Reframing Self-Indulgence: Representations of The Millennial Artist by Kellie Lanham

“Why don’t you just tell them you’re an artist. You just need to tell them once and for all that you are an artist. […] Tell them you’ll get Tuberculosis in a garret if you have to. Tell them it’s what Flaubert did. […] Tell them that Picasso did it. Rappers who were poor and sold their tapes in the street did it. It’s what Elvis did. It’s what Mick Jagger did. It’s what my stepbrother did. They all stuck to their guns.”-       Jessa (Girls: season 1, episode 1)

There has been a lot said, researched, and reported about the Y Generation’s – or how they are more commonly known, millennials – relationship to narcissism and self-importance. Time magazine posited that, “The incidence of narcissistic personality disorder is nearly three times as high for people in their 20s as for the generation that’s now 65 or older, according to the National Institutes of Health; 58% more college students scored higher on a narcissism scale in 2009 than in 1982. Millennials got so many participation trophies growing up that a recent study showed that 40% believe they should be promoted every two years, regardless of performance.”[1] Also known as the “Me Generation,” it’s safe to encapsulate the millennial stereotype as follows; a generation in their twenties that grew up with parents that practiced positive reinforcement, leading them to believe everything they do or produce is a cause for celebration. As this depiction is perpetuated in popular film and television, it almost always follows that this generations leading archetypes are self-identified “artists.” A career choice that on the surface appears to be about pure self-expression and vanity, this vocation seems to encapsulate everything we think we know about this generation. While the titles “millennial” and “artist” seem to go hand in hand, depictions of this character-type, unfortunately, seem to undermine the art practices of all artist in their 20s. In a close examination of this stereotype we can hopefully see beyond the unabashed narcissism, and toward the unique skills of this generation, that have the power to produce social and political change.

Most famous of the portrayals of millennial life is Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls. The sitcom hosts an array of flailing-artist characters – Jessa: the, sometimes-babysitter, nomad who seeks to live a life of expression and experience, Hannah: the aspiring writer, and self-proclaimed “voice of my generation,” who exposes herself to awkward and odd situations “for the story,” too name a few. Similar to Dunham’s account is Noah’s Baumbach’s latest film Francis Ha, which tells the tale of a young, awkward dancer who validates her broke, basically homeless existence by simply declaring, “I am an artist!” These narratives indeed produce ample amounts of criticism for a generation whose character and artistry on the surface appears to be indulgent and half-hazard.  In another recent Times article titled “The Problem with Lena Dunham’s Girls,” Bill Persky, Emmy Award-winning director, screenwriter, producer, actor and co-creator of the iconic sitcom That Girl, denounces the show for having poor role models for a generation already lost, letting “its characters wallow in low self-esteem, high self-pity and perpetual victimhood.”[2] While Persky’s summation of narrative themes is indeed accurate, what he fails to understand is s a changing audience demographic. Positive depictions of working women in positions of power were what a generation needed in the 1960s and 70s. Shows like Persky’s That Girl did indeed serve up powerful role models, but when compared to today’s cultural setting, being a good role model does little to nothing in way of change. The millennial generation feeds off of identification rather the emulation. The ability one has to sympathize with a main character, and perhaps learn from their drawbacks is what inspires the viewer of today.

Then there is this notion of the “artist.” A loosely defined term applied to popular culture depiction of millennials, its widespread application suggests that all people of this generation seem to identify themselves as “creative types.” This stereotype may hold some truth; even those who are not directly linked to careers in the arts are the curators and authors of Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter pages. While this recent phenomenon leads everyone to feel proficient at and entitled to artistic expression, it also leads a culture to undervalue and underappreciate fine art and artistry: a blog is just as significant as a novel, and a filtered cell phone snap-shot, just as moving as an analog photograph. We are stuck within a challenging space amid highbrow and low, worried about making the problematic distinction between the two. Within this climate it makes complete sense our main archetypes are “artists.” Never defining or limiting what this term actually means just keeps us questioning the inherit grey-scale. In this way, the aforementioned quote does not only point to the conflated and romantic idea of what an artist is and was, but also to the comedy in this generation’s inability to identify what the title actually connotes.

The work of the millennial writers, artists, activists, and all those in-between, is not so much about self-indulgence, but a heightened self-awareness: aware of the pitfalls of this generation and open to unabashedly and explicitly examining and critiquing these flaws. It is also significant to report that this group of young people does not buy into authority figures, institution, or hierarchy.[3] Unafraid to challenge systems of power, and willing to deconstruct their flawed and, at times, contradictory position with these systems, their activism and art is biting. Although there appears to be a penchant for narcissism, millennial’s cultivate an art practice that seeks to serve collective good thru these conflated images of popular culture and self.  Looking beyond Hannah Horvath at the actual work of Lena Dunham, we find an intimate, and highly self-conscious depiction of this generation, not created as an act of vanity (who would want to represent themselves as a flailing mess?), but an act of questioning and riling up a generation who might be wallowing in such vanity.


[1] Joel Stein, “Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation,” Time Magazine, May 20, 2013.

[2] Bill Persky, “Viewpoint: The Problem with Lena Dunham’s Girls,Time Magazine, Feb. 08, 2013,

[3] Joel Stein, “Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation.”