above burning bridges.
If art-making seems most at home in bohemian environs, it is because a life devoted to creativity sits uneasily with the expectations of domesticity. Invention happens at a society’s fringes and margins, from liminal spaces where new possibilities can be glimpsed. The habits and obligations of bourgeois life are like blackout curtains against the light of epiphany. In some sense, this bind is felt by every artist who occupies a corporate cubicle to cover rent, buy supplies, and pay down MFA loans. Even those who find a modicum of fiscal security often then find their aspirations bogged down by the never-ending project of running a household: not just the litany of concrete tasks, but all the mental energy gobbled up by meal planning and managing a family’s calendar, budget, and emotional tides.
The artist need not be a hermit; indeed, the artist often needs the catalyst, even competition, of other creators. Some of our most innovative leaps of the imagination have happened in transgressive collectives, whether in Montmartre or Harlem. So it’s not merely Sartre’s “other people” who threaten our creativity; it is the people who have the most right to make demands on us: husbands and wives, daughters and sons. Family has long been experienced as rival to art-making.
For a thousand historical reasons, women have felt this tension most acutely. From novels since the nineteenth century to Florence and the Machine’s 2022 anthem “King,” it has been a perennial theme.
I did not expect a novel about a bisexual Latinx conceptual artist in Los Angeles to hinge on the question of whether art-making is compatible with motherhood. Then I read Yxta Maya Murray’s dazzling Art Is Everything.
To call the book a novel seems inadequate somehow. It is a narrative about the (mis)adventures of Amanda Ruiz that emerges from digital detritus: scraps of text messages, internet search histories, Yelp reviews of museum exhibits, memos to her boss at Snapchat, and guerilla postings on museum websites (that frequently lead to unemployment). This online portfolio, Amanda’s digital imprint on the world, amounts to a memoir of loss and ambition driven by Eros and Thanatos. This experimental form, a reflection of our zeitgeist, is surprisingly compelling. Murray makes it look effortless, and the novel’s second half especially summons a page-turning energy. Amanda is also mordantly funny and acerbic throughout.
When we meet her, she is somewhat surprised to find herself passionately in love with Xochitl Hernández, a well-heeled actuary with a taste for art but little understanding of the madness that fuels creativity. There’s a hint of rom-com setup here: the struggling vegan conceptual artist falling for the steak-eating corporate honcho. But by chapter 2 we see a fracture that will prove fatal: “Xochitl’s cheeks shone with an opal glow. She leaned across the table and touched my arm. ‘What do you think about us starting a family soon?’ She flashed me a shining smile. ‘And by soon I mean now.’”
We get a snippet of Amanda’s search history:
Saturday, May 7, 2016
3:17 AM artists who have children women failures?
Tuesday, July 19, 2016
12:58 PM 66 year old man prolonged cold normal?
Friday, October 28, 2016
11:04 AM Joint bank accounts how to get money when girlfriend mad
Wednesday, December 28, 2016
9:15 AM marisa merz’s dad died how why
1:56 PM Why
This is a remarkably compressed way to advance the narrative while also giving us a sense of Amanda’s fears: Xochitl’s question about a family feels like a threat to her art. Within a few months, Xochitl will be gone. Amanda’s commitment—“art is everything”—means losing out on love.
This search history also foreshadows another devastating loss: the death of her father. We learn of this in a long Instagram post that is ostensibly an art-critical essay on Marisa Merz’s 1980 sculpture Untitled, Undated, 8, a work in unfired kaolinite and pigment that “resembles a grief-stricken cat-head.” The material, unfired and hence unprotected, is steadily dissolving and disappearing, eroded merely by air. Amanda wonders whether disappearance would be a mercy for this creature:
My thesis for this Instagram post keeps getting muddled in the midst of my evidently unstoppable compulsion to write art criticism even in the face of unfucking believable dad mortality, but it essentially boils down to the fact that I, too, keep squeezing my eyes shut tight in shock, and my haggard face looks as if it were streaked with pink and silver paint. I wish I could just pour a glass of water over my head and vanish like Untitled, Undated, 8. Because then I could forget my father’s face in the ICU, his blind eye, the sweat on his forehead, the nurses coming in, the syringe, the last rise of his chest, and then the moments after—when there was no ghost, no small still voice, nothing but the machines whirring and the sound of my own gasping breath.
