Portrait of the Artist as a Young Thief

David Wojnarowicz, "Untitled (Peter Hujar)," 1989. Three gelatin silver prints. Copyright the Estate of David Wojnarowicz Courtesy of the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P·P·O·W, New York.

If they were lucky, novels about artists published in the past year got to ride the wave of a literary trend termedKünstlermania.” The Künstlerroman, a type of Bildungsroman featuring an aspiring artist, has been around since at least the late eighteenth century, but it has recently surged in popularity, as evidenced by a bevy of 2022 releases, including Chelsea Martin’s irreverent and satirically juvenile Tell Me I’m an Artist, Emily Hall’s stream-of-consciousness experiment The Longcut, Stephanie LaCava’s highly anticipated “cool girl book of the year” I Fear My Pain Interests You, and the main topic of this essay, Antonia Angress’s Sirens & Muses.

These novels take art as their central motif, focusing on the trials of students, prodigies, and wannabes pitted against the likes of gallerists, critics, collectors, directors, and, in Angress’s case, even activists. This most recent outpouring of literary interest in visual art, at least in Anglophone literature, appears to come with the consensus that art is a cloistered, privileged, and “definitionally useless” endeavor, incapable of and exempt from speaking to present-day political struggles. This makes the contemporary Künstlerroman a fascinating object of cultural study.

At a pivotal moment in Sirens & Muses, a middle-aged artist, one of the book’s four main characters, encounters his own painting at the Whitney. A portrait of his childhood friend who died of AIDS-related causes, the painting was, before being acquired by the museum and canonized as a work of activist art, condemned by Gran Fury in the late 1980s for depicting its subject, as Angress puts it, “as a victim.” It was again lambasted by AIDS activists in the mid-2000s when it appeared on the cover of an exhibition catalogue. The man in the painting, with his “long, pale, bony face,” seems to reference David Wojnarowicz’s photographs of Peter Hujar from 1987, particularly the image Wojnarowicz took of his lover and fellow artist’s face as the latter gasped his final breath. Meanwhile, by appropriating the language used by protestors of the 2017 Whitney Biennial, Angress associates the painting with another painted portrait, Dana Schutz’s abstracted and controversial depiction of Emmett Till’s open casket, which the museum displayed for three months that spring, despite protestors’ calls to remove or destroy it.

David Wojnarowicz, “Untitled (Peter Hujar),” 1989. Three gelatin silver prints. Copyright the Estate of David Wojnarowicz. Courtesy of the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P·P·O·W, New York.

Full of such near-references, Sirens & Muses fixates on issues of consent, authorship, agency, and, subsequently, guilt. Just as Schutz was called out for engineering a “Black Death Spectacle,” Angress’s fictional artist, Robert Berger, is accused by an AIDS activist in the mid-2000s of being a “straight opportunist” and “appropriating the AIDS crisis.” In the novel, protestors of Berger’s paintings hold signs that read “QUEER DEATH SPECTACLE” and “ART IS NOT ENOUGH.” Berger internalizes these statements, but what the novel alights on as its final critique is this: deep down, Berger believes his painting is “great” only because he “took something [he] shouldn’t have”—the likeness of his dying friend. As readers, we are asked to sympathize with the artist’s guilt as much as the outrage against his work. But what and whom does his guilt serve?

In Wojnarowicz’s 1991 memoir, Close to the Knives, the artist describes his actions in the minutes after Hujar’s death. He writes, “I surprised myself: I barely cried. When everyone left the room I closed the door and pulled the super-8 camera out of my bag and did a sweep of his bed: his open eye, his open mouth.”

Wojnarowicz took twenty-three photos of Hujar’s face, hands, and feet. The photographs were in keeping with the rest of Wojnarowicz’s work; he had spent his life writing and making art that protested the US government’s reluctance to fund AIDS research and the Roman Catholic Church’s deadly lobbying to close clinics and against artificial contraception. For Wojnarowicz, Hujar’s death was directly linked to these larger social forces, which is in part what makes his photographs so urgent, even today. On the other hand, throughout Angress’s book, Berger bristles at the thought of his painting having anything to do with the devastation of an entire community. He tries to obscure its political dimensions, claiming that he became a political painter “only because he’d made a personal painting that other people had politicized.”

