It probably goes without saying that if you take yourself too seriously in middle school, you’re gonna have a target on your back. If you’re angsty and emotional – maybe most especially if you’re angsty and emotional AND make art about it AND have the gall to show that art to people – you’re gonna get sh*t for it. I’d wager most people like the feel of power and control; not many like to picture themselves as adrift, susceptible to the whim of the elements. If the latter is what you tend to reflect back to the rest of humanity, prepare for more than your share of haters.
Abigail Rosenthal gets at this in her article for The Houston Chronicle about coming to terms with Taylor Swift. She realizes that her prior youthful aversion to Swift was mainly recognition that Taylor was dangerous to identify with, lest her barefaced honesty infect you:
“Earnestness was something that felt unavailable to me, something I couldn’t embrace if I wanted to make it far in life. Earnestness was uncool, and I didn’t want to be the kind of girl who wallowed in or even outwardly acknowledged my heartbreak, embarrassments, or loneliness. Honest earnestness felt like handing someone the weapon to use against me later, and Taylor Swift seemingly opened the whole armory and offered everyone a choice, blatantly writing about those who had wronged her and how much it hurt.”
My writing has never been anything like teenage Taylor’s – or grown-up Taylor’s, for that matter – and our aesthetics are diametrically opposed (aside from, maybe, the lace-up boots she wore in one particular performance of “I Knew You Were Trouble”). But very early on, when she was still a kid and I was a young adult, I recognized something common between us, and I was unashamed of this. There was a knack for storytelling, of course (I still think the line, “Our song is the slam of screen doors” is brilliant), but not just that: we called out our antagonists in a way that burned like steel strings on tender fingertips.
You’ve gathered by now that I was widely disliked in middle school.
Lately I’ve been following the work of someone I consider to be a consummate craftsperson. Like, in the old school sense: training with masters to learn traditional techniques and producing highly sought-after handiworks. (I mean, WTF, I thought folks wanted millennials to learn age-old trades so that time-tested methods of doing things wouldn’t die out!) But it also happens that this person is going through some romantic hardship publicly, and producing meticulously crafted self-portraits that appear to reflect this hardship. As a result, some are using all-too-familiar descriptors like “self-indulgent,” “emotionally manipulative,” “attention-seeking,” and “childish.” No matter how stunning the intricacy of the product, there is mistrust over the very concept of a heart-wrenching tableau that happens to be a staged selfie (never mind that this sort of thing, by its very nature, could not exist spontaneously). There are also suggestions that this person’s choices to a) remain childless in her mid thirties, and b) pursue an artistic career while receiving some support from a more famous and wealthy (now-ex) spouse – are proof of her frivolity, her aimlessness, her arrested development.
Of course, none of this is new. Frida Kahlo was cast as Rivera’s “weird wifey” doing her solipsistic thing on the periphery. Her use of herself as a subject was in part an adaptive technique in response to her physical ailments, yet Google search terms about her are commonly linked to self-obsession. In a 2012 article for Toronto Life, Stephen Marsh calls Frida the “Patron saint of Internet-enabled narcissism.” Leda Black states, “Frida was a masochist and a narcissist, an alcoholic and a drug addict, a self-conscious seeker of attention. She used her pain to exploit and manipulate people. And people use her pain to exploit her right back.” Stephanie Mencimer, for Washington Monthly, writes:
“Some feminist art historians have struggled against [the] reworkings of women artists [into ‘an ideal of quietly suffering femininity’], but Kahlo’s pop-culture mania revives it with a vengeance. Kahlo certainly facilitated this process by painting herself as the quietly suffering female. In every possible sense, the mass-culture Kahlo embodies that now-poisonous term: victimhood. She was the victim of patriarchal culture, victim of an unfaithful husband, and simply the victim of a horrific accident. But that’s probably one reason why she’s so popular. ‘People like to see women as victims,’ says Mary Garrard, a professor of art history at American University.”
