In Defense of “Indulgent” Art


Recently, I watched Lost in Translation for the first time. (I know, I know.) Lying in my dark bedroom afterwards, flooded with emotion, I pawed through the Internet for more conversation. A couple years ago, on the tenth anniversary of the film’s release, The Daily Beast interviewed Sofia Coppola. The interviewer asked about Lost in Translation’s cult following, and Coppola — who had based the film on her own visits to Tokyo in her 20s — said, “I was just writing these little notes about stuff that happened to me, or what I thought, and I didn’t think anyone was going to be interested, so it’s really a surprise to me that that many people have seen it and that it did as well as it did. I felt like it was really indulgent, so yeah, it was a surprise. And it’s still surprising to me.”

I started thinking about that word, indulgent, which — along with self-indulgent — has come to represent something very, very bad where art is concerned. A few weeks after that Sofia Coppola interview came out, Flavorwire itself published a list of “10 of the Most Self-Indulgent Albums of Our Time”: not meant as flattery. Back in 2001, Tom Stoppard attacked self-indulgent art at the Royal Academy’s annual dinner. Leslie Jamison opened a Guardian piece last year with the lines, “Confessional writing often gets a bad rap. People call it self-absorbed, solipsistic, self-indulgent.”

Why is it, I started to wonder, that we think indulgence, and indulgent art, are worthy of such scorn?

To start, I went to the library and pulled down a thick volume of the Oxford English Dictionary to look indulgence up. One definition involves the “gratification of another’s desire or humour; favouring forbearance or relaxation of restraint.” Another involves “the yielding to or gratification of some propensity…the action of indulging in some practice, luxury, etc.” The word is, the Dictionary has it, “sometimes dyslogistic” — that is, uncomplimentary: “fond humouring, over-lenient treatment.”

It is this that I’m interested in — this sneer. Because really, indulging yourself simply means recognizing your own desires as legitimate, and granting yourself permission to fulfill them.

There are a few layers to the anti-indulgence movement where art is concerned. The first — and what I imagine Coppola was getting at — is the idea that art shouldn’t be too focused on the artist. This strikes me as a little bit absurd: what art isn’t, on some level, derived from the artist’s experience? You’re only yourself, and only ever will be; your history and perspective will necessarily inform your work. There is no way around this, nor should there be. Yes, the task of the artist is to transform self-interest into something larger, but it is my opinion that the more deeply an artist engages with her inner life, the better she is able to create out of her singular experience a work that can — paradoxical as it seems — speak powerfully to others.

I don’t mean to suggest that art must be autobiographical to be any good, but that the most meaningful work involves the artist going deep within herself. (A character can have a life superficially opposite to the writer’s, for example, yet be imbued with a transmuted version of the writer’s emotional life, or a piece of it.) In a Paris Review interview, the novelist Nicholson Baker spoke of the months he carried around a collection of William James’ letters. “He was a brilliant introspector,” Baker said of James. “He taught me that introspection was not only fun but that it could lead to discoveries about other people’s minds. That was his amazing gift — he introspected so intently that he discovered generalizable mental truths.” Besides, isn’t it a little grandiose to think that you are so different from everyone else that focusing intensely on your own emotional life will yield alienating work? It’s not in the subject matter; it’s in the degree and quality of the introspection. It’s in the approach and the tone.

We also see art as indulgent if it seems to have come “too” easily. That is, the scorn extends past art that is focused too (sorry, “too” — because I don’t believe in such a thing) intensely on the artist, to encompass work that seems to have come naturally to her: there is virtue in surmounting obstacles. Don’t write unless you can’t do anything else, writers often say, by which they mean to convey that their work is such a punishing struggle that were they not conscripted by the gods, they would’ve bailed. Some news: if you’re a novelist, you could probably have been a grant writer, a copywriter, a PR rep, a proofreader, an executive assistant, a Bed Bath & Beyond employee — I’ll stop there. My point is that this statement is a cover, meant to absolve writers of the responsibility for their choice of profession, their deep desire to write. It is also meant to deflect any charge of selfishness. (Selfish is another word that’s been unfairly stigmatized, but we’ll leave that for another day.) But there is no need for such a cover. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be an artist because the work is meaningful and pleasurable.

There is nothing wrong, either, with making the particular kind of art that you’re drawn to. In fact, I believe doing so is the only way to create work of real value. Michael Chabon spent years toiling away on the sequel to his first novel, only to finally drop it and write Wonder Boys — in part about an author struggling to finish a novel — in a matter of months. Sheila Heti’s fantastic “novel from life,” How Should a Person Be?, is drawn largely from her own struggle to write a play. These works could be seen as indulgent in both senses: they take obvious inspiration from the writers’ lives, and they came more easily to them than the forced artistic labors they’re about. But these works flowed because they came from somewhere real, and it shows. If you secretly want to write an autobiographical novella (or paint watercolors, or write a picture book, or make sculptures out of chopped-up fruit) but are forcing yourself to make some other work, I can almost guarantee it will fall flat. It might trick some people — gimmickry does — but won’t you know, deep down, that this work isn’t really of you? That it’s an A+ high school assignment, not a work of deep meaning?