This scene gives you a taste of an intoxicating feature of Murray’s novel: the way art criticism becomes a vehicle for memoir. If Art Is Everything is a pastiche of digital artifacts, it is also a collage of essays in art criticism. One might say Murray has constructed the novel as a visual-art equivalent to bibliomemoir—the genre in which the author’s story unfolds in conversation with formative books (think of Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch or Elif Batuman’s The Possessed). In this novel, the (fictional) conceptual artist Amanda Ruiz recounts her story through a series of reflections on (real) women such as Marisa Merz, Agnes Martin, Iris van Herpen, Sanja Ivekovic´, and others. Amanda’s life is defined by her art-making—“art is everything”—but also by the art that has shaped her. Art criticism is a mirror precisely because reflection on such art is a way of taking stock of who she has become.
Amanda, however, transgresses one of the cardinal rules of New Criticism: she wants to know how these artists lived, how they loved and lost. She wonders how Marisa Merz mourned her father, how Agnes Martin survived schizophrenia, how Lindsay Tunkl faced loneliness, and, crucially, how Björk manages to be both a mother and astoundingly inventive. The histories we see are search histories, which is to say they are archives of seeking, and they are often preludes to essays in which Amanda works out new possibilities.
The novel’s central tension comes from the perceived binary between art and love, creativity and domesticity. The threat runs both ways: at times Amanda worries about the way a family inhales all of the oxygen in the room, suffocating the artist’s imagination; but also about the predatory nature of art-making, the way artists treat everything and everyone as fodder for their work, the way they are willing to sacrifice everything to realize an aesthetic vision. Already in chapter 2, Amanda notes how many artists’ relationships end in suicide: “For many of the world’s great artists, all of life goes into the work. Not even love escapes this utilitarianism.” For the artist, even the beloved is “material.” Amanda keeps looking for examples of artists who managed to have lives and keep lovers and even have babies. Early on, for example, she is intrigued by the “child-free” relationship between Glenn Ligon and Thelma Golden. “They may have discovered a way to share an affection that does not suck the energy out of the insane will-to-power that most creatives need to do their work. In fact, their love may even make art possible.” Maybe there’s another way to live.
On the other hand, “maybe love is a deadly illusion,” a Lacanian objet petit a, which is to say a kind of phantom of desire, a fiction that promises what it can never deliver. And maybe this is even true of art, which seemed to be everything. Maybe it is all just like the Whitney Anniversary Bag, a (real life) collaboration between Max Mara and the museum: conspicuous consumption given an aesthetic sheen. When a younger Amanda was in the Whitney’s employ and asked to generate ad copy for this object, she couldn’t help but end with a stinging critique of the museum-industrial-complex: “A long, long time ago, we believed that museums, such as the bag-flogging Whitney, were churches uncontaminated by the soul-numbing problems of money.” We were that young, so to speak. Now we live in the twilight of such idols. “Yes, within each sold or gifted Whitney Anniversary Bag hides a small cinder of that dream of what art means and what it should be.”
We witness Amanda’s oscillations between despair and hope, cynicism and ambition, loneliness and connection. And yet she goes on, buoyed by art. One of the most moving passages is her “unsuccessfully submitted” Yelp review of the 2017 Agnes Martin show at LACMA that constitutes chapter 9: “Is This Healing Me or Is It Propaganda.” In the space of a few pages, Amanda wavers between epiphany and despondency. At first, the intricate simplicity of Martin’s canvases inspires hope, kindling a “reawakening suspicion that Art is not the dark force that has hijacked your life, but rather the only human invention that can afford spiritual rescue.” But in the next gallery, the malaise is back. In the pinks and blues of Martin’s late work, Amanda can already glimpse its commercialization as wallpaper in J. Crew. “Isn’t this all a little…baby shower?” she wonders.
But then she recalls what Martin endured after a psychotic break in New York: veritable interment at Bellevue, hundreds of rounds of electroshock therapy, a dislocation from everything she knew. Once again Amanda’s eyes find a different focus, and the painstaking light of Martin’s paintings dawns for her:
It’s only when you know this information that Agnes Martin’s galactic importance reveals itself to you, as you stand there weeping and nodding your head yes. Martin painted the union of all life, the beauty and the perfection of all being, even though she was labeled a monster and electrified like Frankenstein.… Knowing that you have been seen and named by these paintings does not relieve you of your poverty or loneliness, it just clarifies those sorrows.
As she stands crying in the museum, Amanda’s cynicism dissolves, and she
appreciates, once again, the dangerous power of art. “Because art can strengthen the cortisol-flooded heart but also crack it wide open. Art can make you fizz up with religious awe, but it can also thrust a poison-tipped spear deep into your chest. Art performs a difficult consolation that’s part group hug and part curb stomp.” And so, in spite of their co-option by capitalism, museums can still be “altars of love and suffering.”
