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08 April, 2007

FATHERS: A DIFFERENT IMAGE--ABOUT THE ARTS, FATHERHOOD AND THEIR MUTUAL INSPIRATION

By: Mr. Joep Zander
Translated By: Mr. Hein van Gils
[Originally Written in Dutch and Translated into English; Excerpted From Published Book ”MISSING FATHERHOOD”and Published With Author’s Permission]

The image of my missing daughter arrives occasionally in a distorted and negligible form. When the mother of my child mails the photograph, the image I receive is an appropriate and shocking symbol of actual distance: too vague and far away to be recognizable. The better photos that become secretly available are emotionally confrontational. I begin copying these photos to canvas. Little boxes appear on the canvas, filled piece by piece with images. Over the months, fragmented elements from the observation of my daughter are evolving. A fresh cut by the palette knife created exactly the intended, emotional element and made me feel liberated from the mythical power of the realistic picture.


Art And Political Change

Desperate acts of fathers forbidden to see their children (by court order on request of the mother) madden fathers like me also missing their child. Such acts of desperation are an expression of frustrated communication between father and society. The impact is so large
because fathers are mercilessly confronted with a world without a
place for their emotions.

In 1997, a wave of infanticide and suicide was reported; fathers killing their children and themselves out of desperation because of the hopelessness of their continuing (family) relationship. The authorities deliberately barred all channels for expression of anger by fathers through the media. The government acted counterproductively for fear of inciting more infanticides and suicides. As an artist I had the possibility of throwing my emotions (about my missed child) on the canvas. After attempting (in vain) for years to express the relationship of Mother-Child-Father artistically from a cerebral/theoretical perspective on the family, the primordial emotion prompted by infanticide pushed me to express the (family) relationship and especially the emotional barrier between fatherhood and society. A postcard depicting this painting was used in a mailing action to Senators. This contributed to discussions in the Senate on re-introducing joint legal and physical custody of children post divorce and separation.

Can art change society? Traditional history of art tends to answer this question in the negative. With the minor exception of the beginning of the Belgian revolution on 25 August 1830, which saw spectators of the opera La Muette de Portici run amuck and rise against the bourgeoisie. However, I believe that art may assist in opening closed shutters. Nevertheless, the results may not necessarily be recognizable by political impacts. Even types of art explicitly dedicated to inciting change, are shown in hindsight to have been only a footnote in the course of history. Political engagement seems currently to have a comeback in the arts. Last year a well-known art critic was recently overheard saying that the engaged artist is recognized in his own working environment rather than in the world of arts. Perhaps artistic aspects go unnoticed in the world of action men. For example, the repeated appearances of Batman and Spiderman on bridges and palaces have an aspect of political performance that has so far received little attention.

Arts And Fatherhood

Is it possible to express missed fatherhood artistically? Yes, it has been happening for years already. Composers have written songs about diminutive visitation schedules (Saturday He Sees Sandra) and distorted motherhood (Lying With Love; Medea Joop Visser- Dutch songwriter). However, you will hear neither Frans Halsema (Dutch cabaret performer) nor Joop Visser going any further. What the story actually is, remains in the dark. The popular Dutch singer Andre Hazes revealed a telling detail in the weekly "Vrij Nederland: " I recently gave permission for a name change, because it seems better for that (my) boy. Honestly speaking, I found it quite difficult to do. As if you let him go for good." Issues the singer seemed to hint at in his repertoire, but never very explicitly.

The opposite is shown by the pop musician Bob Geldof, and (his) Band 8, known for publicly speaking out on wounded fatherhood. Craig Adeanto produced a CD filled with songs (about missed fatherhood). "König und Bettler" (English: King and Beggar) by Tobias Bucklein is an album full of songs about fatherhood, including crushed fatherhood.

Upon the death of Willem Wilmink (Dutch poet, songwriter and singer), I discovered a less well-known poem: Father As Help Line. In this poem, he describes the mathematical significance of a help line. The help line representing the father-and-son bond after (parental) divorce:

My son, could I cut the distance,
And as a father and friend,
repeating these reassuring words,
see my boy…a2 + b2 = c2

August Strindberg's play "The Father" (1987) provides a critical look at fatherhood by depicting the battle between a father and a mother about raising their daughter. Strindberg sees the (historical) uncertainty of fatherhood (should be passé since DNA tests have become available and affordable) as the root of the problem. Whereas biological motherhood has always been unambiguous, fatherhood has been dependent on recognition by mothers. Although literary critics tend to see Strindberg’s position as a reflection of his individual/personal experiences, it has undeniable social relevance today. In the Netherlands, registration of children’s paternity on their birth certificate is still subject to a veto by the mother. Critics from feminist corners consider Strindberg to be a pathological misogynist. Even at the time, his positions were contrary to the budding feminism.

In literature (recently John Irving) and cinema (Kramer vs. Kramer), many examples may be encountered of old and new approaches to fatherhood. In this article, I will focus on the visual arts and fatherhood, because little has been written about it. I hope that my endeavor will stimulate others to explore the relationship between cultural features and fatherhood.

The Visual Arts

An etching by the painter Adriaen van Ostade from 1648 shows a father bottle-feeding his baby. It would seem from this scene that sharing caretaking of their children within the household between father and mother was quite normal (in the days of the Golden Age in the Low Countries).

