How Can an Artist Be? by Cora Currier
In the 1860s, the British writer G.H. Lewes trumpeted the professionalization of literature. “To write for a livelihood,” he remarked, “even on a complete misapprehension of our powers, is at least a respectable impulse. To play at literature is inexcusable: the motive is vanity, the object notoriety, the end contempt.”
In the U.S. at least, we still haven’t concluded under what conditions the artist’s life is a respectable or inexcusable impulse. It’s never been easier to be published, or to publish yourself, but it’s also increasingly difficult to find someone to pay you decently to publish. Despite new avenues of exposure, artists are, as ever, dependent on patrons, private or institutional, or on outside income. The political and economic mainstream considers artists censoriously; business-speak celebrates creativity, but arts and the humanities are asked to prove their economic purpose. Education and career choices are scrutinized for their worth to society and especially to the individual. Arts and humanities graduates who can’t find jobs are chastised for their lack of pragmatism. What society needs, we are told, are scientists and nurses, computer technicians and engineers. Redundancy is commonly cited. I am painfully aware of the sheer volume of writers like me, clicking keystrokes into the cloud. The pursuit of a unique voice is a cultural trope already up for ridicule. The young “artist”—always considered only in aspiration, as now notoriously embodied by Lena Dunham’s Girls—is assumed to be an inept lout: immature, reliant on parents’ funds, and above all, that favored word, entitled.
Like Lewes, we view art as simultaneously profession and identity, and one choice of profession and identity among others. That choice must be made according to some kind of cost-benefit analysis. The emphasis on self-expression—be yourself!—comes with utilitarian obligation—be all that you can be! You must justify your choice of career, as well as have it justify your existence. Also like Lewes, livelihood trumps all—few dispute the career choices of wildly successful artists, even when their work begs the question. A middling level of professional sustenance, or one dependent on grants or precarious work, is considered suspect in this way of thinking.
Two novels published by young writers in the last year, Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner, and How Should a Person Be?, by Sheila Heti, subject us to narratives whose purpose is in large part to justify the existence of the books, and of the role of the artist in general. This is not a new premise, especially for a first novel. Defensive self-reflexivity is characteristic of much literature since modernism. But Heti and Lerner’s protagonists seem pressured to the point of paralysis to try to justify art, the profession, which gets them confused about how to justify themselves. They appear at first the whiny, self-centered artists we’ve come to loathe. We suspect the characters are playing at literature, in a most serious fashion, and it seems they are well on their way to from the motivation of vanity toward the end of contempt, probably skipping notoriety.
Lerner’s novel tells the story of Adam Gordon, a young poet from a comfortable family who graduated from a prestigious university in Providence and headed to Spain on a fellowship. (Lerner himself is from Topeka, went to Brown, spent 2004 in Spain on a Fulbright, and writes and teaches poetry in Brooklyn). Adam arrives unabashed in his merely intellectual interest in art. Lines of poetry compel him only when analyzed in academic texts; he maintains that all poems, not only his own, “aren’t about anything,” and he won’t to take notes because “the idea of actually being one of those poets who was constantly subject to fits of inspiration repelled me. I was unashamed to pretend to be inspired in front of [a girl], but that I had just believed myself inspired shamed me.” His principal problem is that he claims he does not believe in art, or in the existence of “a profound experience of art” (emphasis Adam’s), but he just can’t quit it.
Heti’s “novel from life” describes a messier, more willfully naïve search for artistic justification, but her Sheila is just as crippled by self-consciousness. Sheila is a playwright, and she wants to escape, via the accomplishment of a Great Work of Art, a general petulance, flightiness, and disregard toward others she accurately identifies in herself. If she could make a great play, she would escape an ugliness of character she believes might doom her, as a tragic flaw.
Heti and Lerner poke fun at their characters’ literary ambition. In one scene, Sheila pores over a book called Important Artists, analyzing them by city of origin and calculating where “the odds of meeting someone Important, and thus becoming Important myself, were best.” Adam declares John Ashbery “one of the only people I described as a ‘major poet’ without irony,” but engages throughout his Spanish sojourn in reveries about fame and fortune. So much for vanity and notoriety.
But of course, the books wouldn’t exist were it that easy to dismiss the desire to make Major and Important art. If it’s impossible to make important art, then what we’re doing is trivial and if not indefensible then certainly not compelling. Some may be immune from the need for self-justification, but for many artists, it becomes crippling. If we discount fame and self-regard, and take for granted that we could be materially supported in our endeavors (as Adam and Sheila are, through the beneficence of grants and academia) we have to find another measure for the purpose of art. We can measure a work against the tradition from which it sprung—does is push things forward? Is it a perfection of technique, or a necessary refinement? A dialectical rejection, or something genuinely new? Novelty is an exacting measure, and maybe impossible to judge in the moment. Adam, as is the case with many contemporary poets, has convinced himself novelty is impossible, and spends his time lifting and manipulating other poets’ lines in contrarian anti-originality.
