Left: photo by John Emerson; Right: photo by Craig Mod
Lynne Tillman and Nell Painter can’t remember how they first met. Tillman believes they were introduced at a history conference, while Painter is sure that their first encounter was here, at the Paris Review offices, upon the conduction of this interview. In any case, last spring they convened—either again or for the first time—to discuss their respective new books. Men and Apparitions, Tillman’s sixth novel, tells the story of Zeke, a thirty-eight-year-old cultural anthropologist who belongs to a generation of “new men” and soon becomes the subject of his own research. Old in Art School, Painter’s eighth book of non-fiction, chronicles her decision to leave the world of academic research in pursuit of a B.A. and M.F.A. in visual art. Together they discussed professionalism, the art market, and the personal self-fashioning of writers.
I’m interested in your decision to become a professional artist, and to go to art school after a distinguished career in history. After many years of teaching, you were placed in the position of being a student. Because I’ve taught in M.F.A. programs, I’ve been around older students, and I’ve seen how often they feel reduced. Why didn’t you just paint, and call yourself an artist?
Well, I tried that, but I knew that my skills were old. I had twentieth-century skills. I took a pastels class with a very nice man at the Newark Museum, and I hated it. He instructed me to paint lemons so that I could “feel” them, which I had no interest in. It wasn’t rigorous enough.
If Princeton’s visual arts program had been a degree program, I would have stayed there. But it’s not a degree program. I took a couple of classes there, though, and I really enjoyed them. I would draw and paint all day, and then do critiques at night until I had to go home.
Was your compulsion to get a professional arts degree linked to your having been a professional in history?
I think so, yes! I thought I could be the kind of artist that I was a historian. But it’s not possible. I don’t have enough time to work through what I want do in my head, and in my eye, and in my hand. But I think within your question is the bind between doing something out of desire and working professionally, which means dealing with other people’s ideas.
In your essay “Beginning, Middle, End,” you ask, “What is value?” The art world is based in large part on scarcity—the fewer the better. What’s going on for you in that question of value?
Anyone who is an artist or writer comes up against a reality in which their work is judged in relationship to all the other work being made, and as a result you somehow get placed into a category—by other people, by institutions, by whom you know, by what school you attended. All of these things accrue to your value. We often look to the exceptions, and they supposedly make the rule, but in fact, the rule is that one usually doesn’t become a major art star, one usually doesn’t become a bestseller. Making art of any kind puts you in an ambiguous position, because even if you win every award in the world, it doesn’t mean that your work is great. It can be very self-defeating as an artist to think about value.
Not only did you go to art school at a time when people usually don’t, and change your profession entirely, but you also changed your style. It’s interesting that in the art world, compared to the academic world or the so-called literary world, people dress better.
Art school gave me a very different sense of the possibilities of personal self-fashioning. I would never wear cowboy boots as a historian. Artists curate their appearance. These great glasses that you have—to me those are art-world glasses. Maybe now a historian would wear them, if they were enlightened, but those are art-world glasses.
Being an artist is about taking on the importance of the visual, of how we create images for each other. In your book, you mention that you had thought you were in a protected realm of art. And that reminds me of a story that Thomas Mann wrote, called Tonio Kröger. I read it when I was an undergraduate, and it really just shook my world. He writes that no one should believe that those who create feel. And that was a revelation to me because I, too, thought that there was a protected realm in which artists and writers would be wonderful.
So what happened?
Well, then I met artists and writers! As a girl, and then a very young woman, I would go to poetry readings, and I would be treated badly by male poets. I was shocked by that, because I, too, believed that there was a protected realm of art. I thought that being a woman was negligible compared with what you could or would write. It seems that you had a similar experience of disillusionment. At one moment in Old in Art School, your fellow graduate students at RISD are finally reading an article by a black intellectual—bell hooks—and an architecture student says he can’t read anything by a black writer.
Isn’t that awful? He was a little pigheaded twit.