David Wojnarowicz, “Untitled (Peter Hujar),” 1989. Three gelatin silver prints. Copyright the Estate of David Wojnarowicz Courtesy of the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P·P·O·W, New York.

Elsewhere, another major character, trust-fund baby and art-school dropout Preston Utley, releases cockroaches at a fictional art fair after posting online, “The rich are cockroaches! Help me troll them!” These cockroaches appear to reference Wojnarowicz’s “Cockabunnies,” live cockroaches to which he glued cotton tails and paper ears, and released at the opening of a 1982 group exhibition at the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center (now MoMA PS1) to protest his exclusion from the show. As Utley’s fictional prank fizzles, generating a few screams and hashtags on Twitter, this strange echo of real events, even more than the reception of Berger’s painting, betrays an assumption not only that art is “not enough” but also that protest is somehow futile due to its proximity to spectacle. According to this assumption, art is something separate from us, always elsewhere, to be gawked at, visually consumed rather than deeply felt. Although artists have long harnessed the power of spectacle and appropriation to skewer mainstream politics—take, for instance, the Situationist International group active from 1957 to 1972 or, more recently, anyone from the painter Kent Monkman to the performer Vaginal Davis—art and activism appear at odds in this contemporary Künstlerroman. Before we as readers can immerse ourselves in the atmosphere of protest and disruption, Angress undercuts the act with either the point of view of someone it alienates (Berger) or an implicit critique of the subject position of the instigator (Utley).

By the book’s final scene, the answer to art’s maddening dilemmas seems to be to find idyll, a place to recharge. A painting student named Louisa, another main character, leaves New York City and moves back to her family home in Louisiana. An outsider to the art world and a paragon of provincial innocence, she declares, marveling at the beauty of the egrets and oak trees in her yard, “This is a place where I can live a life in service to my art.” This sentiment, which equates service with respite, contrasts starkly with a line from Christine Smallwood’s profile of Wojnarowicz in New York Times Magazine: “Wojnarowicz wasn’t just angry; he was tired. ‘It is exhausting,’ he once wrote, ‘living in a population where people don’t speak up if what they witness doesn’t directly threaten them.’” Oddly, despite the genre’s politically engaged history, the Künstlerroman in 2022 seems to have pivoted from the exhaustion of activism to a less tiring, and arguably more tiresome, self-laceration.

The Künstlerroman is not an apolitical genre. James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was just as much about Stephen Dedalus’s awakening toward the realities of social, political, and religious institutions—resulting in his decision to leave Ireland—as it was about art. But the question of how one can live within a society as an artist is often presented as a roadblock, and ultimately abandoned, in Angress’s book and others like it. Barring a way forward, these books show that when art, regardless of its subject matter, is deemed to have no inherent political content, when social power is treated as a burden arbitrarily foisted upon finished works, and when artists recuse themselves from the broader discourse of their work, art loses touch with its place in the world.

Admittedly, the idea of reading a novel about a painter expressing their innermost self in a hermetic studio presents a tantalizing alternative to the realities of disease, discrimination, economic inequality, and climate change. The notion of the artist as a self-contained object of study, exempt from ethics and politics—a maverick whose eccentricity warrants special protection—offers a kind of escape.

Within the whirlwind of Künstlermania, I’ve observed a subset of art novels in which the construction of an artist’s persona is unpacked through the eyes of a young, passive scholar. This is the case in Ayşegül Savaş’s White on White and Daisy Lafarge’s Paul. In the former, a quiet and even-keeled historian of medieval art rents a room in an unnamed city, presumably in France, to research Gothic statues. Her landlady, a painter named Agnes, keeps a studio upstairs and begins to trap the art historian in long-winded accounts of her life, starting from her time as an art student up to the point of her husband’s recent betrayal.

