The History of White People

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I Make What I Want: The Millions Interviews Nell Painter

One of the questions at the heart of Old in Art School, the new memoir by Nell Painter, is what it takes to be “An Artist” and who gets to decide you’ve earned those capital A’s. In her 60s, Painter left a career as an eminent Princeton historian and author of numerous books about African-American history and race—including, in 2010, The History of White People—to study painting and drawing at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts and in the MFA program at the Rhode Island School of Design. After a lifetime of hard work and intellectual rigor adding up to success, Painter found that art school was governed by a different equation, where who you were and how you looked seemed to be at least as important as what you produced. “To be An Artist was to be a certain kind of person that you could not become through education or practice,” she writes. “If I lacked the essential quality of being An Artist, I was condemned to failure.” In a recent interview at her vacation home in the Adirondacks, Painter discussed why she chose such a radical change of direction at this time in her life and what she learned about art, society, and herself in the process. The Millions: Did you always think you might go into academia? Nell Painter: Yeah, after I got a C in sculpture and realized—I thought—I didn't have enough talent to be an artist. TM: So your earliest love was art? NP: Oh, yeah, I drew all the time, and I was briefly an art major at Berkeley. But this C—and I earned my C, I didn’t do a damn thing—I thought, oh, if you have talent… TM: Are you glad that you took the history path or do you ever wish that you had stuck with art? NP: Oh, no, I did the right thing—not for the right reasons, necessarily. That generation, the Modernist generation of women and black people—totally ignored. And there are some fantastic artists in that generation. I don’t think, working as hard as you have to work for as long as you have to work, I don’t know if I could have sustained it, with virtually no recognition. TM: What made you decide to make this huge change at this point in your life? Did you feel that you had done everything in your academic career that you wanted to do? NP: I wouldn’t have put it quite that way, but that’s as good a way to put it…I was ready to move on. I had shepherded a whole lot of really good dissertations, and I had written a whole lot of really good books. And as I say in Old in Art School, my history writing had started pulling me into the visual already. TM: I imagine you knew that you would be older than most of your classmates, but did you imagine that it would make as much of a difference as it did? NP: No. I had done these tryouts, like taking classes at Princeton and doing the drawing and painting marathon. And it didn't come up either time, so for me it was, first, satisfying myself that it was rewarding enough to invest a lot of time, and that I had the physical stamina to do it, and so the answers in both cases were yes. I thought that would do it. You know, I didn’t feel so old in undergraduate school, because Rutgers is a university, and there was a lot else going on besides art, whereas the Rhode Island School of Design is an art school and design school. TM: Are you saying that there were people of different ages at Rutgers, so it didn't feel like you stood out? NP: Yes, and at Rutgers my fellow students weren’t on a track to become professional artists in the same way that I discovered was so wrong for me in graduate school. It took me a long time to figure out. TM: So you’ve concluded that wasn’t the track for you? NP: I used to say, oh, I'm a former historian. I don’t say that anymore. I’m still a historian. As I was preparing my book, going through my journals, I discovered that every three months or so, I would say, “Oh, I want to make books.” But I’d always forget, what is it I’m doing here? But it was hard to realize that I am not going to be an artist like my fellow students [at RISD] are going to be artists. I mean, they may not become the artists they want to be, but their chances are much greater because they don't have the kind of past that I have. TM: Do you think it was your age, or your particular background and education? NP: It was both. TM: You wrote about what you called your “20th-century eyes” being a limitation in art school, and also about how the other students presented themselves, that people dressed “like artists,” and I think you even said at one point that everybody was thin or at least nobody was overweight. How much do you feel your critiques or the response to your work was related to how people were perceiving you as a person? And how much do you think who an artist is should affect the judgement of their work? NP: I don’t know if that’s a “should” I can address. We live in a world that is racist and sexist and ageist, and all of those are so salient in our culture that it's kind of counterfactual to try to figure it out. I did feel that I was being “invisible-ized” as an old, black woman. I definitely felt that, and women my age, of any race or class, can testify to feeling invisible. TM: There is so much emphasis on youth and what you called “right-nowness” in our