“Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.” D.W. Winnicott
If you haven’t heard about the Elena Ferrante controversy, then frankly, you’re doing Twitter wrong! Elena Ferrante is the pen-name of a highly successful Italian author who was ‘outed’ last week by a journalist whose motives are questionable at best. The story has ignited a larger debate around an artist’s right to claim anonymity and the public’s sense of ownership when it comes to ‘celebrities’.
We live in the information age, where information is a commodity. We post our personal lives freely online and have gradually lost our value on privacy, or the knowledge that we have a right to keep our private lives private. So when someone claims anonymity, we’re immediately suspicious and being naturally curious beings, we need to find out why. Like Dorothy pulling back the curtain to find the Wizard is just a man, perhaps we should leave our enigmas alone and just enjoy the show.
I can completely understand why people choose to work anonymously and without the pressure of having to present themselves to the world. JK Rowling chose the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, in order to write her detective series without the ‘shackles’ of Harry Potter around her neck. Editor David Shelley, who first read the novel without knowing who its true author was, said, “I never would have thought a woman wrote that.” I rest my case (while rolling my eyes at the stupidity of such a statement!). Sometimes your identity needs to take a back seat in order for the work to flourish and find an audience on its own merits.
Anonymity gives you freedom from expectations, limitations and being pigeon-holed. You don’t have to worry about what your Aunt Louise will think of that sex scene, or the fact that you based the psychopathic villain on your cousin twice removed. But it’s not just that; really successful writers/artists have to live with the unwanted side-effects of fame, which can be completely overwhelming. The media has created an entire industry out of destroying peoples’ image and reputation. We just assume success is brilliant; the holy grail and that if you have it, you should be happy. But maybe it’s the work that is the happiness; the creativity. Isn’t it okay to not want fame?
Australian singer Sia has chosen to keep her face out of the limelight. She refers to her decision as one of ‘self care’, by choosing not to partake in the celebrity culture. Daft Punk are another example of musicians who love to make music, but don’t see why they should sacrifice their personal lives or their privacy in order to do what they love. They’re not entirely anonymous of course, a quick search on Google will reveal their true identities if you’re interested, but the fact is that they have chosen, like Sia with her blonde bob, not to reveal their identities publicly. The important word here is CHOICE. Despite a world of opportunities, we are told that in order to be successful and happy, we have to follow a formula. It’s so inspiring to see these artists carve out their own path and find success on their own terms. However, it also utterly despairing to see inferior beings try to take their right to choose away. So the question remains, do we have a right to success without fame?
As a very small and insignificant writer and artist (in the grand scheme of things!) this dichotomy is something I also struggle with. As writers starting out, we are advised to create an author platform, get ourselves ‘out there’. Post photos on Instagram, share your every passing thought on a vlog. Do we really need to offer ourselves on a plate for public consumption? Why can’t we let the art do the talking? I don’t put my author photo on my novels, because I often find that people can have preconceptions about your work based on your appearance. As one journalist in the guardian said, if you want to know Ella Ferrante, read her books. Because at the end of the day, people who chose to express themselves creatively, are actually sharing more through their work than they ever will outside of it.
Banksy, another artist trying to keep his personal life out of the conversation – was geo-tracked (something normally reserved for chasing criminals) by a newspaper a few years ago, in order to find out his identity. A street artist, whose work often engages political themes, satirically critiquing war, capitalism, hypocrisy and greed – he is the embodiment of why it is so important for the artist to be invisible. People are fixated on the fact that he might be an upper class toff, which (they imply) would undermine his street art. And if that was the narrative to his work, the message would indeed be lost.
I think we need to question this insatiable need to know everything, to reduce the beauty of human expression to a face, a stereotype or a headline. Putting people in boxes, telling women they can’t write like men or insisting that someone plays the game by your rules will only serve to stifle creativity. I salute these people who, despite our best efforts to thwart them, are trying to create a little mystery in our lives by producing pockets of space where we don’t need to know everything, we just need to feel.
Any excuse to play Daft Punk 🙂