Over the years I’ve familiarised myself with the lives of different artists, many of whom I’ve come to idolise. A few of them I’ve even gone so far as try to emulate. The hope, I suppose, is this: in gleaning their ways of living, their routines and habits, even their idiosyncrasies, I can also glean some of their brilliance and, following that, some of their success. Biographies, autobiographies, interviews, still photographs of writers at their desks, or artists in their studios.
And still, throughout all this accumulation, I know that there is a good possibility that I am staring at masks, or statues. After all, isn’t worshiping a statue what idolatry is?
So much of artistic expression relies on perception. Expression/perception. Two sides of the same coin, perhaps. Art audiences perceive what an artist expresses; those expressions were most likely fueled by what the artist herself has perceived. So much of photographer Diane Arbus’ work, for example, inhabited what she described as ‘the point between what you want people to know about you and what you can’t help people knowing about you.’ She may have chosen certain prominent elements of each photograph, such as backdrop, composition, maybe even the subject’s pose, but there were the other aspects, like whatever lied behind the subject’s eyes, that Arbus’ camera could capture but never create.
Another artist, Agnès Varda, has sought to meet her world halfway, in her case, through film. Her documentary The Gleaners and I boasts accuracy in its title; the film is partly about gleaners who pick up what others discard—both after the country harvest and in the city trash—and partly about herself, an art gleaner in her own right, taking snippets from the lives of others and making them useful to herself.
Throughout France, gleaners have been regarded as freeloaders. Film critic Amy Taubin describes it best: Varda’s camera provides ‘an intimate look at people who, out of economic necessity and/or ecological/philosophical beliefs, collect and derive their sustenance from the detritus of an affluent society.’ The film astounded many people. Another critic, A.O. Scott, even proclaimed: ‘More profoundly, [gleaners] are conservators of human dignity and historical memory.’
Varda’s presence in The Gleaners and I feels different from other artists who implant themselves into their works, like Michael Moore or William T. Vollmann, for example, or that baffling literary trend of authors giving their main characters their own name and likeness and insisting in press junkets that the characters are not themselves. When Varda appears, it is always spontaneously, at times even accidentally. When filming a potato gleaner explaining the types of potatoes that get rejected—either they are damaged, too large, or misshapen—he finds a heart-shaped potato, and suddenly Varda interrupts her own filming. ‘I want that one!’ The heart-shaped potato becomes the film’s symbol.
In another scene, Varda accompanies a friend gleaning abandoned treasures on the street. Her friend bends over, rummaging through piles of someone else’s junk, regarding briefly a clock with no hands before tossing it aside. In the next shot the clock is in Varda’s apartment. ‘A clock without hands is my kind of thing,’ she says. ‘You don’t see time passing.’
There are few lifestyles rendered so romantically as that of the writer or artist, particularly because we ourselves are the ones doing the rendering. And we render as we see fit, which oftentimes leads to self-mythologising, which can lead to an invitation for outsiders to misunderstand and misinterpret (also known as Criticism), which in turn can even lead to a sort of artistic martyrdom, which doesn’t seem like a safe place for members of the creative community to head toward. This sort of attitude toward ourselves and those like us—writers and artists—has always possessed a bit of self-importance, for it is, after all, the self-importance that art and artists need to exist, isn’t it? But nowadays, sometimes, it feels excessive, inflated, and even more disingenuous than I remember reading about.
Artists, even those reclusive types who never leave their homes, are all exhibitionists. And if you are involved in any way with commercial art, or in the very least have a website or Twitter account where your work is accessible, you are then inhabiting a world where always being watched is entirely possible. Could it be that in order to be commercially successful you must possess a certain high degree of self-awareness? (And by ‘high’, I don’t necessarily mean ‘accurate’.) Either that or you have people around you to do that for you.
If Varda filmed me during the various stages of working on this article she would have fixated on the details. A shot of me writing under a tree in the park, little seeds falling from its branches and landing in the crease that divides my notebook. On the sofa in the living room, Brigitte Fontaine’s Comme a la radio in the background, a close-up of the books on the coffee table, books that I may or may not crack open, that may or may not help me at all. Maybe she’d include footage of me calling my dad and talking to him for 3 minutes and 28 seconds. It was a pleasure to hear his voice, even that briefly. I hadn’t heard it in over a month. I also successfully put off working for 3 minutes and 28 seconds, which always seems like part of the aim anytime I pick up the phone. Who am I trying to impress by including these details? You? Myself?
