Rejection Feeds Artistic Creation. Cancellation Starves It. (Part 2 of 2)
During the "Ask Ellen" segment of Relatable, Degeneres invites a friend, the actor Laura Dern, who is sitting in the audience (next to Eddie Vedder, by the way), to stand up. Dern played the character DeGeneres's Ellen Morgan comes out to on the 1990s sitcom Ellen. "She didn't get work for a year, two years?" DeGeneres says. "Just because she was my love interest on the show."
DeGeneres talks in Relatable about difficult life passages: losing a girlfriend in an auto accident and then moving into a flea-ridden apartment, where she wrote what would become her first stand-up material; the pariah years between sitcom cancellation and daytime talk show; and the collateral damage DeGeneres felt she caused—"I ruined a lot of people's lives"—to Oprah Winfrey, Laura Dern, and others involved in the making of "Puppy Episode."
The question DeGeneres is responding to when she asks Laura Dern to stand is about whether another sage of our time whispered any magical secret words in her ear: "When you decided to come out to Oprah on your TV show, what was her advice to you?"
This question hints at the complex identity of Ellen.
Is the questioner asking what advice the character Oprah was playing gave to the character Ellen DeGeneres was playing? Is she asking what advice Oprah Winfrey the person was giving to Ellen DeGeneres the person?
Ellen is Ellen. Ellen is Dory. Ellen DeGeneres is Ellen Morgan.
Laura Dern, a person who happens to be straight, wasn't getting work because of, DeGeneres implies, homophobia.
No separation between these women and their art.
Separate the woman from the art. Separate the man from the art.
In Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, a complex braid of comedy and meta-comedy, part stand-up special and part monologue on the ways in which comedy allows for and masks the truth, a comedic and often heartbreakingly serious dissertation on the ethics of comedy, Gadsby troubles this question of separating the man from the art, through a critique of Pablo Picasso.
(My summary of the Picasso bit, which starts at about minute 51 of Nanette, doesn’t capture Gadsby’s cadence, and so I of course recommend you watch the original.)
Gadsby’s criticism of Picasso begins with the story we tell about him, his deification: "He’s sold to us as this passionate, virile, tormented genius." She then explores his "mental illness of misogyny," a criticism she levels at High Art more generally: "The history of western art is just the history of men painting women like they’re flesh vases for their dick flowers." Damningly, she paraphrases something Picasso said about "burning" his ex-wives so as to erase their pasts, their histories, their place in his past.
Gadsby's personal deal-breaker is Picasso’s sexual relationship with Marie-Thérèse Walter, who was seventeen when she met the artist, who was in his mid-forties. Gadsby says, "Picasso fucked an underage girl—and that’s it for me. Not interested."
Shortly after watching Nanette, I noticed this mirror hanging in the hallway of my son’s school:
Gadsby takes umbrage at the admonition that she should “learn to separate the man from the art.”
And Picasso does present a particular challenge here, especially since his relationships to women and his artistic representations of women are, to put it generously, cautionary tales on the abusive enactment of the myth of the Muse.
Even the most flattering treatment of his relationships with women makes it difficult to argue Gadsby’s point about Picasso’s misogyny.
Gadsby wants us not to separate the man from the art.
So what does that mean? What do we do?
What do I say or do about the sign in my son's school?
If I'm a feminist, if I'm a full-throated anti-misogynist, what's the right attitude toward museums that have paintings by Picasso hanging in them right now?
Of all the arrows in our quiver, if our goal is to make the world less sexist, where among our options is canceling a dead misogynist?
Years ago I started teaching James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me in my university composition courses. Originally published in 1995, Loewen's book examines major American history textbooks. One of Loewen’s primary arguments is that the textbooks “heroify” historical figures, in part by omitting certain details of their biographies. Woodrow Wilson’s overt racism doesn’t get explored. Neither does Hellen Keller’s socialist writings and speeches.
Loewen makes a compelling case that, by presenting a complex person such as Keller as a sort of Inspirational Figure, by ending her story right after she spells W-A-T-E-R into her teacher's hand, we at best reduce her; at worst, we erase her.
Human complexities become, through our teaching, caricatures fashioned with cardboard and cheap glue.
We can extend Loewen’s argument to figures in the arts, if not always through textbooks then perhaps through the ways their works get discussed in classrooms. At least in the way we casually throw their names around, or give them the embroidered-pillow (or mirror-hanging-in-an-exit-hallway) treatment.
What do I do when, inevitably, my children bring home the permission slip?
