Nonfiction by Rachel Lyon
Like many readers I encountered the phrase “art monster” when I read Jenny Offill’s novel Department of Speculation. “My plan was to never get married,” her female narrator says. “I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things.”
I was struck by the idea of the art monster, because at the time I was working on my novel Self-Portrait with Boy, which is about a woman artist who arguably chooses art over love. But while my protagonist struggles with her decision, and suffers because of it, Offill’s character is bitter, ironic, flippant. It stuck in my craw.
Once I read the phrase in Offill’s book, I started seeing it everywhere. “Art monster” is a sticky phrase. It’s catchy. It’s defiant. It is like “nasty woman,” Trump’s mocking epithet for Hillary Clinton, which was appropriated by women all over the world as an identity and rallying cry. It accepts and owns and transforms a negative label into a powerful identity. It is unlike “nasty woman” in that it is a label for women, by a woman, and in this way it is more like, say, “bad feminist,” coined by Roxane Gay in her book of the same name. “I am a bad feminist because I never want to be placed on a Feminist Pedestal,” Gay writes. “People who are placed on pedestals are expected to pose, perfectly. Then they get knocked off when they fuck it up. I regularly fuck it up. Consider me already knocked off.”
There is freedom in announcing that we are human, messy, and that we’re bound to fuck it up. There is freedom in announcing that we’d rather concern ourselves with our own work than with so-called mundane things like parenting or housekeeping—with women’s work. There is freedom in the preemptive strike: I’ve acknowledged my faulty womanhood before you can.
My own mother is an artist. She had me when she was 30 years old, my brother when she was 38. I remember as a child sitting on the floor of her studio and playing with Cray-Pas. I remember modeling for her. Art was as inextricable a part of my childhood as play, or as reading.
It is a sorry truth that if she had been more single-minded about her work, if she had not split her attention between mothering and art-making, if she had not split herself—one half artist, one half mother—she would be more successful now. I wonder if this split within her is the real mistake. We’re talking about a woman for whom Artist is an identity. Art is what she is. Mothering is what she did. I know that she would not exchange my brother and me for anything. I know that she does not regret her commitment to us. But when I hear her talk about that time in her life, the time when we were young and her career was just beginning, for her sake I wish she had been more of a monster.
The terrific writer Robin Wasserman used the phrase “art monster” in her blurb on the back of my novel. She called it “a portrait of a true art monster—a young woman hellbent on pursuing greatness, no matter the cost.” I see what she means. My protagonist is not not a monster. She is cold and strange and ultra-committed to her work. She is ethically questionable. Early in the book, in the background of a self-portrait, she accidentally captures a boy falling to his death. The photo, her best work by far, could launch her career. But the boy is the son of her upstairs neighbor, whom she comes to love. She has to make a choice: to embrace her ambition, or to protect her friend.
Some readers will not like her.
Claire Dederer’s excellent recent piece for The Paris Review, written in response to the recent spate of sexual assault allegations, begins with the question “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?” Over the course of the piece, Dederer explores and interrogates the monstrousness not just of men who assault and harass women, but of artists, male and female, and of herself. In the end, instead of suggesting an answer to her titular question, Dederer takes a left-hand turn into a new uncharted topic, asking: “What if I’m not monster enough?”
Trying to answer the question in her title is futile anyway. There is nothing to be done about the art of monstrous artists, male or female—nothing to be done except what one might do with any art. We are free to look at it or to look away. We are free to think about it, talk about it, or to ignore it. All we can do when we learn something new about the artist who made it is paint it in our minds with a new layer of complication. So Dederer changes the conversation, and writes instead about the monstrousness of women artists:
A book is made out of small selfishnesses. The selfishness of shutting the door against your family. The selfishness of ignoring the pram in the hall. The selfishness of forgetting the real world to create a new one. The selfishness of stealing stories from real people. The selfishness of saving the best of yourself for that blank-faced anonymous paramour, the reader. The selfishness that comes from simply saying what you have to say.
