The art of self-indulgence

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If we feel driven in a harmless direction, even if it’s all about ourselves, shouldn’t we explore it?

Recently I watched Eat Pray Love, a slow movie made from a book I never finished. “Self-indulgent, whiny dribble,” wrote more than a few critics, while others praised the project as inspirational. As an expert on “self-indulgent, whiny dribble,” I found it somewhere in between.

As a society, we praise art as self-expression while deriding art as self-indulgent. Perhaps it’s impossible (and pointless) not to write or paint or dance or play the harmonica without the pervasive first person.

Worse, I often comment publicly on paintings of me, focusing on not only my opinions, but also my image
  • George Rodrigue
  • Worse, I often comment publicly on paintings of me, focusing on not only my opinions, but also my image

Criticism, especially of personal expression, is painful, and yet it’s part of the journey. I recall like it was yesterday a scathing book review from a project I worked on ten years ago. I first learned of the review's impact when my grandmother’s beautician called for my help. Apparently my granny, at age ninety-five, broke down in the beauty parlor over her public humiliation at my public disgrace. She needed guidance on how to combat this; yet I was at a loss, having cried all morning myself.

As much as my family and friends insisted that they dismissed the review, it was this reaction from my grandmother — basically that I, albeit by way of a critic, had caused her this suffering — that resonates with me to this day.

George Rodrigue, my co-author, was unfazed by the article, insulated from criticism ever since his first newspaper review: “Painter Makes Bayou Country Dreary, Monotonous Place,” a blistering diatribe written in 1971, committed to this day to his memory, saved and laminated lest he forget, and recounted in more detail here.

Sunday-Advocate-Aug-30-1970-p14-A-1.jpg
  • Baton Rouge Morning Advocate, 1971

Recently I watched Eat Pray Love's author Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk about nurturing creativity. I relate to her speech, while feeling relieved that my subject 98% of the time is someone other than myself. Simultaneously, I recognize that as I speak and write and live George Rodrigue, my psyche is defined by his. My creativity, such as it is, exists because of him, because I’m comfortable in that zone. And after all, shouldn’t we pursue that which makes us comfortable? Isn’t that some sort of providential signal?

Writing in the first person, no matter what the subject, is self-indulgent dribble. I’m honestly surprised every time a stranger approaches me to say that he or she reads my blog.

On the other hand, we praise visual artists for this raw language on their canvas, judged as effective the more exposed and personal the expression, yet rarely judged as utterly self-indulgent, unless your name is Jeff Koons and your series Made in Heaven.

Cindy Sherman photographs herself repeatedly, exposing her fantasies, perhaps transforming even the smallest aspects of her self into a literal picture, but somehow dwarfing her ego at the same time.

I thought about this after receiving dozens of closeted comments, by way of email and messaging, regarding last week’s post "The Price of Beauty." For the most part, readers described similar experiences. They praised my bravery for writing about it (almost more so than living through six months of it!), and explained that they wrote to me privately because they are too embarrassed to admit their similar experience publicly, even as a response to mine. My superficiality shines as brightly as theirs within those well-meaning comments.

In our society, we perpetuate a guilt-complex. We have no right to complain if our bills are paid and our husband doesn’t beat us. While not necessarily comforting, someone else has it worse. Yet whatever one’s life, whether the best or the worst on the block, it is unique to that person and best recorded by the one who lives it.

Blogging, in a sense, is a public diary. Sure it’s self-indulgent, no matter what the topic. Maybe the same can be said for art of any kind. I’m not willing to stake a firm opinion on that, however, because I’m unwilling to deny the possibility of my escape from myself.

This Friday I present a lecture at the LSU Museum of Art inspired by George Rodrigue’s paintings of women, and by ‘Musings,’ about finding my way amidst a high-profile husband and his history. I have no illusions: people attend these lectures because I am ‘the wife.’ Were I more of a feminist or less in love, perhaps I would take offense; but the truth is that I’m comfortable in this role, the place my grandmother defined for me on our wedding day as ‘agree with whatever he says, but then do whatever you want.’

Of course, she was married five times.

Before George, I was defined by the women in my life:  Aunt Rose, Great Aunt Lois, Cousin Gay, Grandma McClanahan, my sister Heather, Mama, Great Aunt Ina, Granny Wolfe
  • Before George, I was defined by the women in my life: Aunt Rose, Great Aunt Lois, Cousin Gay, Grandma McClanahan, my sister Heather, Mama, Great Aunt Ina, Granny Wolfe

I am unable to call myself a writer. And so there must be some truth there as well. I’m happy being ‘the wife of a famous artist,’ an expert on one man and his art, an expertise valued, I like to think, among his fans.

But alas, I’m drifting off topic… (….Next week: “The Art of False Modesty”*)

Wendy Rodrigue (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)

*Ha!

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