It’s all art …

It’s all art …

Even the parts that don’t seem like it.

Published on Substack: SEP 28, 2023

Crowded scene with multiple paintings in the background, a bust of Virginia Woolf in the center, old bottles and decorative items scattered about.
Vanessa Bell’s studio; photograph: Lewis Ronald

My brain has been on fire over Lauren Elkin’s Art Monsters , and Charlie Porter’s Bring No Clothes, books that each take on the questions of what it means to build a life as an artist. Not an influencer life, but an artists life.

Reading each of these (and underlining, and filling the pages with sticky notes, and copying out whole passages) has lit me up with a flame of hope that finally, the discourse of art might be moving away from the notion that art is only measured by how it sells. I’ve been writing about this all through these long decades of neoliberal “free market” bullshit where the only thing that mattered was money, well, it’s just felt like shouting into the wind. So my joy and relief and excitement at these two books who examine, among other things, what it means to build a life as an artist, what it means to make making art the central task of your life, well, my poor brain has been at something of a fever pitch thinking about it.  

One of the things I’m finding so fascinating about both of these books is the way they both examine Vanessa Bell’s life and work as a central example of a successful, if hard won, artistic life. Vanessa Bell, usually known in my writerly circles for being the sister of Virginia Woolf, was an important artist of the early decades of the twentieth century. Both Elkin and Porter seem drawn to her as someone who didn’t just produce pictures, but who built a whole artistic world around herself. Charleston House, Bell’s home, is a museum now, and is known for the decoration of the walls and the wardrobes and the lampshades, all painted not in the coordinated-decor way of modern interior design, but in what seems to be a more spontaneous manner. Oh look! There’s a blank surface over here, what can I fill it with to look interesting? What colors will interact with the rest of the room, with my clothes, with my sense that it’s all art? It’s very like my beloved Derek Jarman, whose Prospect Cottage is also an entire world.

I came late to Virginia Woolf. Her work didn’t open up to me until I was well into my 30s, in graduate school. And while I am ride or die for both To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, it was the letters and the diaries that really helped me see how Woolf and Leonard, and her sister and her menage, and the whole Bloomsbury group were trying to find new ways to live, and create, and love. (Also, her letters are very funny. Anyone who thinks of Woolf as that drooping serious dour thing that her image sometimes suggests need only read the letters to see how funny she was, and what a gossip.

One of the sections of the book I found most exciting was Elkin’s examination of Bell’s portrait of Virginia, and her choice to leave the face blank.

This portrait, for me, addresses all the problems I have been exploring throughout this book. The problem of how to overthrow story the as pre-eminent way of speaking a woman’s experiences as a body. How to address the materiality of body through art. How to depict the female body without either catering to or rejecting the male gaze. How to deal with the instability of identity, which rushes to any attempt to depict the self, or the sister whose face one knows as well, or better, than one’s own. How to be an artist, or a writer, how to live up to the challenge, to embody it. How to live our lives in all their fullness and ambiguity admitting nothing, relinquishing nothing. (269)

This paragraph set my hair on fire. I have struggled with this issue of identity, and story in the book about my brothers that I’ve been working on for so long. Subject matter, the sheer volume of sorrow and grief and incident, has been a challenge. I have no issues with subject matter when writing about food. But writing about family trauma, that’s trickier. While the “misery memoir” served a purpose, to give voice to those who had been abused in ways that previously were illegible, that there was money to be made meant publishing went through a significant period in which it behooved authors to emphasize the outrageous, and the bathetic.

I struggled with this for a long time. Early readers often said “you need more Patrick on the page,” and it annoyed me. So I put it in the text. In an early version I wrote: “No matter how I try, I’ll never be able to get Patrick on the page.” To which a reader replied, “why not?”

As I noted in Write as If You Were Dying,

I could not get Patrick on the page because Patrick was a living, breathing human being with a complex interiority, some of which I had access to, but much of which I did not. He was not a character, not a story.

And he was gone.