People tend to think of you as a narrative writer—whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, interviewing somebody or reviewing something, you’re very interested in narrative. You also talk about truth with a capital T, but you distrust it. In your newest book, Men and Apparitions, how do you find a narrative in this distrust?
When I capitalize the T in Truth, it’s about singularity. It’s about saying that truth is not singular, that there are many truths, and that they are all lowercase. When I wrote about Warhol’s factory for a book featuring Stephen Shore’s photographs, I conducted a series of oral histories. Even when people were making statements of fact, they often contradicted each other—We worked in the factory at the same time, We didn’t work in the factory at the same time, There were parties, There were no parties—that kind of thing. Everyone agreed about certain things—Warhol was a very hard worker, he was always back there in his studio working. But because experience is so complex, the way two people think about a single event will be different. That’s where narrative and storytelling come into play. Through a character, you can represent a point of view. But because I’m writing fiction in Men and Apparitions, I’m not saying that any given character’s point of view is the only one worth having. I elide statements of Truth, with a capital T, by representing different points of view.
One thing in Men and Apparitions that knocked me off-kilter was Zeke’s way of pronouncing something and then saying, “Kidding,” and then eventually saying, “Not.” What are we to make of that verbal tick? Am I looking at you looking at him? Am I looking at him looking at him? Am I looking at you looking at him looking at him?
Zeke is hedging his bets. He’s an anthropologist—we know the critiques of his field and so does he. Representing others is the most controversial issue in art right now—he’s hedging his bets by saying he wants to be taken seriously, but not completely seriously, because he could also be wrong. As a social scientist, he analyzes pictures generally, and family photos in particular.
I became interested in the so-called “new man” that Zeke represents. My younger male friends are very different from men my age. They’re different, even, from men in their fifties and sixties. They were children who were born into the women’s movement, or out of feminism. What is happening to these men? I began to wonder—and this may sound crazy—if maybe we’ll discover that men are more affected by feminism than women. The majority has to give something up when the minority demands it.
Interviewing you for BOMB, Geoffrey O’Brien asks you about your skin writing, which you call “dermatographia.” What does that mean?
Skin is the largest organ in the body, and it registers so much. If you have dry skin like I do—
Oh, you can write on it!
I can write on my skin, that’s right! So much shows on the skin. Blushing is the most obvious. And then there are people with acne, or people with psoriasis, and a lot of these conditions are anxiety-induced, or are the result of chemical changes in the body. I became very interested in the way that skin betrays us. I wasn’t thinking in terms of race at that point, though I think it enters American Genius, A Comedy as well. It’s funny how you use a word like “race” and it’s supposed to cover so much. How do you reduce something to race?
People do it every day.
You address this very question in Old in Art School, particularly as it relates to who can represent what in contemporary art. You write, “Already I could hear the expectation, an unspoken command, a black artist’s subject must always be blackness, that white art history was art history, and a black artist’s relationship to it can only be confrontational.” How did you incorporate black figures and black beauty while also going against this idea that there was only one art history and it didn’t include black people?
Well, Lynne Tillman asks, how do we know if it’s art?
The Danto explanation is institutional—if something is in a gallery, it’s art. But the question of who determines value is more complicated. Sometimes it’s the collectors, sometimes it’s the museums, and other times it’s the critics, but most often it’s the market.
Well, I would wrap all of those people and institutions together and tie them with the “market,” which is one of those big words like “race.” It’s all over the place. But let’s scale the market down to your own work. You are known as a writer’s writer, and you publish with independent presses. How do we know you’re a writer if you publish with independent presses? This is a question for me, too, obviously—we both work at the intersection of markets, money, and independence. It’s all mixed up together, we’re threading our way through contradictory markers of value.
I was so naive as a child. From the age of eight, I wanted to be a writer, and it never occurred to me that there would be obstacles. It never occurred to me that the school you attended, or your mother’s occupation as an editor, say, would open doors for you. And it didn’t occur to me the extent to which who published you shaped your career from the get-go. Haunted Houses, my first novel, was published by Simon & Schuster. But I didn’t know, for instance, that if you published in paperback, even a trade paperback, that you wouldn’t get as many reviews as if you had published hardcover. And so when my publisher asked which I would prefer, I thought only of the cost, and told him to publish it in paperback. That meant I didn’t get a softcover deal, and I didn’t get many reviews. There were so many things about publishing that I didn’t know. So I always feel that I’m sort of a B-list writer, or something.
