“Art Is Life and Life Is Art”: Peter Valente on Tell Me I’m an Artist, a new novel by Chelsea Martin

Chelsea Martin’s novel, Tell Me I’m an Artist, is a coming-of-age story about a young artist, Joelle Berry (Joey), living in San Francisco and studying at an unnamed Art School, as she confronts her own complex feels about what it means to create meaningful art while balancing the problems that she left behind in her hometown. The novel takes place during a single semester and follows Joey’s conflicting ideas about the experimental film she needs to finish, whose subject is Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, a film she hasn’t seen and refuses to watch. Often Joey, who grew up in a working-class environment in Lodi, California, feels alienated from her wealthy friends; to her them seem so sure of themselves, and certain of what they want out of life as an artist. Suz, who comes from a wealthy family, is one of her closest friends; she is generous, encouraging in a way that sometimes feels vaguely patronizing, and someone Joey feels in awe of since Suz seems to have all the right connections in the art world and is also a talented artist. In fact, Suz’s mother, Fatima, has friends in the art world and encourages and supports her daughter. Joey’s family romance involves a sister, Jenny, who disappears at the beginning of the novel, her drug addicted boyfriend, Lucas, and their child, Brian who is left in the care of her mother as well as various friends. Often, while in class, Joey receives a text from her mother detailing some new problem, as when she needs money to bail out Jenny, whether she is in jail or when she needs a bus ticket home. Joey’s inability to escape her past, and emerge as an artist in her own right, serves as the central tension in the novel. But as the novel progresses, Joey will find a way to assert herself, become a new person, and finally make the Rushmore film.

Joey believes her escape from the influence of her family to attend Art School would have allowed her to realize her purpose as an artist. But there is the complex feelings Joey has about her sister, who herself, exhibited a talent for drawing when they were younger which led to sibling rivalry. But Joey was able to attend Art School, while Jenny stayed in Lodi, got involved with a drug addict boyfriend and had a child. At the beginning of the novel, Jenny has disappeared and neither Joey nor her mother know if she is dead or alive. And who is going to take care of Brian? Her mother works long hours and faces losing her job if she stays home to take care of the child. Joey is at the center of this drama. She is asked to send money that she doesn’t have, and to offer emotional support to her sister and her mother, who are often manipulative. This causes Joey to feel guilty about her own happiness:

Wishing for happiness for my family was too easy a wish, too out of my control to waste energy on. Nothing I did could make them happy, but their unhappiness was made worse by my actions: my insistence on moving away from Lodi and living in a place just the right distance away that I would conveniently be unable to help. And my own moments of happiness or success seemed to cause unhappiness for them as well. What choice did I have but to wish for my pleasures to be modest and infrequent and so borderline positive that I could easily still spin them into negatives so as not to inflict pain on my family?

Joey wonders: “had I been careful my whole life for no reason.” Going to college, trying to make friends, to find a community of like-minded artists, to get your own apartment, etc. had seemingly come to nothing. For Joey, something had to change. The “straight” path was producing no results.