That Vanessa Bell solved this problem by refusing to paint the face of her beloved feels like an answer. Representation is a core problem in painting, and that she solved it by showing her sister, in a chair, her being, her body, her shape, and that this non-literal representation is what allows her to convey the intimacy of the sisterly relation, well. That’s the goal. How to get what my brother meant on the page, his humor, and kindness, and how he was my rock. He was, and remains, the one person on earth who I knew, in my bones, loved me. As I am.

The Bloomsbury group gets a lot of side-eye for the fact that they all grew up in what the English call “middle class” privilege — that is, they were wealthy, but not aristocratic — but what I’ve always found so inspiring about Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf is how they escaped the prison of their upbringing, and how they made full, rich, artistic lives for themselves. It was a long seven years for the sisters between the deaths of their parents, when they were trapped in their father’s house, obligated to dress and serve tea and run the household and were held hostage to his every mood and self-pitying whim. All the while, being dressed and controlled by their older half-brother, who insisted they accompany him into society, and who raped both of them for years. Seven years. Woolf never recovered. As we learn more about the lifetime effects of childhood sexual abuse, her “madness” seems less mad, her achievements all the more heroic.

That none of this abuse was exceptional for their class, even if no one, even Freud could admit how common it was, made it all the worse. There was nowhere to turn, and so after being set free by the death of their father, the four youngest children fled, the two full brothers gave them cover as “chaperones” and they all set up house together. This was the start of the “Bloomsbury group.”

The difficulties of extricating oneself from an upper class life can seem trivial to everyone else, who is struggling to get by. I’ve often said that the great salvation of my life is that we lost all our money when I was so young. I never had to compete in that arena, even if my mother would have liked me to. I went to a few debutante parties in outfits my mother conjured out of the equivalent of Scarlett O’Hara’s curtains, and my brother dated a few young women whose mothers told them not to lead him on, because he was a nice boy, but didn’t have any money. It became clear very early on, that if we wanted to stay in that world, it would be as the kind of high-class servant that rich people can pretend aren’t servants: as horse trainers or personal assistants or interior decorators. People who work for you, but who are also presentable enough to fill an empty chair at a dinner party.

Other women I grew up with though, the ones whose parents were trying to climb up that ladder we were sliding down, they didn’t have that escape hatch. Those are the girls whose mothers told them not to say anything when someone’s dad trapped them in a back hallway at a debutante party, not to say anything when the rich boy abused them on the drive home. Those are the women whose mothers made them break up with the college boyfriends from regular middle class families to marry the boy from the “good family.” The women who grew up and told their husbands that they’d never divorce them,  but if they wanted to keep a woman in the city, go right ahead.

I fled early, and for a lot of reasons, but high on the list was the stifling nature of upper class life. Reading Woolf’s diaries and letters when I was in graduate school, reading the biographies, reading about how the Bloomsbury group built a rich, artistic, often queer circle of people who wrote and painted and attempted to make the world a better place, well it was huge for me in my 30s. When I came looking for an artsy town in which to settle, it was in the hopes of finding other people who were interested in building lives that centered around something other than the making and spending of money. As much as I gripe about Livingston changing, it is still a remarkable small town in this respect. We’re not Bloomsbury, but even with the new rich people and right-wingers who think they’ve moved to the set of that television show, I’m still lucky enough to live in a town, and a state, where being a writer or painter or musician is pretty normal. Years ago, at a conference, one of my grad school friends looked at me and asked “What is this? Do all the writers in Montana know each other?” And I had to say yeah, pretty much, or if we don’t there’s usually one person in between we can call for an introduction.

Reading about Woolf and Bell fundamentally influenced what I thought an artistic life was, and after a couple of decades of whatever it is that we’ve all been through as a culture, the strange collision of unbridled capitalism in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union combined with the rise of the internet and influencer culture, well, I guess this whole essay is to say that I’m so deeply grateful to Elkin and Porter (more about his books soon) and what appears to be a group of writers younger than I am who are working to critique all the ways we might learn from these artists, and how we all might build our own versions of engaged, creative, artistic lives. May their work continue to flower.

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