At first glance there is not much that connects street artist Banksy, American author Thomas Pynchon, American photographer Vivian Maier and authors J.D. Salinger and Elena Ferrante. But in their own distinct ways each of these individuals are or were escape artists. They either made a deliberate attempt to avoid publicity and the limelight or simply were not interested in being interviewed or even seen in public. Fame did not interest them. But society is continually interested in them.
In 2016, when Ferrante’s true identity was ‘unmasked’ by Italian journalist Claudio Gatti, a justified furore subsequently arose around the deliberate attempts to expose the author’s real name and identity. What did it matter what Ferrante’s real name was? How did her real identity have an impact on a reader’s enjoyment of her work? As Alexandra Schwartz wrote in her New Yorker piece on Ferrante’s ‘unmasking’, there is a ‘special kinship’ between author and reader in which ‘the author knows nothing about you, and yet you feel that your most intimate self has been understood. The fact that Ferrante has chosen to be anonymous has become part of this contract, and has put readers and writer on a rare, equal plane.’
Simple curiosity has evolved into a desperate attachment to details. This, of course, isn’t new. We have always, to some degree, wanted to know certain details about mysterious figures in history, from Jack the Ripper to Deep Throat, the latter of whom was exposed in 2005 as Mark Felt. But in an age where social media and the internet provide a Borgesian accessibility to every detail imaginable, many respond with frustration in the face of ambiguity. While Mark Zuckerberg has called privacy an old-fashioned, obsolete value, the ratio between mystery and revelation is becoming more uneven—and is overwhelmingly in favour of revelation.
As Schwartz writes, ‘There are so few avenues left, in our all-seeing, all-revealing digital world, for artistic mystery of the true kind—mystery that isn’t concocted as a publicity play but that finds its origins in the writer’s soul as a prerogative of his or her ability to create.’ Indeed, in his work No Sense of Place (1985), Joshua Meyrowitz argues that our own time no longer privileges mysteries or secrets in the same way as earlier eras: ‘The Victorian era—the height of print culture—was a time of “secrets”. Our own age, in contrast, is fascinated by exposure. Indeed, the act of exposure itself now seems to excite us more than the content of the secrets exposed.’ As The Sopranos creator, David Chase, explained in response to the many unanswered questions that his fans had about the fate of many of his characters: ‘This is what Hollywood has done to America. Do you have to have closure on every little thing? Isn’t there any mystery in the world? It’s a murky world out there.’
In an interview in 2015, director J.J. Abrams expressed similar sentiments when he spoke of the use of ambiguity as a narrative device in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Discussing the elusive meaning behind the now-famous briefcase, the glowing contents of which remain unknown, Abrams says: ‘It allows people to fill in those blanks with their own hopes, their own expectations, their own desires. It’s why in Pulp Fiction you don’t know what’s inside that briefcase. There is no answer to what’s inside. Not telling the audience … makes room for the audience to fill it in themselves.’
Yet Gatti’s relentless pursuit of Ferrante is more characteristic of those for whom ambiguity is unappealing, and for whom fame is a much sought-after goal. Ever since Andy Warhol proclaimed that, in the future, everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, the understanding is that we all wish to court and attain celebrity. In the twenty-first century especially we are, as Sherry Turkle famously argued, ‘always on’, always tethered to and accessible on our devices. The incessant streaming of updates and information means that we do not understand or tolerate it when someone, especially an artist, decides to keep their personal details to themselves, remaining inaccessible and obscure.
Consequently, obscurity has become currency for certain artists, as seen with the popularity of the singer Sia. The most extreme of these cases is American author Thomas Pynchon, whose notorious works such as Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49 have enjoyed an enviable status in popular culture between highbrow complexity and lowbrow content. Yet Pynchon has never really been seen in public. The only known photographs of him are more than 50 years old, taken from when he was enlisted in the navy. He has only appeared in cartoon form in The Simpsons, and was reported to have made a cameo in the film adaptation of his book Inherent Vice. There were rumours circulating for a while that Pynchon was J.D. Salinger, to which the author replied: ‘Not bad. Keep trying.’ He was also said to have been taught by Russian author Vladimir Nabokov, one of the more reputable pieces of information.
Because of his avoidance of publicity, an aura has grown around the illustrious author, and Pynchon’s reluctance to engage in publicity has ironically made him even more famous for a culture obsessed with imagery and exposure. As academic John Kevin Young puts it:
Pynchon’s refusal to wear the trappings of literary celebrity creates a Romantic aura for him: By distancing himself from all public discourse about himself and his work, Pynchon becomes an even greater, albeit more mysterious, celebrity than most authors manage in their interviews and memoirs.
He notes that ‘the very idea of Pynchon making a media appearance would negate his commercial image as a recluse’.
We have developed many words for these sorts of people, with one word standing out: ‘reclusive’. But this is a term that Pynchon hardly endorses: ‘My belief is that “recluse” is a code word generated by journalists … meaning, doesn’t like to talk to reporters.’ Can it simply be that operating outside publicity is normal, rather than strange or suspicious? While society is naturally curious when elusive artists wander in our midst, the obsession with unmasking the identity of the artist has become tiring.
