Death of the Reclusive Artist

In addition to the lobster, I ask you to consider the “ultimate irresponsible medium,” as novelist Jonathan Franzen calls it: Twitter, the great host of the 140-character thought. At any moment, with Internet access and an email address, you can hashtag your way to glory, humor and infamy.  But can you hashtag your way to art - should artists concern themselves with social media? Can you even be an artist nowadays without Internet overexposure?

Let’s look at a similarly familial minded author,  J.D. Salinger (are there any similarities between his complicated Glass family and Franzen’s Berglund family? a question for another time). Salinger created an aura of mystique by refusing to give interviews and even taking legal action against attempts to publish personal letters. Perhaps his disillusioned anti-hero Holden Caulfield would not have endured so long as the ultimate hipster if not for the allure of obscurity that his creator shrouds himself in. I often wonder how much a writer’s true self is reflected in their character; Salinger and Caulfield must  reflect each other to some extent. The Salinger enigma was crafted in a prior generation—a time before the Internet - which begs the question, is there still such thing as a reclusive artist in today’s world?

Take two of the defining artists of our own generation: Bansky and Kanye.

Banksy, the street artist whose scathing social commentary comes in the form of stenciled graffiti in urban spaces around the world, is a notorious recluse. Next to nothing is known about his identity, save for a few speculative grainy photographs and a number of potential (very British-sounding) names. Even the documentary focusing on his work, Exit Through the Gift Shop, employed voice-editing techniques to prevent any possible recognition.

Banksy is simply very cool. He’s kind of a basic, mainstream-but-not-quite entrance into street art, even if you’re not into graffiti. An integral part of the allure is his mystique: in a land where tons of information about public figures is readily available, it is refreshing to have an artist whose obscurity puts all the focus on his work. While most art is inextricably linked to some sort of autobiographical reading, Banksy turns the lens instead on his viewers in an uncomfortable and thought-provoking way.

Meanwhile, Kanye West, rap genius and potential voice of our generation (as one Hannah Horvath, of “Girls” fame, might say—or as Kanye himself often says), turns Twitter into another kind of art form. He commonly rants about paparazzi, his own ego, his baby mama Kim Kardashian, and reflections on the word “bitch.” There is a manic un-censorship that stems from 15-tweet tirades, and yet there is something oddly authentic about this all the same. His clever lyrics are riddled with his thought process, but his Internet presence provides another platform to turn him into a case study in 21st-century fame. 

The cutting edge is one extreme or another: absolute mystery or a complete reveal. It is nothing or it is over-saturation.

When we look back to the good old-fashioned days when artists could be recluses, it adds an interesting dilemma.

Jonathan Franzen forces us to consider the notion of whether it is even possible to be a lauded literary recluse à la J. D. Salinger in today’s world. Franzen apparently harbors some mild distaste for the Internet; in an essay he wrote for the Guardian, he describes the 21st century as a “media-saturated, technology-crazed, apocalypse-haunted historical moment.”

Something seems contrived in Franzen’s attempts to distance himself from the Internet— it feels almost as if a modern novelist should embrace it. Franzen comes off as somewhat pretentious and manufactured in his insistences during an interview for The Globe that “every good writer I know needs to go into some deep, quiet place to do work that is fully imagined. And what the Internet brings is lots of vulgar data. It is the antithesis of the imagination. It leaves nothing to the imagination.” Franzen’s books have been met with critical acclaim, spawning an appearance on a Time magazine cover that proclaimed him a “Great American Novelist” and a spar with Oprah over her selection of The Corrections for her book club, yet many media reactions to his comments seem kind of exhausted by his bourgeoisie-sounding musings.  Our modern world has left him sounding vaguely pretentious in his attempts to comment on the Internet, yet his comments are all valid – so perhaps it’s just in the wording.

 In Salinger’s time, when communication was more dependent on the old-fashioned typewriter, criticism of overexposure seemed more possible and therefore more acceptable – it seemed attainable to reach some kind of reclusive state. Nowadays, when completely disappearing into the wilderness is arguably inconceivable, there is something contrived about actively voicing a dismissal of overexposure.