That worry about a baby-shower aesthetic was Amanda’s body trying to tell her something. She is with child. (There are parts of the story I’m not telling you because I want you to read it.) What was a hypothetical question—Can an artist be a mother?—has now concretized as a situation that demands a decision. The binary logic is back: “I have never considered motherhood before, a vocation for which I seemed ineligible as a consequence of my devotion to the arts.” She assesses the “brutal Boolean algebra of the situation = abortion 1, child 0: Abortion true, child false.” Her assumption is that = child 1, art 0: Child true, art false. Either/or.
Just when you think you know what’s coming next in this wholly secular, feminist novel, an unexpected revelation arrives: his name is Mauricio.
But we could already see Amanda feeling her way toward this decision in chapter 26: “Björk’s Kids Seem OK.” Even as Amanda’s scratching out the pro/con logic of her decision, “such questionable logic is overtaken by a delirious vision of a red beating heart filled with love, which has fixated me for the past two weeks. This red beating heart of love does not belong to the fetus but rather to its host, that is, to me. This numinous love courses out of me or perhaps I should say deeper into me. It flows into the seahorse floating within my torso as I write this. This love pulses out of me like blood drops from a wound, and I cannot shrug off the giddy trepidation that Fate or my aging biology calls upon me to nourish my tiny vampire with it until I die.” This is not irrationality or madness; it is a different logic altogether, a logic of sacrifice, the mathematics of “self-abnegating love.” Faced with what appears to be an either/or choice, Amanda glimpses another way: “‘Sacrifice’ suggests a dazzling idea: the affectionate cannibal, who is also an artist, need not fear subtraction. The red beating heart filled with love + art = a possibility.”
This is what Amanda sees in Björk, both in her art and performance and in her life as a mother: a way to refuse the binary logic that pitted art against love, creativity against family. In the face of the double-bind, Björk refuses to choose, or rather chooses both. Indeed, being a mother seems to fuel Björk’s art. And so Amanda can imagine a different way. “I never wanted to be pregnant or have children until I did become pregnant and have a child,” she admits. “Now I apparently resemble many other women (Xochitl) in my desire to be a mother always, a passion that eclipses anything else. Except that I also want to make art more than anything else, too.” But if Björk can do it, why not Amanda? Björk is an exemplar, an aesthetic saint who inspires mimesis.
What Amanda discovers from the lives of women artists is a possibility that I might call incarnational, even “Chalcedonian,” after the Chalcedonian Formula of AD 451, which testifies that, in Christ, who is truly God and truly human, are entwined as one two realities we would have otherwise thought mutually exclusive. The incarnation is the cosmic irruption of a different, nonbinary logic that makes it possible for the divine and human to both be true of Jesus, “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” What Amanda longs for is a kind of incarnational echo—a life that holds together two vocations, integrating what looks incompatible, braiding into one life forces that might otherwise tear it apart.
In a final missive and scene, Amanda is a single mother working in marketing at Snapchat to pay her bills. Because of a snag at preschool, her toddler, Mauricio, is with her at the office, wreaking havoc, much to the chagrin of the coding bros nearby. Amanda finally scoops him up.
Mauricio hovered above me, flying like a unicorn pony. His Stetson fell off as he looked down at me. His eyes drilled into mine, with deep, almost insane eye-contact.
“I love you,” he said.
I could feel my literal, physical heart unsnap, like an opened coin purse. It hurt.
That moment was better than anything in my life. Even art.
But fifteen minutes later, Amanda is hiding in a toilet stall, frantically writing an essay on her phone, trying to make something new. The negotiation of these callings is never easy, and both demand sacrifice. But here, love stokes the fire. Like Marisa Merz and her comrades in the arte povera movement, we’re all working with lowly and humble materials, which can be the stuff of great art, like Untitled, Undated, 8.
Moved as I am by this novel’s portrait of a mother-artist, like Amanda, I google Yxta Maya Murray and am amazed to discover that she has a day job as a law professor and yet somehow manages to write novels and poetry and plays while also publishing art-critical essays in leading venues. Both Amanda and Murray remind me that art rarely emerges from some ideal life wholly devoted to art; rather, art is made from lives that negotiate a thousand different commitments. The life of an artist is always a collage, drawing on materials at hand, working within constraints. The vagaries of being human and being embedded in a family need not be a threat but can be an incubator of love and security. According to the nonbinary logic of the incarnation, we can be both spouses and painters, parents and poets. We can make beautiful, powerful things in the toilet stall at work or amid the din of the family dining room. We can choose both: “Art is everything” and “I love you more than anything.”
Image: Marisa Merz, The Sky Is a Great Space, 2017. Source: Met Breuer.