Taking myself as a reader out of the “ratings game” for a moment, The Blazing World deserves five stars for its ambition, passion, ferocity, and intelligence. It’s a complex book about a complex woman who is consistently undermined and undervalued (probably because she is a woman, and certainly because she’s an older one), and who vows to expose to the world the bias and hypocrisy of those who do so. It’s told after her death through a series of her journal entries, along with written statements and interviews with the people who knew her, all compiled by an author/researcher writing a meta-biography about her called The Blazing World. (Yes, it’s the book we are reading.) The woman, Harriet Burden, during her lifetime allegedly undertook a grand social experiment/work of performance art called Maskings, which was a series of three art exhibitions that are conceived, directed, and mostly created in the hands-on sense too, by Burden, but they are shown as the work of three different men. While each of the projects involve some level of collaboration, Burden is meant to be the primary artist, the mastermind, the one with the inspiration. The three men are her masks, and her performance naturally changes a bit to fit the mask she wears, but she is the performer nonetheless.
Her final reveal that she was behind it all is undercut by the final and most famous of the three artists she worked with denying that she was anything other than a patron of his own work. Due to his fame and Burden’s relative obscurity, the “art world” was inclined to believe him, and the story became legend shortly after as a result of the male artist’s accidental death and therefore inability to ever later be available for further statements or clarification on the matter. The author of the meta-Blazing World is both trying to find the truth behind what happened with the final exhibition, and to humanize Burden, whose vitality, directness, and intelligence were clearly intimidating and emasculating to many of the men interviewed for the book. These men, the collectors, art critics, and academics that could have championed her, failed to take her seriously as an artist and give the kind of testimony that vindicate Burden, referring to her using her late husband’s surname even though she never took it as her own, and calling her “shrill” and “aggressive” when she doesn’t just let the men do all the talking for her.
I really respect and admire fictional Harriet Burden, and likewise, this book, for going after this subject, and not at all politely, for really dissecting gender and performance and perception, and for lauding the women who don’t act right. And yet, I failed to fully engage with the book. I think a lot of it, to be quite honest, is that I don’t really appreciate the type of art that this book engages with, the modern mixed-media installations full of “layers” and “meaning”. Burden describes feelings of frustration when other people don’t make those connections, and feelings of contempt for those who think they understand it when their reading is only superficial. I recognize myself among the ignorant.
But the esoteric nature of Burden’s art raises questions that paint her whole experiment in a different light. Two things are certainly true: 1) her art is brainy, and was underappreciated under her own name. 2) All three installations shown by male artists received more attention and accolades than anything that was shown by Burden herself. Unquestionably, there is sexism at play, as several of the statements and interviews make uncomfortably clear, but there is also something to be said for pandering a bit to the audience if one wants to be popular, for being willing to divulge some of the meaning or else to invite completely open interpretation. Harriet Burden, while married, played the role of the meek, unassuming wife, effectively suppressing herself; as a widow, she felt free to never shrink again and to proudly and loudly be herself. She wanted, understandably, to be respected for her mind, and she wanted to be understood, but that understanding often relied on people being as educated and creative as her. And when they weren’t, that frustrated her, and she didn’t want to have to explain, to condescend. She had her pride.
Harriet was “difficult.” She had an artistic temperament, and the longer she went misunderstood, the more angry and untouchable she became. But having sacrificed so much of herself before, she refused to temper any of it. She wanted to remain difficult, but she wanted to be well-regarded. The likelihood of that is still gendered, in that difficult men get passes more often than difficult women, but the fact remains that being uncompromising, having a volatile temper, and being occasionally condescending are not traits that endear either men or women to the majority of people whom they would like to charm. Burden was difficult, and the three men she chose to show her work each, in their own way, knew how and were willing to pander and play the game. Is their relative success therefore mainly because they are men? Or because they are more willing to sacrifice a little personal pride to engage with the lower lifeforms? Then again, is that something that’s easier to do as a man, because they haven’t spent their entire lives doing it to be more palatable as a human being, and not just for the sake of their reputation as artists?
The Blazing World was not a book that I read quickly, or that I wanted to read quickly, despite its relatively short length. I needed time to digest it, and, occasionally, relieve myself of the vicarious anger that I could not help but absorb. It’s a challenging book, and it occasionally reads as a bit self-serious, which I do viscerally find a bit off-putting. But the content itself made me question that instinct, because being dismissive of the passion and intellect of the artist, just because I don’t fully understand the forms that they take, is part of the problem that plagued Harriet Burden, and doubly so because she was a woman and her passion and intellect are taken less seriously by default. I realized, after reflecting for several days, that not understanding her art, or being overwhelmed by her journal entries, was beside the point. It’s trite to say, shortly, that the book “makes you think,” but the value of the book was in the questions I was left with, and in how I wanted to challenge her experiment and have a dialogue about it. So maybe I “got it” after all.