Gertrude Stein said: ‘The thing one gradually comes to find out is that one has no idendity that is when one is in the act of doing anything. Identity is recognition, you know who you are because you and others remember anything about yourself but essentially you are not that when you are doing anything.’ She continues by saying that the act of recognising identity ‘is what destroys creation.’
When fellow filmmaker Jacques Demy, the love of Varda’s life, fell ill and underwent the slow deterioration that happens to most AIDS victims, he asked her to make a film about his childhood. He had written a script but no longer had the strength to shoot. Varda’s tribute, Jacquot de Nantes, was a loving portrait of an artist in the making. The final result undoubtedly would have been much different had Demy made it himself. Only Varda would have felt the urge to film close-ups of Demy’s thinning hair and spotty skin, documents not only of a dying artist, but of her dying husband.
The Gleaners and I was shot with a handheld digital camcorder, which Varda said she preferred over film equipment because it allowed her to shoot in a more improvised fashion. Among the most personal shots in the film are the ones she shoots of herself. She runs a comb through her iconic helmet of hair and you, the viewer, suddenly remember that her hair has been dyed and that underneath that dark red is the white hair of a woman who, at the time of filming, was 72 years old. (She is 86 now and, for all I know, shooting a documentary as we speak.) And despite her choice of filming equipment anticipating a shift toward the digital film age, Varda holds her latest technogadget in one hand to document the ageing skin of the other. This was one decade after filming her husband’s hair and skin in Jacquot de Nantes.
In a two-year followup for The Gleaners and I, Varda revisits the gleaners that made up her film, which had become a sensation, especially in France. She asks them in what ways, if any, their lives have changed since the film. Many of their lives had changed, though many of them are still gleaning. Some on principle; some, still, through no choice of their own. The followup also documents the first film’s reception, mostly in the form of countless letters and gifts Varda had received in the short span of two years. Lots of heart-shaped potatoes through the post. Even one heart-shaped carrot.
In the followup Varda also remarks on the similar footage of hair and hands in Jacqout de Nantes and The Gleaners and I. She claims only to have filmed those segments of herself in an effort to be as honest about her life as the gleaners were about their own. Everyone saw the resemblance to the Jacquot scenes except Varda herself, up until it was pointed out to her by a friend. ‘It struck me how we work,’ she says. ‘How we work without knowing.’ Sometimes. Varda’s method, if we can even call it that, may just be as rare as the master-pieces Stein alludes to. Master-pieces, Stein said, ‘are knowing that there is no identity and producing while identity is not. That is what a master-piece is.’
I don’t know if it’s really that simple. (It never is.) I’ve met artists whose childlike behaviour, if not a complete act, seemed more like a barrier than a tool for creating meaningful art. But who am I to judge? Who is anyone? Even though our art world will always have a place for criticism and award-giving—for these are just two things that make the art world go round—art, deep down, was never meant to be judged. It was meant to entertain, to convey, and maybe later, to unify. I would like to know who the first person was to be presented with a piece of art and say, ‘I don’t like it.’
I’ve been trying to think like Agnès Varda since I started work on this article, so I too am fixating on the details. Or am I just creating them, and if I am, does that mean they aren’t real? Am I putting on another coat that doesn’t belong to me? Or is this still considered learning? Gleaning? Artistic identity, even when it is manufactured, might just be par for the course, coming with the territory, a necessary ingredient. Right?
The pleasures that are soothing all have to do with identity and the pleasures that are exciting all have to do with identity and moreover there is all the pride and vanity which play about master-pieces as well as about every one and these too all have to do with identity, and so naturally it is natural that there is more identity that one knows about than anything else one knows about and the worst of all is that the only thing that any one thinks about is identity and thinking is something that does so nearly need to be memory and if it is then of course it has nothing to do with a master-piece.
In the past year I’ve tried, however slowly or patiently, to shed the skins I’ve borrowed as a younger writer and worn for however long. I feel that a lot of them are not actually who I am or, at the very least, who I am anymore, and now simply too snug.
Or it could simply be my getting older. Is this what happens when adults continue telling stories? It wasn’t too long ago that my only motive for sharing stories was to feel accepted. As storytellers get older, do their motives change?