As a coda to a full year of critical praise, Dept. of Speculation is ubiquitous on best-of lists, from Flavorwire’s own to the Times’ much-dissected top ten. All this praise is well deserved, but it’s also well timed, because literature, film, and even TV in 2014 were bursting with depictions of the female art monster — or, more precisely, the female character struggling to balance the seemingly incompatible roles of woman and artist.
This wasn’t the first year in recent memory to see female artists at the center of prominent (and, not accidentally, often controversial) works of fiction. 2012 was a watershed year for those characters, with the debut of Girls and creator Lena Dunham’s role as its narcissistic protagonist, aspiring writer Hannah Horvath. Just two months after Girls premiered, Sheila Heti published How Should a Person Be?, an autobiographical, philosophical, and sometimes quite funny novel that follows a playwright named Sheila after she leaves her husband and becomes entangled in a competitive friendship with a visual artist named Margaux. And in last year’s most critically beloved novel, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, a young woman tries to make her way in the New York art world of the 1970s.
These three characters have quite a bit in common: each is in her 20s, white, unencumbered by spouse or family, and living in a major city. Which is to say, compared with other women of various ages and races and locations and marital statuses, their path to art monster-dom seems the easiest. They may be held back by various gendered expectations and their own individual quirks, but they don’t also bear the burden of motherhood or marriage or being a child living under someone else’s roof; they don’t have to be the one person in their Middle American town with a subscription to The New Yorker; they aren’t invisible in the cultural sphere, the way old ladies and women of color so often are.
This is where those characters differ from this year’s flood of fictional women artists, a group whose diversity is far more representative of everything it can mean to be both a woman and an artist. At the low end of the age spectrum, there are the ‘80s middle-school misfits who form a punk band in Lukas Moodysson’s Swedish-language film We Are the Best!, and Johanna Morrigan, the working-class 14-year-old protagonist of Caitlin Moran’s novel How to Build a Girl, who reinvents herself as a hard-drinking music critic named Dolly Wilde. Older women artists, meanwhile, are the focus of two of this year’s most lauded novels. In Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, the work of a powerful art dealer’s brilliant widow finally gets the attention it deserves when she exhibits it under three male artists’ names. And Brian Morton’s Florence Gordon is a portrait of an elderly feminist writer whose prickliness and obsession with her own work have made her a figure of fascination and resentment for her son and his family.
In between, there are the characters battling middle age’s ravages: this is where we find “the wife” of Offill’s book, betrayed by her husband and kept from her writing by a child she didn’t realize she’d love so much. On the second season of HBO’s The Comeback, Lisa Kudrow’s heartbreakingly persistent Valerie Cherish, a middling former sitcom actress, endures the humiliation of trying to keep her career alive now that she’s neither an ingénue nor a grande dame. Considering that the show’s first season aired in 2005, Valerie has now been treading water for a decade.
Although these fictional women artists remain largely white, 2014 has brought some notable exceptions on that front, too. Justin Simien’s movie Dear White People gives us an explosively talented biracial burgeoning filmmaker sorting out her creative and political allegiances. On TV, The CW’s surprisingly excellent (and now Golden Globe-nominated) telenovela adaptation Jane the Virgin is framed as the self-penned story of a young Latina aspiring writer – who also happens to be a pregnant, artificially inseminated virgin. Jane’s writing only occasionally ties in to the plot, but its presence is a reminder that the character has ambitions beyond resolving the romantic and family drama that fuel the show’s storylines.
Plenty of these characters illuminate the many different gender-specific struggles that inspire and torment women who make art. The titular subject of Florence Gordon has the kind of personality we don’t question – and often even mythologize – in great male writers: arrogant, combative, solitary, so absorbed in her work that she’s largely detached from the everyday lives of her so-called loved ones. The scrappy, outcast tweens of We Are the Best! form their band, in part, to antagonize the older boys who harass them. In extreme cases (Hustvedt’s book, The Comeback), the combination of gender and age is at the heart of the protagonist’s desperate predicament.
