The Canterville Artist
On incompetent ghosts and the search for normality.
[the present script is part of a performance lecture that will be presented in a few hours at Kiosk in Ghent, as part of the exhibition “Beautiful Eccentrics: Central Casting”]
Gent, Belgium, October 5, 2023
Polyester spiderwebs on windows. Pennywise masks. Plastic skeletons sitting on porches. Styrofoam graves leaning against pumpkins: Halloween is approaching.
In my Brooklyn neighborhood, where there are many families with children, everyone gets energized and into the competitive spirit (even if there are no prizes involved) of elaborately decorating their homes and dressing up for trick or treat day.
I have always been fascinated by the subversion of roles that Bakhtin used to define as the “Carnivalesque”, as it is embraced by a broad community. Upper middle-class parents who regularly dress in business attire to work in Midtown jump at the opportunity to smear their face with makeup and fake blood and be weird for a day. As a performance artist myself, I feel no special urge to do that (it is, like my uncle would say, like “asking a mailman to go for a walk”), nor do I imagine most other artists would.
I am also keenly aware of the fact that contemporary art, when it really subverts à la Bakhtin (like, say, the works of Paul McCarthy), is truly seen as weird and can cause revulsion, which in turn is the reason why artists tend to disdain the aesthetic fragility and general intolerance to the abnormal by the untrained eye (John Cage used to say: “people are afraid of new ideas— I am afraid of the old ones!”). In that non-Halloween world, being “weird” is bad; and even within the Halloween celebration the brand of weirdness of most outfits is still fairly predictable and milquetoast (witches, grim reapers, mummies, and so forth).
Yet, I merrily put on a costume because it allows me to fit in and join the celebration, which his very important to me: I do want to be in community and I don’t want to “stand out” by not wearing a costume.
(although occasionally we still like to make a statement if possible: in 2020, the horrid election year we experienced in the US, I dressed up as Marx (nothing scarier to American conservatives than Socialism) and Dannielle dressed as a suffragette (another conservative threat).
But within this simple dynamic during Halloween there is an issue around normality and difference that I think is interesting to explore.
For that I want to bring up a short story by Oscar Wilde, which seems fitting to me since Wilde hailed from Ireland, the country where the Halloween tradition originated. In The Canterville Ghost, written in 1887, Wilde tells the story of the spirit of an English nobleman who had killed his wife and was then walled alive by his wife’s brothers. An American family —a married couple with two twins and a teenage daughter— who recently moves to England purchases the country house where the ghost resides (the family is unconcerned by the seller warnings of the seller).
Right away the ghost tries to haunt the Americans with things like spilling pools of blood in the living room, but is surprised by the fact that the family is not fazed by his antics and can readily deal with whatever mischief the ghost creates (using, for example, a very effective cleaning product to clean the stains, and they even offer the ghost an all-purpose lubricating oil to help ease the screeching noise caused by the ghost’s rusty chains — in a way the story being a fable of how modernity and technology defeat superstition). The twins then take to torture and haunt the ghost as a pastime, laying all sort of traps and tricks onto him, all of which deeply humiliates him. Only the daughter, Virginia, decides to talk to the ghost and listen to his tragic story: he has not been able to sleep for 300 years. He can’t cry because he has no tears; he can’t pray because he has no faith. In an act of kindness and empathy, Virginia then cries and prays for him, ultimately convincing the Angel of Death to finally take him away.
I was simultaneously scared and moved by the story of the Canterville Ghost as a child, as well as by the illustrations in the book that I read. I never quite knew why the story had such an impact in me. Now, in retrospect, I believe the tale is a metaphor about artists. But it is not a metaphor about artists in the predictable way that one would expect it to be. In other words, if I tell you that this story is about an artist, you might interpret it to mean that the Canterville ghost is a misunderstood artist, someone whose work is ineffective or unappreciated. Instead, I would argue, (and I know this is counter-intuitive) he is an artist because he actually wants to be a normal mortal. He wants, like ordinary souls, to rest in peace.
In order to explain I will have to backtrack a bit.