Literary celebrity scholar Lorraine York helpfully notes that we don’t have proper terminology to describe those who reside outside the spotlight, knowing only the extremes of ‘fame-hungry’ and ‘recluse’. But what about those, she asks, who exist in the middle? She says, ‘Although we have a language to describe the desire for celebrity, and a language to describe a radical recoil from celebrity—reclusiveness—as yet we do not have a way of thinking about a wavering state of celebrity that is at once both and neither of those things.’
The extent to which people have attempted to discover Pynchon’s identity has threatened to eclipse even the writer’s body of work. In Nancy Jo Sales’ 1996 New York Magazine article ‘Meet Your Neighbour, Thomas Pynchon’, she calls the author ‘the world’s most successful media fugitive’, a term that suggests that a distaste for media is regarded as odd and abnormal. With these discussions on anti-fame, a peculiar discourse emerges in which we perceive fame as a normal passion and goal, and find its opposite—obscurity—as something to be fixed or alleviated. But as book critic Arthur Salm says of Pynchon, ‘The man simply chooses not to be a public figure, an attitude that resonates on a frequency so out of phase with that of the prevailing culture that if Pynchon and Paris Hilton were ever to meet—the circumstances, I admit, are beyond imagining.’
Famous street artist Banksy has experienced the same kind of obsession regarding his identity, though, as with Pynchon, his popularity is not solely based on his absence. But it is certainly intensified because of it. Yet Robert Clarke, author of Seven Years with Banksy (2012), writes, ‘Banksy’s rejection of fame has, in this media-saturated environment, only served to enhance his anti-fame.’ The popularity of Banksy’s strong political message in his art is rivalled only by the constant media attention levelled at his identity. In 2016 it was reported that there was no such person as Banksy, but that, in a very Shakespearian twist, he was simply a number of artists, masterminded by Massive Attack co-founder Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja. While it has also been reported that Banksy’s identity has already been revealed, speculation continues as to who he is.
Salinger similarly avoided the spectacle of publicity, eager to distance himself from the public world, although he was always hounded by reporters and fans. The 2013 ‘documentary’ Salinger is evidence of society’s merciless pursuit of the author. As A.O. Scott wrote in his New York Times review ‘The Punishment for Being Publicity-Shy’: ‘Salinger moved to the woods of New Hampshire partly to escape the intrusions and indignities of American celebrity culture. Salinger is that culture’s revenge.’
In January 2017 the new film Rebel in the Rye was released in the United States, chronicling Salinger’s life. While Salinger was interested in seeing Catcher in the Rye adapted for screen, there has been a long-held belief that the author nevertheless disliked Hollywood. As Holden Caulfield, the famous character in Catcher, remarks: ‘If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies. Don’t even mention them to me.’ In another ironic twist, such was Salinger’s distaste for fame that academic Myles Weber writes that many believed Salinger to be a manipulative genius who used his seclusion to accentuate his mythology. Such an assumption has been dismissed by the author’s most ardent fans.
In contemporary twenty-first-century culture it is almost impossible to avoid the capture of the media; even people who are not active users of social media find themselves (and their pictures) online. But my choice to remain off Facebook has garnered mixed reactions from friends and family. People often express confusion or bemusement when an individual opts out of the media craze, assuming that everybody wants their lives plastered online. Such reactions reflect broader attitudes on individuals and personal exposure.
Those who try to evade the media are often viewed as annoying hipsters or suspicious loners. Kashmir Hill wrote in a Forbes article that employers are suspicious of those who opt out of publicity and are not on Facebook: ‘job seekers and employers wonder aloud about what it means if a job candidate doesn’t have a Facebook account. Does it mean they deactivated it because it was full of red flags? Are they hiding something?’ We are therefore expected to comply with the demands of a media-saturated society, lest we be criticised or ostracised. The popular Instagram line ‘Pics or it Didn’t Happen’ is indicative of such a culture that praises details and exposure, and censures privacy and obscurity.
As philosopher Jean-François Lyotard wrote in his Postmodern Fables: ‘If you are not public, you disappear; if not exposed as much as possible, you don’t exist. Your no-man’s land is interesting only if expressed and communicated. Heavy pressures are put on silence, to give birth to expression.’ A prominent example of this peculiar dynamic is American photographer Vivian Maier, whose work was posthumously plucked from obscurity by collector John Maloof. Maier never made any sincere attempts to ‘share’ her work while she was alive, remaining obscure, much to the confusion of many of her contemporary fans. ‘It is gravely unfortunate that her work was not displayed while she was alive,’ says academic Kevin Coffee. ‘Perhaps specific information about why she did not or could not—for lack of cultural capital—was held in the other documents she stored.’
Maier is now considered one of the greatest ‘undiscovered’ photographers of the twentieth century, all because Maloof curated her work and circulated it online and in galleries. People continue to be bemused by Maier’s choice to remain an unknown artist, because logic tells us that we all want to be renowned, that we all seek fame and recognition.