No, you’re a writer’s writer, which is a different category. But you’re probably poor as a church mouse.
Well, if it weren’t for the art world, I would be. The art world has been very good to me.
As a historian, I’m a kind of historian’s historian in the way that you’re a writer’s writer. I have never won big history prizes. For Sojourner Truth, for instance, I received one prize, and it came from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. No history prizes. History of White People? Nothing.
In my career, at least, I’ve had a very difficult time with “prestigious” as a quality applied to me or my work. When I wake up in the morning I’m still miserable, so being prestigious is beside the point. Like you, I’ve written many different kinds of things. Each of my novels is very different from the others, which is a wacky thing to do if you want to figure out how to be placed.
So you’re saying nobody can say, “Oh, that’s a Lynne Tillman.”
Well, my readers know that there is a single mind behind my books, but the characters are always shifting—I’m always relearning how to write. It was Billie Holiday’s birthday recently, and they played all her music on one of the radio stations. At one point she was asked if she ever sings the same song the same way, and she said “No.” She said, “That’s not music.”
People are always talking about your wry humor. Elissa Schappell once described you as possessing a “rebellious, don’t-give-a-damn, New York attitude.” I thought, well, if she’s don’t-give-a-damn New York, I’m kinda-give-a-damn New Jersey.
It’s true—I’m always interested in how something can be both funny and tragic—that’s what makes it a joke. But I also have a lot of feelings about my subjects, so I hope I don’t seem cold-hearted.
Not at all. But you’re not one to be suckered by or snickered at for sentimentality.
How do you allow for feeling if you, the artist, are sentimental? If your feelings, as a maker, are all over the place, you leave very little room for your readers to feel things on their own. In Old in Art School, you mention that you used to conduct historical research to glean more certainty, but in making art, you began to realize you needed to enter into uncertainty and ambiguity. How did this begin to make sense to you?
It was difficult. My historical writing was very coherent. My forte was that I could take a lot of conflicting, confusing, complicated information and write about it with nuance, but also with coherence. In making art, it was difficult to let go of that impulse. The computer helped me a lot.
With photoshop, history only lasts until you turn the computer off. The pixel doesn’t care what’s next to it—it has no brain and no ideas. I didn’t have to carry over any kind of intelligence from one day to the next, or from one work session to the next. There were no rules about what pixel could go next to another. It was a technology in which verisimilitude played no role.
In writing a novel, everything has to hang together, even if it feels on the verge of falling apart. Coherence in writing is very important to me, but ambiguity is important, too. I never want to write a sentence that, to me, isn’t clear. I may not understand all the other interpretations that might exist, but I have to read it and think, okay, that thought holds up. I don’t want my sentences to be opaque.
I think that makes you a twentieth-century person, like me. But I’ve tried to free myself from that.
I think I have my head in both centuries and my feet in this one. Sojourner Truth is fascinating to me—there’s no one like her. She was an inspiring woman. When she said, “Ain’t I a woman”—
She didn’t say that.
What did she say?
She said a lot of things that kind of meant that. She said that she had done a lot of work, and that women deserved their rights. She did not say “aren’t I a woman” or “ain’t I a woman.” She did not say that.
Where did it come from?
It came from a white woman journalist named Frances Dana Barker Gage, and she made it up because she was in competition with Harriet Beecher Stowe. Beecher Stowe had written this silly piece in either Harper’s or The Atlantic, in which she made Sojourner Truth into this kind of quaint darky. Barker Gage was a good feminist and a good abolitionist, and when she read Beecher Stowe’s piece, she was working with freed people in South Carolina. So she thought to herself, I’ve got a better Sojourner Truth. Beecher Stowe had also said that Sojourner Truth was dead, which she wasn’t.
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