So what underlies this multi-level resistance to indulgent art? For one thing, it’s in line with our current obsessions with big data and proven efficacy. We! Like! Results! Art is not results. Art is slow, art is nuanced, art is personal and emotional.

To dig a bit deeper, it seems to me that stigmatizing indulgence, in art and otherwise, stems from puritanism. There is a false belief that life is a zero-sum game, and that you are most equipped to be of service when you are abstaining. The corollary, where art is concerned, is that producing work via struggle lends it value, and to love making your art is unseemly. But in fact, it’s often the case that fulfillment paves the way toward both generosity and creativity. Put your own gas mask on first, and all of that. Maybe there is an effort, here, to escape others’ envy: Don’t hate me because I get to write novels for a living, because trust me, it sucks! But this is predicated on the narcissistic and immature belief that if what you most want to do is write novels, well, everyone else must want to, too. Indulging your very individual desires requires acknowledging that they are yours, and that you are separate from everyone else. Such maturity and differentiation are frightening, but also liberating. Every time I see a bridge, I feel truly grateful there are people who actually love designing them. If I had to, it would be under duress, the bridge would be resentfully and hastily built, and, frankly, we’d probably all die trying to cross it.

To dig deeper still: there is ego at stake here. The root of all this defense is that indulgence is scary as hell. If you punish yourself to create the work, this very suffering seems to add built-in value to it. Moreover, the work is not really intrinsic to you, so it’s easier to distance yourself from it if people hate it. Whereas if you do the thing that comes naturally, then it’s really you on the page, the screen, the canvas. I don’t mean that the work will necessarily be autobiographical (though it might), but that your naked fantasies will be exposed. We’ll all have a peek at your id, in whatever form it takes, rather than your preening superego. Moreover, you will have to confront your buried fantasies and desires, however embarrassing, frightening, repulsive, or taboo. Because aren’t others’ potential judgments, at least in part, a projection of your own? Introspection can be challenging, distressing work, and calling it indulgent lets us off the hook.

Take Lizzie Skurnick, whom I interviewed a few months ago. She was trained as a poet and now, among other things, writes fabulous neologisms. She explained that, when she’s coming up with a word, she “submits the query” to her mind, does some warm-up research, then allows her unconscious to take care of the rest. It’s just how she approached poetry:

Poems also sort of come automatically. They’re bolts from your subconscious. And that’s also the conceit of formal poetry. I went to [Johns] Hopkins because it was a place for formal poetry and one of my teachers there, John Irwin, a wonderful poet, said the point of the poetical form is that concentrating on the form frees up your subconscious, that’s what it’s for. Which is the smartest thing ever. It gets you out of the way a hundred percent. A lot of people try to do formal poetry consciously and it’s forced and it’s awful. You have to trust that your brain will find the rhymes.

Or take Marc Maron, who hit his stride relatively late in his career with his podcast WTF. Maron interviews famous people — largely comedians, largely (especially at the beginning) his friends — out of his garage in Los Angeles. This is an indulgent pursuit: not only is Maron interviewing people he knows, but he often turns the conversation back on himself, even maneuvers his guests into complimenting him. But the result is incredible, magnetizing, some of the most astounding interviewing I’ve ever heard. He finds a way, each time, to use his psyche as a portal into others’. This is not empathy, exactly; it’s more like creating a space that encourages his interviewees to mimic his own self-reflection. His style is arguably the antithesis of Terry Gross’: she resolutely avoids bringing any personal details into her interviews. But the result, in both cases, is extremely affecting, successful work. If Maron tried to do a Terry Gross-style interview — or vice versa — can you imagine the tortured result?

This is not at all to say that art should involve no hard work, that struggle is by nature defense. After the unconscious is sufficiently honored, respected, and expressed in the work comes the painstaking refinement, editing, meaning-making. This is to say that, in the first instance, artists must circumvent the superego. The superego can be harsh and mean; it might say that only long novels, or paintings, or marble sculptures, or work about social issues — and on and on — is of value, and whatever you really want to do is not. It might tell Marc Maron that only Terry Gross-style interviews are valuable. It might tell Terry Gross to suck it up and tell the public the personal information we want to hear.

In doing so, the superego would be fulfilling a vital protective purpose; otherwise, why would it stick around? It lets us avoid external judgment: being called cliché, vanilla, boring, simplistic — or, alternatively, pretentious, elusive, esoteric, obscure. It also lets us brush off these insults more nonchalantly if they come our way: Well, I didn’t really feel that attached to my art anyhow. Much easier, much safer, to scoff at our hidden desires, because if we indulge ourselves, we might be seen for who we really are. We might have to see ourselves for who we really are and, as a result, make choices and close doors. This is unpleasant work, and we are right to be scared. It makes sense to hide. But there is an element of indulgence — of deeply engaging our own desires and inner lives — in even the art that isn’t called indulgent, if it’s any good. Because in art, this is the only work really worth doing.