Now, I’m going to go out on a limb here and ask: why is portraying one’s pain in art an inherent adoption of victim mentality? As humans with emotions and soft fleshy parts, we are bound to display vulnerability now and again. Is reflecting this in our art intrinsically weak – or simply matter-of-fact? Could the expression of same not just as easily be viewed as courageous? Should we only show it when our nemesis is an “evil” institution and not just another flawed human who broke our heart?
And what, truly, is wrong with someone in their mid-late thirties choosing not to have a family and to focus on art that reflects their state of mind? What is inherently harmful about, say, middle-aged people and their fellow childfree friends swinging around lampposts or posing with roadside attractions, taking photos all the while? That is, unless you measure them against your personal religious priorities, or completely fabricated cultural milestones of adulthood that mean less and less every day.
Disdain for unvarnished expressions of angst surfaces often in the music press as well. Intense emotionality, in particular, is still generally regarded as a feminine thing. It’s still a joke, even if an open-minded one, that the souls of men gathered in a pool hall might cry out in commiseration with the protagonist of Olivia Rodrigo’s “Driver’s License.” (Though I’m sure there are examples aplenty of seemingly sensitive, aesthetic, or literary dudes getting trashed for this sort of thing, too. Robert Smith quipped about Morrissey: “He’s a precious, miserable bastard. He’s all the things people think I am.”)
There’s also the trope of the pampered, financially comfy creative who’s never needed to have a “real job” (what qualifies as this, and why?) and so can devote themselves to artsy-fartsy pursuits all day. “What does she do, anyway?” they ask of the textile artist or the candidate for an advanced degree in fashion or interior design.
In the perennial words of Daniel Johnston:
Everyone and friends and family
Saying, “Hey, get a job.
Why do you only do that only?
Why are you so odd?”
We don’t really like what you do
We don’t think anyone ever will
It’s a problem that you have
And this problem’s made you ill”
Though it is hard to completely unshackle the “life of leisure” accusations from biological sex. For instance, the idea of “jewelry maker” (a la Portlandia) along with, say, “scrapbooker” or “crocheter,” often comes with a subtext of “capricious housewife,” or perhaps “cat lady on disability.”
Obviously a thread of misogyny is woven through all of this, but I also have to think that that sort of criticism frequently stems from jealousy. Who among us would be able to resist the temptation of doing the thing we love 24/7 – or even, if necessary, freely experimenting to find the thing we love – if it were financed wholly and painlessly by a willing benefactor? My cis-het male partner and I, both creative and possessed of infinite, debatably non-lucrative ideas, regularly joke that we need a sugar daddy who will take on the both of us.
Add to this that many people without creative talents likely have little ability to gauge the vision, planning, or technical skill involved in making an artistic product. I still remember my dad listening to a David Gilmour solo in the car when I was in high school, shrugging, and saying to me, “You could do that.” It always struck me less as a parent having faith in a child and more a severe failure of listening comprehension. (That, or my dad was trolling me before trolling was even a widely defined phenomenon.) Bidisha writes of Frida in The Guardian: “The paintings are the product of decades of serious and deliberate work fuelled by Kahlo’s artistic vision, career ambition, technical skill and brilliance with colour and form. They were not just sublimations of bodily agony or uncontrolled expressions of emotion, but composed and considered pieces. They came from her mind, not just her gut, her heart or her broken back, and they were produced with great stamina and determination, despite physical and mental pain.”
Folks would do well to remember that.
To put a cap on this roiling mishmash: I am an artist. I make art from personal experience because it’s the only thing I feel I know intimately enough to represent. When people hurt my feelings, I portray that, too, because it would be absurd to omit noteworthy experiences from my art. I would make art even if no one could see it, but because I have the means to put it in front of people, I do that, in the hopes that it lights someone up or sees someone through the way others’ art has done for me. It’s an unstoppable impetus.
I’ll end with some random internet folks who really GET IT.
That is all.