Teddy is four years old, but I’ve already had surprisingly good conversations with him (with age-appropriate amounts of detail, I think) about the following topics:
why I’d rather we have a different U.S. president than the current one (he disagrees)
why sometimes fathers and sons disagree, and why that doesn't change the baffling calculus of unconditional love
how we should endeavor to treat people
why people seem to have different ideas about the beauty or value of different animals
why people go to church
various topics that exist under the heading What I Have Made a Provisional Decision About and About Which You Will Eventually Need to Decide For Yourself
why people seem to have different responses to violence depending on its severity and its context
things I'm afraid of
things he's afraid of
various topics that exist under the heading Features of You That You Can Change and Features That You Are Born With and Shouldn't Worry About Trying to Change
the different kinds of families that exist in the world
how we sometimes want to be with other people and how we sometimes want to be alone.
So I’m thinking that it won't be long before we find occasion to talk about topics such as:
that good people can do bad things
that good artists can treat people poorly or have wrong or bad ideas
that sometimes it’s tough to do the right thing all the time
that even bad people can make good things
that your father has written a book which includes both 1) images and descriptions of you, for which he never asked your consent, and 2) descriptions of his own failings as a husband and father.
Amanda Petrusich’s recent piece in The New Yorker, “Ryan Adams and the Perils of the Rock-Genius Myth,” explores one of the ways that the bad behavior of a musician presents a more complex moral dilemma for the music-lover:
Part of the problem is that music thrills and bewilders us in a way that can feel at odds with natural laws, so we instinctively codify and exalt its creation. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about what happens to people when they hear a song that they love, and what sense, if any, can be made of that strange, glorious melting. When I look at my own record collection, I see a desperate monument to my desire for that feeling—for some fleeting brush with the sublime.
So I'm not sure any of this is going to be easy.
Hannah Gadsby avers we wouldn't care about Picasso if Picasso hadn't become, by our hands, "Picasso." There's nothing intrinsically worthwhile to the things he made. We're in love with the story of him, the name, not the art itself.
If that were anywhere close to the truth, it'd be easy. We wouldn't, as a culture, miss him at all. Picasso could go the way of John Edwards or Charlie Rose. We'd simply cancel and be done with it.
But some things are so good, the brush with the sublime they provide so visceral and unmistakable, that our work in thinking of both the person and the art together, an attempt at a holistic understanding, isn't easy at all.
In "The Crack-Up," F. Scott Fitzgerald famously claims "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."
I thought of Fitzgerald's test recently while listen to Miles Davis's Kind of Blue while reading descriptions of his domestic violence.
I thought of it while reading about the women who entered Picasso's orbit and then spending an hour looking at his paintings of women.
The art that effects us most, that lingers in the soul—or pounds the soul into new shape—often comes with the very real human baggage (or garbage, sure) of its creator.
I'm not sure that's something we can, or should, try to prevent.
Students in my fiction-writing course keep asking me how to phrase their “trigger warnings.” (And I keep thinking: Why would a written text need a trigger warning? If readers get uncomfortable, can’t they stop reading?)
The Nation is publishing Anders Carlson-Wee’s poem and then publishing a long apology letter lambasting it.
Kosoko Jackson is getting a book deal, but then one review is causing the Twittersphere to rise up against a book being published.
I wish I could say otherwise, but I can't; this is the only thing I’ve ever read by Kosoko Jackson:
Many commentators have already pointed out the poetic justice/hypocrisy of a foot soldier—employed as a “sensitivity reader” for publishers—in the war for an essentialist philosophy of art and identity becoming a casualty himself. After a social media backlash—at whose epicenter were readers of a review, not advance copies of the book itself—Jackson asked his publisher to pull the book for self-proclaimed reasons of "problematic representation and historical insensitivities."
I haven't read and therefore don't have much to say about A Place for Wolves. But I am generally in favor of more books existing in the world, not fewer. So I hope that Jackson's book will eventually be published.
But I also have to say: His tweet is anti-art.
The idea represented in his tweet might serve some greater good for social justice, although the essentialism irks me. His tweet might help, if enough people believe in the idea he's promoting, to correct imbalances of privilege and profit in certain commercial spheres, such as book publishing.
All to say, his tweet doesn’t, at first blush, seem dangerous. It seems a historical correction, an #ownvoices step in the right direction.
But it is also anti-art.
This way of thinking means my son couldn’t, now or ever, write a short story about Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
It means my daughter couldn’t play Thomas Jefferson in her high school’s 2032 production of Hamilton.
It means only a hundred or so people in the world are allowed to write fiction that imagines the thoughts and emotions and experiences of Hellen Keller.
It means Ellen DeGeneres could not play a character who is poor. It means Ellen couldn't play a character who wasn't rich, famous, and deeply relatable. It means Ellen can only play Ellen.