A number of artists try to fill the void between contrasting man/fatherhood and woman/motherhood discourse. For example, the Dutch artist Andre Schaller created the statue The Judgment of Solomon on commission from the National Government ("Rijksgebouwendienst"). An exceptional statue resulted, in part because the sword (of Solomon) was obviously omitted. The personal motivation of the artist is still unknown. Was it just a sculpture on commission? Did he thoroughly research his given topic (as artists would usually do when given such a commission)? Or does the statue reflect fatherhood experiences of the creator. The statue was first exhibited in the enclosed garden within the Superior Court building Later it received exposed wider public exposure on a high plinth (5.5 m), placed on the sidewalk alongside the Court building. After much criticism, among others in my earlier book, the statue was finally positioned opposite the entrance of the High Court building hopefully enlightening judges in passing. In this way, the monument representing The Judgment of Solomon has acted as a focal point of public debate and demonstrations. The Judgment of Solomon seems not to refer directly to fatherhood, conversely it deals with two mothers. Feminist commonly accuse the fatherhood movement of putting the law at the centre of the discourse on fatherhood. Critical reflection on the Judgment of Solomon implies therefore a consideration of the position of fathers.

Monument And Mourning

Missed fatherhood is also difficult for fathers because of a perceived lack of mourning opportunities. Even if the emotions of frustrated fathers were recognized, coming to terms with the complete loss of one’s child who has not died, is a macabre challenge. The mirror image of the virtual death of the child is the death of the father. Ultimately, the mother and children can only accomplish the extradition of the father from the family by pretending that the father is dead. However, even the pretence of the dead father will not be good enough. “Yes”, answered the single-mother-by-choice to my question: "Would you still feel frightened even if only (after prohibition of all visitation, contact and information) a tombstone of him (the father) would be left? Such subjective perceptions of mothers are rarely tested against facts (what threatening acts or attitudes are actually being displayed by the father?). A tombstone could indeed be a step in dealing with the abundant trauma. The arts may add value to such a monument. My book includes a description of a project by Emiel Smulders, which may be seen from this tombstone perspective. It would be really something if a tombstone (for mourning missed fatherhood) would be constructed somewhere in the world. May be a "backward" country may hold up the mirror to the west by offering a place for such a monument to missed fatherhood. Excuse me for the implied cynicism.

Marco Piono, a father and artist from Germany, also designed such a monument. In his studio, he shows his prototype in two sizes. It represents a baby’s head, that of his own child. Two days after the birth of his daughter Stella Maris, he started to model her in clay. Now, ten years later he stills misses her. His monument will be a large rock of offence. Its realization is awaiting a spot where the prototype can be scaled up to 120 tons of marble, 4 meters high as an urgent call to take care of future generations.

Personal And Politics

Words cannot always express emotions. During my early court dealings for visitation rights of father and daughter, I felt the strong urge to bring my guitar to play a song for the honorable judge. Later, I supplied the Superior Court in Arnhem with reproductions of paintings during my case that ended, remarkably enough to most, in hindsight, with a favorable ruling for me.

The method of taking away fatherhood by imposing a set of unreal rationalizations (by the courts), requires special strategies (on the part of the father) to survive this judicial scythe. These survival strategies are as therapeutically unavoidable as they are essential for political action. So far, these survival strategies have not received recognition within the fatherhood movement. On the other hand, the compulsory focusing on individual court cases mostly precludes solidarity among victims (of fatherhood theft).

"The personal is political" is a famous slogan in feminism. However, if a man uses the same slogan it may hit him in the face like a boomerang. Even artists, professionals in bringing the personal and the political to the stage, canvas or movie screen, have to be careful not to cross the threshold of political correctness when dealing with fatherhood. Strong resistance to political debate on certain issues often indicates the strong need for change. Ultimately, the connection between the personal and the political may prove to be the arrow aimed at the Achilles’ heel of the Fatherhood issue.

Niki de Saint Phalle is a woman known for contributing to feminism with her artistic innovations. She provoked with explicitly masculine performances including much shooting. She explored feminine emotions in her art work, expressed her joy in the liberation of women as well as pride in the female body. She acted provocatively while exposing simultaneously her vulnerability. She always put her art works in the context of what was done to her as a woman in her childhood. She finally chose Jean Tinguely as her consort for life. He is/was an expressionist artist with an unmistakable male drive. Their relationship seems to me to be the optimal exploration of the male and female and to illustrate the role of both in the arts.

Masculinity

Feminism is much more prominent in the arts than its emancipating masculine equivalent. Men and fathers therefore should not only learn to exploit the personal (in politics) but also express masculinity in the arts.
If they do so, it becomes “immediately soft and sentimental with birdies…”, criticized Marlene Dumas, female and painter on this subject.

Engagement of painters becomes politically powerful when it strengthens the artist himself and his message. The opportunities for this role of (political) art will increase in the coming years, in my opinion, without denying the autonomous position and functions of art. These elements have contributed to my own strategy for expressing and fostering my fatherhood. The outside inside and the inside outside. With an image that moves the perception of fatherhood.



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References

http://joep.nl.nu Website of Joep Zander including art and publications (English and Dutch)
http://papa.nl.nu/beeld The arts about fatherhood (in Dutch)
http://www.marco-piono.de Website of Marco Piono
http://www.bueklein.de Website of Tobias Bűcklein
http://www.craigdeanto.com Website of Craig Deanto

Mr. Joep Zander is a pedagogue and artist living in the Netherlands. He regularly publishes on fatherhood, family law and Parental Alienation Syndrome. His latest book "Missing Fatherhood" is expected to be published soon. The book is compiled around seven interviews with fathers complemented by chapters with background information. One of the chapters in the book is about fatherhood and the arts. At the request of In Search of Fatherhood®, the latter chapter is made available in English prior to its Dutch version with minor adaptations for international readership.

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