In 1980, psychologists Charles. R. Snyder and Howard. L. Fromkin developed the Uniqueness theory, which posits that as social animals we try to balance the desire to be part of a community with the equal desire to distinguish ourselves from others. According to Uniqueness theory, humans feel discomfort whenever they feel too similar or different to others. The theory “predicts that the perception of extreme similarity (SM) of self to others leads an individual to seek a behavioral strategy that gives him/her a greater sense of uniqueness.”
This explains a great deal about the social scripts of the art world, something I wrote about in a book titled Art Scenes. The book sought to outline how nonconformism amongst artists is only the fulfilment of a preordained social score, according to which artists should be disruptors and nonconformists. In other words, we make art to provoke and change paradigms, but in the end we want to be accepted. In the end, as the theory predicts, artistic radicality tends to be calculated so in order to not entirely alienate the art world.
The exception to the rule, I would argue, are eccentrics. There are certain traits in the eccentric self (personal obsessions, compulsions, or addictions) that get in the way of focusing too much on others, and thus are not much influenced by their concern of other’s opinions. In their 1995 book Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness, psychotherapists David Weeks and Jamie James argue that people who display eccentric behavior are actually very happy about their own life and are rather unconcerned by the external validation of their interests.
There are two key factors here. The first is that eccentricity might not be a trait that can be artificially induced or permanently and veritably sustained: it would be like feigning madness for life. Sooner or later, our pretend craziness might be discovered and be revealed as a sham. And, conversely, if we do have an eccentric side, it seldom can be hidden or repressed, especially before those who we know well. In other words, following Snyder and Fromkin’s theory, the rebelliousness that stems from the desire to be unique is different from having an obsession (say, making intricate drawings, collecting moths, or building contraptions in one’s garage). Eccentrics don’t want to be different: they are largely unconcerned about what the rest of the world thinks of them and are satisfied and fulfilled in the free pursuit of their obsessions.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, to a greater or lesser degree we all, artists or not, contain an eccentric side (which we can explore on occasions such as Halloween), but this eccentric side is particularly salient among artists.
I learned this the hard way over the course of a life of trying to be an arts administrator— a job that requires, like most office work, strict regulation, pragmatic organization and control. For the longest time my greatest fear was that I would become a Sunday painter, like many people I knew who are expert administrators but had given up the dream of being an artist. In a large museum, I was the only senior administrator who was also an active practicing artist. As a result I had an eccentric/normal split identity complex that I needed to ensure could remain in balance. As people in my team knows, I would never speak about my own artwork in the office and made the subject taboo. I was afraid that one side would contaminate the other. As it turns out, that was impossible in either direction.
One day in 2019, toward the end of my museum career, I was invited to apply for a Director of Education position at a major art museum; I agreed to go through the process. But as I was interviewing I realized that there was a problem: my artistic practice was too visible and could not be set aside. The museum director, the COO and others who interviewed me brought it up constantly, inquiring politely (but revealing it was a real concern) whether it would interfere with my museum work. As much as I tried to do my usual “church and state” separation spiel, I realized it was not convincing. I was not normal; I was the Canterville artist.
I did not get the job. As it turns out, as in many things in my life, not being hired was an enormous stroke of luck. If hired, I would have begun the job in February of 2020, a month before the pandemic started. This museum, like many others, was the target of terrible accusations of racism and inequity in its programming a few months later, another thing that I would have inherited had I been on board.
Later that year, I left the museum world for good. I realized that all along my fear was that working in a museum I would stop being an artist, while in reality the issue was the opposite: I could never remain forever in the museum world because I was an artist. I would never be, sort to speak, normal.
Eccentrics don’t care about normalcy: mainly it does not tend to enter their mind. But they don’t do what they do with the intention to be different: their eccentric ways constitute their natural state of being.
Thus my counterintuitive corollary: pretend artists want to be different; actual artists, insofar they are concerned with the question, ultimately want to be normal.
Perhaps my deep identification with the Canterville Ghost was that I never felt normal in my life, as much as I wanted to. Growing up, being “normal” is something that we all want and need, especially when we are in school, where we want to fit in.
But that as David Bowie once said, “being an artist is a sign of a certain kind of dysfunction.” One that, when you have it, you simply have to embrace. But it doesn’t work as a compelling Halloween costume.
So for this Halloween I just ordered a British royal guard outfit. In truth, I always wanted to wear one of those furry bearskin helmets.
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