The apology from the poetry editors at The Nation for publishing Anders Carlson-Wee’s “How-To” includes a promise to "step back and look at not only our editing process, but at ourselves as editors." The editors, Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith, also say,
As poetry editors, we hold ourselves responsible for the ways in which the work we select is received. We made a serious mistake by choosing to publish the poem “How-To.” We are sorry for the pain we have caused to the many communities affected by this poem. We recognize that we must now earn your trust back. Some of our readers have asked what we were thinking. When we read the poem we took it as a profane, over-the-top attack on the ways in which members of many groups are asked, or required, to perform the work of marginalization. We can no longer read the poem in that way.
Do editors make mistakes? Sure. (My entire career is based on the belief that they do, and that .038 percent of the time that mistake will be made in my favor!)
I worked for years as an editorial assistant, and eventually an editor, at literary magazines. I sometimes chose a piece that, by the time I was typesetting the issue, I’d cooled on. We all regret a few decisions.
But it is editorial malpractice to publicly malign the poem that you've chosen for your own pages.
And it is anti-art.
The cultural reckoning of #MeToo is for the better. It’s for the better to demand men, all men, but especially men of privilege, behave more ethically. It's for the better to introduce some accountability into previously unaccountable spaces.
But there is a cost.
One of the cumulative effects—of what the Twitterverse did to Kosoko Jackson and of what Kosoko Jackson has spent years trying to do to other writers, what the poetry editors at The Nation did to Anders Carlson-Wee—isn't to make us all more careful not just in our lives, in our relationships, in our workplaces, but also in our art.
If our new literary landscape is such that The Nation can accept my poem and then publicly punish me for writing it, I’m wondering if I might 1) write differently, and 2) not send poems to magazines named The Nation.
My show at Bambino's was one of my last public performances.
Life happened. I started thinking about graduate school. Applied, got rejected. Graduated from college. Got a job. I started writing more short stories and poems. Started thinking about graduate school again.
I don't know that being canceled had that much to do with slowly putting music on the back burner. But I also wonder if I perhaps didn't have the necessary stubbornness, at the age I was then, to bounce back from a cancellation.
Laura Dern, as far as I can tell, has had a fine career. She wasn’t blackballed forever. Ellen DeGeneres and Oprah Winfrey seem to be no longer suffering any professional backlash because of “The Puppy Episode” and DeGeneres’s artistic decision to steer her 1990s sitcom into territory that felt truer to her, more in line with life as she’d lived it.
(And, of course, the story of the cancellation of Ellen isn't as simple as I have portrayed it here; nor is it as simple as Ellen DeGeneres portrays it in Relatable. The "Puppy Episode" aired on April 30, 1997, to some controversy and to critical and commercial success. The next season of Ellen, its last, was arguably still controversial, with a parental advisory slapped on by ABC and various religious groups raising hell, but was not an unqualified commercial or critical success. Many viewers, including teenage me, stopped watching not because they disagreed with its politics or were offended that the show's star and its main character had come out but because it had lost its comedic footing. Its last episode aired in July 1998.)
And the cancellation of Ellen, we should remember, wasn't the end of the story, neither for Ellen DeGeneres nor for representations of gay characters on network television.
Luckily, even a cancellation, with all its power, is usually part of the story, not the whole.
I didn't mean to.
Last year, on a whim, I asked my Amazon Echo to play Michael Jackson's "You are Not Alone," written by R. Kelly.
I’m not sure our best answer for what ails us culturally and socially is to make more rules about what people can and can’t imagine in fiction, the voices they can channel in their art.
I don't see how asking people to empathize less, imagine less, risk less, is the way to correct the wrongs of history, up to and including this morning.
I don’t know what the best answer for poorly behaving and unethical men getting apotheosized, in our history books and in our culture, might be. But I’m wondering if it might look and sound less like Kosoko Jackson's tweet and more like Hannah Gadsby's Nanette.
I'm wondering if it might be finding ways to teach more holistically, more transparently. To worry less about preserving the reputations of famous artists and worry more about finding pathways to the Truth.
To not reduce to caricature, or deify as untouchable genius, any artist, whether Picasso or DeGeneres.
I'm wondering if the answer might be more stories, not more silence.
More art, mistakes and all. More robust criticism to illuminate the mistakes and the beauty.
When it comes, inevitably, I'm going to sign the permission slip.
Someday soon, when my children and I leave Horace Mann together, I'm going to make us walk through that hallway with the Picasso mirror. I'm going to ask my children what they think it means. I'm going to ask them whether there's something childish about creating art. I'm going to ask them whether being a child is only about age. I'm going to ask them whether they think it's true, whether the person who said this thing about all children being artists got it right.
When, eventually, I take my children to see the paintings by Picasso, I’m not going to try to separate the man from the art. Rather, I’m going to say that the person and the thing the person made have a relationship, and maybe we should pay attention to both.
When I take Teddy and Alice to see a painting by Picasso, up close and in person, I’m hoping they’ll suffer me kindly. Because I’m going to do my level best to talk about the thing this person made. And the people he loved. And the people he hurt.