To implicitly conflate the monstrousness of sexual assault on one hand and the “small selfishnesses” of the woman art monster on the other is a strange and maybe dangerous move. These two types of monstrosity are not equivalent. Full stop. And yet in doing so Dederer turns around the conversation about monstrous men, and transforms it into a conversation about women. Which is exactly what so many monstrous men do with the topic of sexual assault. They turn it around and transform it into a conversation about themselves. They point out, as Louis CK did, how much the women they harassed admired them. They reminisce, as Harvey Weinstein did, about their early years, coming of age in a time when (they believed) their ugly behavior was okay.
To conflate these two monstrosities is to bring to light a painfully familiar condition that’s all but guaranteed to plague the woman artist: the guilt of selfishness. I recognize it. I recognize Dederer’s guilt about it and her envy of it. I recognize it in my artist mom, who has grappled—in some ways heroically—over the course of her career to balance her artistic work with the under appreciated women’s work of parenting. It is the guilt of any woman who refuses to define herself by her domestic roles. The guilt of failure at work-life balance, that poisonous myth. In that guilt there is a kind of monstrosity, yes. It is the festering and bitter monster of regret.
Here is one difference between me and my mother: I don’t have children. So I recognize that it is only with colossal chutzpah that I write about the difficult balance between motherhood and art.
But here is another difference: my mom went to art school in the 1970s. Sexism was rampant. Women artists were held to an impossible double standard. They were considered less talented and less powerful than their male counterparts. The ambition they flaunted to get to an equal playing field was considered distasteful and grotesque.
Sexism persists. And yet I have come of age in an era when it is not just accepted but expected that any artist, regardless of their gender, will—no, must!—self-promote. I am the generation of Kickstarter and Indiegogo, of Etsy and Society6, of Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube. It isn’t that I’m unselfconscious about self-promotion. It is only that I force myself to swallow my self-consciousness. I tell myself that as an artist, particularly a woman artist, I must accept that self-promotion is in my job description—even if it feels embarrassing or self-involved or if I’m not that good at it. I post writing-related news on social media and invite friends and friends of friends to my events. I keep up my own website and send out a weekly newsletter and keep drumming up an audience.
Because being an artist does not often pay I’ve got to be my own hype man. Because sexism persists, I’ve got to be my own champion. There is nothing monstrous about that.
Labels are powerful. “Nasty woman,” “bad feminist,” and “art monster” are all powerful. They announce that we will not play by the rules of femininity. That we will not excuse ourselves. And so they give us strength. Let’s embrace the labels we want to embrace, and capitalize on the freedom they afford us.
But let’s also agree that they are redundant. An art monster is just an artist who acknowledges the unavoidability of selfishness; an art monster is just an artist. A bad feminist just a feminist who acknowledges her inevitable hypocrisy; a bad feminist is just a feminist. A nasty woman is just a woman who does not always behave; a nasty woman is just a woman.
As women artists we have to continue transforming the conversation until it is about ourselves. We have to talk about ourselves arrogantly and relentlessly, with a degree of chutzpah that too often we do not feel.
Let’s destroy the idea of balance. Let’s admit that no matter our gender we will always be unbalanced. We will always have to make some compromise, whether to our work or to our lives.
Let’s admit that if the goal is impossible, we are all bound to fail.
Let’s destroy our guilt. We are all guilty, all of us. Selfish, all of us. Monsters, all.
Rachel Lyon is the author of the novel SELF-PORTRAIT WITH BOY (Scribner 2018). Her shorter work has appeared or is forthcoming in Joyland, Iowa Review, Electric Literature, and other publications. She teaches for Sackett Street Writers Workshop, Catapult, Slice, and elsewhere, and sends out a weekly writing/thinking prompts newsletter at tinyletter.com/rachellyon. Rachel is a cofounder of the reading series Ditmas Lit, in her native Brooklyn NY. Visit her there, or online at www.rachellyon.work.