culture, but is there, or should there be, a place for the perspectives of people of different generations? NP: Art is market-driven. Art is about taste. There are no “should”s. I mean, we can decry ageism and sexism and racism but [it doesn't change anything]. There are no objective criteria, and that was one of the hardest things, because a lot of people were pretending that there were objective criteria, and there weren’t. There's just so much art in the world and there's so much art that succeeds that's different from other art that succeeds—in the sense of the marketplace, which is basically how you judge. One of my teachers at RISD, I said to him, “What's to become of me?” and he said, “I don't think you'll get a gallery, but if you do it'll be, like, in a summer place.” Such a putdown. But turns out that his gallery was in a summer place, and it just closed. Then he said, “Well, people may buy your work but they'll buy it because it's you, not because it's good art.” Another putdown. I think I realized right then what was going on here, that this was very personal about him and that also, what people buy is usually about the artist. And certainly, when you get to prices, it’s about who the artist is, it's not what the stuff looks like. And then again, there's so many different ways the art can look, so I don't feel diminished that people may buy my work because it’s me, because that’s how the marketplace is. I make the work that satisfies me. I have no idea who my market is and what they would want. I make what I want. TM: Do you think art school was worthwhile, not just in your growth as an artist but as a life experience? With people living longer, there’s a lot of talk about what to do with your post-career life and keeping your mind active. Do you feel that it gave you a sense of purpose? NP: I don't know how much usefulness for other people my particular experience would be, because other people aren’t likely to go into it with what I did. But on the other hand, I think one big question worth asking, for someone who is thinking about an encore career, is how intense do you want it to be? I went for 100 percent intensity. And, you know, people said to me even before I went to Mason Gross, “You have lots of degrees—why don’t you just take some classes?” And for some people that will work. But I said I wanted to be the kind of artist I was a historian, which is totally misguided. TM: Why do you think it's misguided? NP: I just didn’t have the time. Also, I had too many entanglements. When I went to Harvard my parents were healthy; they could help me, and I didn't have a public presence in the world, so those were the two big sucks of energy and time this time around. TM: Was this the first time you had written something autobiographical? NP: Yes. TM: How did you find that compared to scholarly writing? NP: It was so hard. [Laughing.] It was so hard. Luckily I had an agent who is very experienced and patient and helpful and got me through it.

A Year in Reading: Il’ja Rákoš

One winter I came down with pneumonia twice in five months. The doctors, with my semi-conscious consent, were ready to try anything. One thing they did try was a technique “to warm up the lungs.” It involved a canvas corset that looked like it had been developed in a Victorian brothel and weaponized in a Soviet psychiatric hospital, ca. 1938. The nurses filled the thing with hot paraffin, strapped it on my naked torso, covered me up with furs and, pulling on their coats, left the room with promises to be back in 20-ish minutes. Turns out there’s not much you can do for second-degree paraffin burns beyond trying to cool them down, keep them clean, and try not to pop the blisters. It’s astonishing how much pain you can stand when its infliction is gradual. It’s also astonishing to see how easy it is to forgive when beauty enters the equation. My nurses forgot me in that isolated exam room. They’d been outside, reveling in the season’s first snowfall. I imagine those two young women shivering in their great coats, arms linked, looking up at the sky and smiling. S pervym snegom! The dank caecum of the city where the hospital sat squat, prison-like, was getting its annual winter makeover. Given enough snow, even Soviet brutalist architecture assumes a certain charm. Which is to say that winter is a sacred event in this part of the world. And given that it’s winter about half the year, that’s not nothing. It doesn’t mean, however, that eastern Slavs are incapable of viewing winter’s drawbacks pragmatically. Already treacherous sidewalks don’t become less so with the addition of ice. Municipal negligence of road maintenance, nightmarish driver noncompliance with traffic law, balky central heating—all exacerbated by the interminability of the season—are hardly exclusive properties of the West. The distinction in our perspectives of winter lies, it seems to me, in our arts: for Americans, November/December feels like a Robert Frost poem, for Slavs, a Tolstoyan reckoning or an Andrei Tarkovsky dreamscape, though that’s likely where the difference ends. This, too, is just a guess, but I figure that to all or most of us, East or West, by March, its romance wearing thin, winter feels as cold, dark, and endless as a Donna Tartt novel. Yet, here in Slavic wonderland, despite the difficulties winter presents, when it hits we still rush to greet each other—s pervym snegom! with the first snow!