We can come up with a more utilitarian evaluation of art, in keeping with the times. Art that is new, or pushes forward, could be justifiable on those grounds. Popularity, too, though it has come to be associated with a compromise in quality. Finally, political import, which generally would involve some synthesis of the previous two. Is there any point bringing work into the world, of devoting the life of an able-bodied human being to something with no guaranteed success in any of those three realms?
Adam and Sheila at times exhibit delusive political ambitions that Lerner and Heti gently, if mockingly, deflate. Adam wants momentarily to write a great political poem, the poem that would explain and denounce what his Spanish hosts call the United States of Bush, but the impulse fails. He can’t take himself seriously as a political actor, can’t summon the presumption that poetry, that archaic form, might have something important to say about war or destruction. We await the political awakening promised in the title (the Atocha Station is the sight of the terrorist bombing in 2004, the year the novel is set) to jolt Adam to a profound experience of art, as occasioned by the intrusion of the political. But he continues to be thwarted by self-consciousness, unable to lose himself even amid the spontaneous solidarity marches after the bombing, still hearing his own voice ring false when he tries to join the chants. Sheila, for her part, announces: “I am writing a play. I am writing a play that is going to save the world. If it only saves three people, I will not be happy.” Earnestness is easy to mock, and usually deserves it. A rival for Adam’s love interest is a communist who votes for the fascist party to try to tear down the system. A playwright friend of Sheila’s, for whom it had become “really difficult to separate my desire to create art from my narcissism” goes to Africa, and has a “profound experience” [sic!] of his own: “Oh my God! These are all people! There are a million people that live in shacks that are awesome people.” He then conspires to turn it into a play, featuring the voices of African women.
Adam and Sheila may be rather obnoxious individuals more interested in the superstructure of regard—cultural capital, fame, a faddish desire to be of the moment—than they are in actual ethics or politics. It seems likely too that Heti and Lerner aim to undermine the idea that artists of the twenty-first century can be sincerely political, except in roundabout commentary. The characters’ grandiose dreams are mocked even by their own myopic selves, and the overtly “political” characters in the book are quickly knocked down to size and caricatured. Neither Adam nor Sheila can find meaning in their art through politics. Instead, both characters are obsessed with identifying what might be a more honest pursuit than the fraudulent “work” (Adam puts it in scare-quotes) with which they fill their days. Adam constantly refers to a point in his life at which he will stop doing certain things—smoking, drinking, radically questioning the purpose of art—and settle down into a comfortable professional life. Sheila finds satisfaction (somewhat unbelievably) in a hair salon—work that makes people feel their best selves, she says. She can perform it without qualms.
An honest day’s work is virtuosic and an end in itself. The content or productivity of the work, if it does no appreciable harm, is generally less important than the vim and sincerity with which we go about it. Why should we suspect art is less than honest work? The denigration stems from a lack of sincerity and sureness rooted in the individual. If we were able to be absolutely sure that a work of art was a Great Work of Art, we would need no such justification. But absent some affirmation of that we cannot be sure that our doing or making is justified. If it brings happiness to people: is that enough? To how many people? If it expresses a powerful political sentiment: is that enough? To have expressed it? How many will see it? Will seeing it spur them to action or merely move or shock them? Can we cling to the image of a ripple effect?
There’s something tremendously irritating, and yes, entitled, about both novels. They make clear to us that they can’t possibly be so naïve as to take their own gripes seriously, and yet they subject us to them. Those of us who are busy earning livelihoods that don’t put us through an existential wringer-washer daily begin to suspect that the codgers who complain about the “adult-escent” or millennial, or whatever other awful generational moniker they attempt, have a point—there is a sour smell of dysfunction in postmodern hyper-self-awareness (self-awareness is a virtue; self-consciousness a vice). The release from Adam and Sheila’s creative and personal paralysis comes through quite ordinary engagement with others, not through radicalization. Details of the world beyond him start to flow into Adam’s writing. Sheila reaffirms her friendships. In either case, the self is diminished, a bit, and the work proceeds.
There still seems to be a comparative authenticity in found art, outsider art, or art that emerges despite the strictures of a working-class existence (even when that class is white-collar: Wallace Stevens was a successful insurance executive). Art that still seems able to express “the cry of its occasion” (to hold up Stevens again) and not the cry of its author. When art is not the primary, or even just the only purpose of its author’s existence, we trust it a little more.
In a sense, these criticisms stem both from art’s isolation from the mainstream—its (unfair) denigration as useless and entitled and obtuse—and from the influence of commercial ideologies upon art. This is not to say we should eliminate academic art tracks or any other mechanism that gives artists space to work and think. But professional avenues for art don’t eliminate vanity and contempt, and may make them worse. Were art not to be thought of as a professional identity that was the be all and end all of the individual, were it to be decoupled from its professional moorings and instead considered something that was done, in concert with politics and work and community rather than trying to encapsulate them all, professionally, then the existential stakes might be less paralyzing, and we might get art that spoke to, by happy and necessary incident, those very topics.