During their time together, the art historian listens but seldom speaks. In the book’s final scene, Agnes reveals that she has painted multiple portraits of the art historian possessing “empty stares” and “the twisted expressions of gargoyles” that evoke, at most, an abstract discomfort. Agnes, trying to elicit moral outrage, asks, “Does it offend you?” Sequestered in the studio as she is, Agnes believes that by using the art historian’s face without permission she has done something truly provocative. In response, the art historian calls the portraits “abnormal” and “intentionally, cruelly distorted.” Satisfied, Agnes gazes at her canvas, imagining “the damage” it will inflict upon the world, which, as readers, we’ve come to know is just the world of her imagination.

Lafarge’s novel, Paul, falls into a similar trap, mining a supposed rift between art and society from a cloistered perspective. Gleaning imagery from Paul Gauguin’s travelogues, Lafarge creates a contemporary version of the Post-Impressionist painter, a French eco-farmer and lay anthropologist named Paul Gauillac. We meet Paul through the eyes of Frances, a college graduate—coincidentally also a medievalist—who volunteers on Paul’s farm when her academic prospects fall through. Two decades older than our narrator, Paul immediately begins to flirt with her, ensnaring her in long stories about his travels in the South Pacific. Frances takes a road trip through France with Paul but flees when she discovers the best-kept secret of his past: he was extracted from the South Pacific by the French government when officials discovered that he’d married a Tahitian minor.

For anyone familiar with Gauguin’s biography, Lafarge’s final plot twist comes as no surprise. The storyline makes a clumsy thriller out of a power dynamic fraught with cultural baggage. Circumscribed by Frances’s point of view—wherein the girl from Tahiti exists solely to catalyze the heroine’s flight from illusion—Paul offers no answers for how to be a critical thinker, much less a political actor. Unlike others who have, in recent years, reassessed Gauguin’s legacy through the lenses of feminism, decoloniality, and queer theory—artists such as Debra Drexler or Yuki Kihara—Lafarge has written a novel, like others of its kind, that continues to perpetuate the myth of the artist as an amoral anomaly.The perpetuation of this myth is puzzling given that other books, such as Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, have shown that the genre can simultaneously attend to art and politics and can be critical without being counterproductively self-conscious. In the 2013 novel, Kushner gazes unflinchingly at the inextricable connection between politics and high-stakes art, narrating the downfall of a fictional motorcycle empire that coincides with radical demonstrations in the US and Italy.

Kushner’s artist, Reno—whose goal is to “draw a line” across the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah by riding a Moto Valera motorcycle at record-breaking speed—eventually finds herself on the other side of the world, enmeshed in the student-led movement of 1977 in Rome. Although Reno is in her early twenties and arguably “malleable,” Kushner does not imbue her with an air of calculated naivety. To realize what she calls “abstract ideas about traces and speed,” Reno accepts that her work must take shape outside the studio, in spaces where the stakes are life and death, and that she must observe others more than she observes herself.

In her portrayal of Reno, Kushner seamlessly folds in revolutionary politics without having to account for a gap between what the artist does in pursuit of her values and what activists do in pursuit of theirs. Since the parallel is already in place, Reno is free to soak in the images of Italian protestors and their encampment—“a crowded apartment with graffiti on its walls, young people talking loudly”—without explicitly making any of it about herself. When she marches with the demonstrators down the Via del Corso in Rome, she directs her powers of observation toward the crowds. Jostled and disoriented, she takes note of what she calls “the ‘we’ of it: people lost in the vast thickets of the world. People lost among people, since there wasn’t anything else. The world was people.” And when the riot police close in and a fire breaks out, Reno’s artistic impulse kicks in: she takes out a camera and films a cluster of white balloons rising from a newly shattered shop window. As for her motives, Kushner does not waste time imbuing them with special significance: “Why this? I couldn’t say.” Reno keeps filming until she is teargassed.

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