—and are transformed en masse into 9-year-olds by the touch of the big, early flakes. Winter is romance, a chance at renewal, a purifier. We have trouble envisioning how the word “snowflake” could ever be used as a pejorative. Winter stopped Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, and whoever might try next. Winter is when the Leshy—the forest demons—go to sleep and finally leave us be: Anton Chekhov, Alexander Pushkin and 12 centuries of folklore don’t lie. All of which came flooding back when I opened this—one of a half-dozen or so indispensable books I read this year—Alex Cigale’s lithe translation of Russian Absurd: Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms. Kharms was a Soviet writer who was not prolific, was a committed misanthrope, a friend of Kazimir Malevich and an admirer of Vladimir Mayakovsky.  He despised children, but was a talented and successful writer of children’s books.  A four-year-old I know laughs himself silly every time I read him Kharms’s poem “Bulldog and Dachshund.” In the end, Kharms would starve to death in a psychiatric ward during the siege of Leningrad. It seems his nurses forgot him, too. The current collection, published by Northwestern University Press, assembles fragments of Kharms’s poetry, dramaturgy, prose, diary entries, literary criticism, private correspondence, largely arranged chronologically—a chronology that only gains in poignancy with a glance at the datestamp accompanying each entry. In 1936, with the Great Terror gunning its engine, Kharms wrote this in his notebook:  I am incapable of thinking smoothly My fear gets in the way It severs my train of thought As though a ray Two or even three times each minute My conscience is contorted by it I am not capable of action. If the prospect of reading a minimalist, absurdist, surrealist Russian intimidates, Cigale’s translation should help allay those fears. His agile rendering of Kharms’s work is as fine a representation in English as I’ve seen of the ambiguity, shading, and tense-shifting that typifies Russian prose, aspects that English translations too often muddle. If Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, and Albert Camus light your fire, or if your writing life, however difficult, seems like so much torture, or if you’re intrigued by what a story coming from a man experiencing “the existential nightmare of a decade lived under a suspended death sentence,” sounds like then, winter, that season of reflection, might be just the time to add this collection to your TBR pile. Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right by Angela Nagle Twitter’s got you feeling toxic? TV news doesn’t offer any relief? You find yourself refreshing your website of choice to see whether Robert Mueller has handed down any more indictments? You wonder how it was that “contempt” became the default setting for our public discourse? Save yourself the time, the screen exposure, and the inevitable frustration and wrap your brain around this thesis that, among other matters, convincingly draws a line from Raskolnikov to the Alt-Right and describes the radical left as an “anti-intellectual online movement which has substituted politics with neuroses….” This book is terrifying, outstanding, required reading. The Body Hunters by Sonia Shah An hour later, the nurses come back to my room, giggling, the tell-tale bite of cognac floating with them into the room. Beads of sweat streaming down my face I turn my head to the one I can see to tell her that “it really hurts.” The other one, behind me unpiling furs, fussing with the snaps on the corset says, “just a sec.” I hear a sharp intake of breath as she whispers, “Oh, my God,” and runs out of the room. It’s probably a good thing that Sonia Shah’s exposé of Big Pharma sat on my shelf unread for so long. This immaculately researched, exhaustively referenced, and rage-inducing study chronicles the deeply disturbing abuse of the poorest of the poor in the service of reliable data for clinical drug trials. And, well, profits. I don’t know if I could have taken it when it was first published a decade ago. A bioethicist quoted in the book states succinctly the matter at the heart of the problem: “The data [guinea pigging the poor] is valuable either academically or commercially.” So what’s the good news? The book is 10 years old so perhaps the systematic and cynical targeting, dehumanizing, and embittering of the poor has decreased in its intensity. Or increased. It’s one or the other. Right? Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum The Holodomor Museum is about a 15-minute bus ride from my flat. In 2004, Ukrainians took to the streets to protest a stolen presidential election. That was called “The Orange Revolution” because we all wore orange at the behest of a populist—and attractive—politician. I still have my orange down jacket. I slept in it in the tent city that went up downtown, shutting Kyiv—and effectively the country—down. Got pneumonia that year, too. Also got a new election with a different result and a president who promised to “put the bandits in prison!” but didn’t. He also promised to raise the issue of the Holodomor—the Soviet program of collectivization that killed millions of Soviet citizens, mostly Ukrainians, in 1931 to 33—at the U.N. He’d get them to call it "genocide." He made good on that, though he accomplished almost nothing else in the remainder of his five-year term. Not one corrupt official went to prison, but we got a Holodomor Museum. Ukraine is Charlie Brown on Halloween: I got a rock. [millions_ad] A teaser from the introduction to Anne Applebaum’s lucid examination of the artificial (enforced) Soviet famines of the 1930s:  “Applebaum proves what has long been suspected: after a series of rebellions unsettled the province, Stalin set out to destroy the Ukrainian peasantry. The state sealed the republic’s borders and seized all available food. Starvation set in rapidly, and people ate anything: grass, tree bark, dogs, corpses.” This is not a history for the faint of heart. It is the documentation of a crime: the premeditated, targeted murder by starvation of five million people in just over two years. A sobering investigation of the human capacity for evil, it also serves as an indirect indictment of that niche within Western academia that has labored to relegate the slaughter to the status of an historical footnote. Applebaum’s dependably lucid argumentation and nimble prose makes for a substantial, if deeply troubling, read. The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics by Mark Lilla I’m trying to figure out what I dislike about Lilla’s charge that the liberal cause has dismantled itself.  But it’s hard to resist an argument whose core tenet is “the common good,” a phrase that is found in one form or another on practically every page of this short book. To the oft-heard insistence that “there is no right or left any longer, just capital,” Lilla offers convincing proof that there is an American Right and it has a concrete image of society that it holds to. Contrast that with the Left, which has drifted demonstrably from its core message and abdicated “the contest for the American imagination.”  The upshot according to Lilla: it’s hard to envision a political entity as rudderless as the Democratic Party winning many elections for a good, long while. And yet, one wonders. Would there have been any measure of the kinds of civil rights advances we’ve seen in the last 2- years if they hadn’t been championed by the Left? Lilla’s unclear about which “identities” he would rather the Left had left off its to-do list. The Once and Future Liberal is an excellent argument starter. The Given World by Marian Palaia The thing about this debut novel is that it compels you to pay attention. It would be easy to get lost in prose this gorgeous, lives this palpable, and a story this heartbreaking, and end up at, “Pretty good. I liked it. Four stars.” But there’s a lot more going on under the surface. A word like verisimilitude isn’t enough to describe why The Given World works so well. It’s more than authenticity, there is an intimacy in the telling, as if you found yourself sitting down on the back porch with a friend of years, and she decides to tell you a story over beers. It’s a story about a young woman who seems to believe that the only acceptable alternative to shooting yourself in the foot is shooting yourself in the head, and yet, she makes her way. This is grown-up fiction that has not yet consented to leave me at peace. A haunting, formidable debut. The books above were those that helped me get through the year. The purifiers. Books that managed to assure me that where evil abounds, grace abounds all the more.  Tyrants, robber barons, cynics, and cyber-bullies don’t stand a chance when confronted with intelligence fueled by grace. And grace takes work. Good news: winter is on its way. Lots of time to read, to prepare for spring, that awful season when the river ice breaks up and the bodies begin to surface. Finally, what follows is a listing of every book that made good use of my brain and heart in 2017. I highly recommend every one. Emperor of the Earth by Czeslaw Miłosz – Essays on life, society, art by the Nobel laureate Ghost Moon by Ron Butlin – A Scottish girl’s fight to survive, set in Edinburgh. A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre – Kim Philby, deception in the spy game. Thrilling. The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter – Don’t let the title trigger you. Smart. Human Acts by Han Kang – Political turmoil in South Korea. Outstanding. But Beautiful by Geoff Dyer – If you love jazz. If you don’t, have you considered therapy? Feral by George Monbiot – Could a romantic vision of the environment save the planet? Maybe. The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric by Sister Miriam Joseph – Oh, the blessing of an old-style liberal arts education. Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense by Francis Spufford – Can faith still work? Survey says: Yes! The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov – Radioactive love from a banned Uzbek writer Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb – Erudite, trenchant, and certainly right, Taleb makes a case for beneficial chaos, only he calls it “antifragility.” Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson – Short stories that are too good for anthologies. Outstanding, each one. More from A Year in Reading 2017 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
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