But what resonates most about these characters – and what makes me most grateful that we’ve seen so many of them in 2014 – isn’t the structural oppression they share as women; it’s their individuality as people and artists. They don’t conform to any one archetype. Unlike the heroines of Girls, How Should a Person Be?, and The Flamethrowers, it’s difficult to even imagine them all at the same party. If such an extraordinary gathering did take place, we’d see Dear White People’s Sam taking Florence Gordon to task for her generation’s whitewashed feminism – and Florence nitpicking Sam’s critiques. Offill’s “wife” and Harry from The Blazing World would trade horror stories about husbands while Dolly Wilde knocked back whiskey and chatted up the bartender. Jane would make fast friends with everyone, and refrain from sharing in the other guests’ harsh whispers about poor washed-up, self-involved Valerie Cherish. The We Are the Best! girls would stay out past their curfews to play a messy set, and everyone would have her own opinion on whether they were brilliant, garbage, or something in between.
It’s through these fictional women’s differences, more than their similarities, that their stories cut deeper than gender and become universal. In many cases, their inner worlds are evidence that male and female artists have more in common than essentialists (both misogynist and feminist) realize. Neglecting family responsibilities amid binges of creativity, sublimating social and political anger into blistering works of art, even chasing fame primarily because of all the sex that comes with it – none of these stereotypically male behaviors are exclusive to men.
Perhaps that explains why I’ve spent so much time this year thinking about a female character who is only metaphorically an artist: Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Joe, in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. Joe doesn’t write or paint or sing or make films; she doesn’t even have the time or interest to appreciate the arts, so single-minded is her pursuit of orgasm. But her fixation with sex, her willingness to let it destroy her, and moments like her hyperbolic yet essential observation that what makes her different from other people is that she has “always demanded more from the sunset” form a portrait of an extreme artistic personality entirely abstracted from any art form. When von Trier still spoke to the press, he often remarked upon how deeply he identified with his poorly understood heroines. That’s one big clue, among many others, that gender isn’t at the heart of Joe’s sexual obsession – but it is the most important factor in shaping society’s response to it.
This distinction is also central to my favorite memoir of the year, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys, by Slits guitarist Viv Albertine. Now 60, Albertine isn’t just a musician; at various stages of her life, she’s also been a filmmaker, a ceramic artist, and a writer – a polymath for whom the medium seems far less important than the instinct to survive through making art. Her book is full of reflections on the challenges she’s faced as a woman artist, from hotels refusing to house The Slits because of their provocative clothing to the pressure her ex-husband put on her to sacrifice her work in favor of housekeeping and child-rearing. Yet when she describes her songwriting process, or recalls what it was like to hear The Beatles for the first time, the memoir reminds me of nothing more than Keith Richards’ Life. The most painful passages are the ones where Albertine’s artistic impulse comes into conflict with what’s expected of her as a woman:
I do something very unmotherly now, even though it feels as though I’m losing my daughter…: I don’t stop concentrating on my music. I collect her from school, I make dinner, I put her to bed – I don’t tidy up, I don’t have time – I’m present most of the time physically, but not mentally. To make this huge step [of making music again after so many years] I have to immerse myself in my work. Just like all artists (wankers) have to immerse themselves in their work, just like Husband has immersed himself in his work for the past sixteen years.
In amassing these examples and writing this essay, I’ve grown increasingly doubtful that Offill’s “art monster” only haunts me because I’m a woman. Of course external forces make it easier for male artists to devote themselves to their work, but I almost feel foolish for failing to consider that plenty of them must also experience the dread of their private lives sucking up precious work time. In that sense, Dept. of Speculation bears a startling similarity to The Great Beauty, a year-old Italian film about a writer in his 60s who – like “the wife” – published one book and then let life prevent him from ever finishing another.
Things would surely be different, for me and for the other fictional and real women who stay up nights longing for the art monster we never allowed ourselves to be, if we had been born men. But something tells me they wouldn’t be as different as we’d like to think.