When the documentary Finding Vivian Maier—Maloof’s film documenting his discovery and subsequent exposure of Maier—was shown to my media students, they similarly found Maier’s apparent distaste of fame unsettling. Why, they asked, would she not want to share her photographs and become a famous photographer? The word ‘selfish’ was even uttered once or twice, with students disregarding Maier altogether. Even if Maier did share her photographs but chose to remain anonymous, undoubtedly there would have been a person—a journalist, collector or other—to track her down and expose her. If not Maloof then somebody else, eventually.
In the same way that Pynchon’s and Banksy’s careers are aided by relative anonymity, Coffee argues, ‘Ironically, Maier’s silence about her work sets the stage for its posthumous commodification.’ Coffee concludes that ‘all of this underscores the importance of her artwork to the public discourse’. Such is the way most of us view art: as something for the pleasure of public consumption.
Maloof’s curatorial role in thrusting Maier into the spotlight parallels the case of Czech author Franz Kafka. Kafka advised his friend and editor Max Brod to burn all of his manuscripts after he died, a wish that went unheeded by Brod. As a result, the world has Kafka’s brilliant prose, but not with Kafka’s approval. As art critic Howard S. Becker reminds us, ‘Critics and readers appreciate the choice, but it was Brod’s, not Kafka’s.’ It’s difficult to imagine a world in which The Metamorphosis, The Trial and The Castle had never been published; the influential work of Kafka, giving rise to the nightmarish quality of ‘Kafkaesque’, has had such an undeniable impact. And yet the particular experience in reading Kafka carries with it the same kind of guilt as viewing Maier’s photographs. As one of Maier’s close friends put it, ‘she would never have let this happen had she known about it’.
We are reluctant to embrace the author or artist who chooses emphatically to withdraw from the mayhem of publicity. Even if we personally choose obscurity over publicity, there’s the idea that we should still share our art. But in Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1919), the philosopher argues that the cult value of art ‘demand[ed] that the work of art remain hidden’. For Benjamin, this was to ensure that the magic or ‘aura’ of an artwork was preserved, reserving art only for certain religious figures. However elitist the prospect may be, the thesis behind the idea that great works ought to remain hidden carries with it persuasive philosophical implications for the relentless determination of society constantly to unmask identities. At times we may be permitted to leave well enough alone, to allow our imaginations the possibility to develop and thrive.
Our relationship with our favourite artists remains intriguing, built upon idealised notions of their identities. In their absence, so-called ‘reclusive’ stars are larger than life. And this is especially true with the democratisation of barriers between fans and artists through social media platforms. There are the celebrities who are everywhere, and those who are nowhere and somewhere. In his book Intimate Strangers, Richard Schickel describes what he calls ‘the illusion of intimacy’ that many readers and fans have for their favourite celebrities or authors. ‘Thanks to television’, he says, ‘and the rest of the media we know them, or think we do. To a greater or lesser degree, we have internalised them, unconsciously made them a part of our consciousness, just as if they were, in fact, friends.’
But as Schwartz’s aforementioned comments attest, our relationships with artists, and in particular authors, are not sustained through an intimate knowledge of their identities. An appreciation of their art need not depend on the precise contours of their face, or even their real name. Art does indeed speak of the artist who created it, but a certain amount of insight ought to remain inaccessible, if not for the sake of the artist, then for our own sake, so we can indulge in what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’—something that ought to be extended to the author.
If the Victorian era was the age of secrets, it was also, according to Mario Praz, the era of the rise and fall of the hero or the heroic figure. In his book The Hero in Eclipse (1956), Praz argues that eventually Victorian novels became devoid of the hero; ‘no mystery, and no hero. The abolition of the hero is a salient feature in Trollope, no less—perhaps even more—than in Thackeray.’ He argues also that ‘disillusioned observation of life as it really was, led to the eclipse of the hero and the disclosure of man’s swarming interior world, made up of disparate and contradictory things’. No longer was it sufficient to invent; the details of the author’s inner world took precedence over their art. One need only view the Instagram pages of celebrities to witness the results: their private lives have become the new media form, eclipsing their films to a degree. And since the private world is no longer off limits, the previously crucial role of the imagination has diminished somewhat. After all, what use is the imagination if we live in a time of rampant disclosure?
If our artists become too known to us, too familiar, they cease to become larger than life heroes. In keeping parts of their identity unknown, we preserve the arcana that sustain great art. But on a more relatable note, it may just be considerate to respect the wishes of the person who, for whatever reason, has chosen to remain anonymous. Whether the artist disappears in order to throw more focus onto their work—as is perhaps the case with Banksy—or whether the trappings of celebrity simply prove too uninteresting or unpleasant, the artists in pursuit of obscurity should be respected, and then left alone. •
Siobhan Lyons is a media lecturer at Macquarie University. Her work includes Death and the Machine (Palgrave Pivot, 2018) and Ruin Porn and the Obsession with Decay (Palgrave, 2018)