In her search to find the meaning of art in late-stage capitalism, Joey will interrogate the very need for art when “humanity is in crisis.” Is art even necessary? Or is making art “a way of tricking myself into believing that reality is something I can shape …” Suz, Joey’s closest friend, or the friend she spends the most time with, tries to give Joey advice about her film project: “Think of it as though you’re trying to understand it, rather than invent it.” For Suz, creating art is not about control; you must free yourself from predetermining what your project is about. This is good advice, perhaps, but Joey is concerned less with theories, or abstractions, and asks herself: “Why do strong emotions have more value in art than weak or complicated or mundane emotions. I rarely felt things strongly, yet these rare feelings of intensity were, in my view, overrepresented in art.” It is the difference between William Wordsworth poetry and the writings of his sister Dorothy who wrote “domestic literature.” Forget about the Hero, the great themes of love and tragedy, the high European values in art, the classical etc. These works of art devalue the weak and favor the strong, the brave, the intellectually superior. Art has been made for and by the wealthy. This is the art on the walls of the Frick Museum. All those portraits of Kings and Queens in mythological settings are simply bourgeois fantasies. It is said that the Tudor dynasty created “beautiful” artworks to hide the corruption at its political core. If you hang a painting in a museum, as though by magic, it becomes worthy of notice and people speak about it in quiet tones of respect. I am reminded about what Jack Smith said about the art at the MOMA: all the bad art was on display, and great art was hidden in the basement! The filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky wrote in “The Psychomagic of Cinema,” about what young filmmakers value: “They’re tired of chases, gunshots, miserable young lovers, superheroes, wars, politics, social problems. They can’t take it anymore, they want a profound cinema that explains what life is, why we’re alive, what our purpose is. The fundamental question is this: what is your purpose in life?” For Joey finding her purpose in life as an artist involved the realization that “I didn’t have to be the person I had always been,” that person she was when living at home.

Joey feels that “everything is random in life.” Her poetics: “I want to be wrong about everything.” John Ruskin wrote, in The Stones of Venice, “Accept this then for a universal law, that neither architecture nor any other noble work of man can be good unless it is imperfect; and let us be prepared for the otherwise strange fact, which we shall discern clearly as we approach the period of the Renaissance, that the first cause of the fall of the arts of Europe was a relentless requirement of perfection, incapable alike either of being silenced by veneration for greatness, or softened into forgiveness of simplicity.” For Ruskin, every painting from nature is flawed if it approaches the natural scene and attempts, like a photograph, to capture it exactly. There is no perfection in the world. Everything is imperfect. Furthermore, in The Stones of Venice, Ruskin writes, “But, accurately speaking, no good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art.” When she eventually makes the Rushmore film it will not be a “perfect” work of art or answer all the questions it poses about memory; it will be a kind of improvisation, imperfect and personal.

Joey has a kind of moment of realization about her life when she sees a tree outside her apartment window. She will soon leave this apartment and move in with Jane, Suz’s roommate. She will no longer see this tree and this realization causes to think about how her life is changing. But the potential sentimentally of the scene is undercut with darker emotions and we realize it’s not really about a tree: “I’d probably see other good things. I’d look back on this moment not as time I spent lacking in appreciation for the tree (let’s keep believing this is about the tree) but appreciating the tree so much, feeling so undeserving of and ungrateful for the tree’s presence in my life, that it made me fucking hate myself.” What Joey fears is change, moving forward, changing her life. She is about to lose her apartment because she is unable to find a job and she had to give her mother money to bail Jenny out. But Suz comes to the rescue as she always had, and lets Joey stay in an apartment that is fully paid for by her parents while she attends a residency in Detroit. But Joey ultimately realizes that she doesn’t have to be the same person was before and “How unknowable you are to everyone else.” She is her own person, and if her family will not validate or encourage her emotions, then she will move forward despite them. Joey realizes: “We are all hear together. I always get the things I want. I’ve been living my life like that’s a bad thing. I get everything I want and I guess part of what I want is to feel bad all the time. Some people are given everything in their lives. Then they are given, on top of everything else, the freedom of not doubting whether they deserve it.” Her vulnerability will be her strength against the sense of power that societies often value.

For Joey “Maybe Art was Real Life and Real Life was Art.” She refers to this idea as her “breakthrough.” As against a world that increasingly resembles a simulation on a computer screen, she will make a film about real life, her own life, her own complex feelings, however it appears to make her appear weak, and vulnerable. And in fact, when she completes her Rushmore Film, it will be messy, intimate: “The footage is rocky as I fumble with my keys outside my apartment door and walk out onto the street. I hold the camera in front of me but am too embarrassed to put my arms up enough to get a good angle, so what is filmed is a low, unflattering angle of mostly my neck and the underside of my jaw.” She pores into her film all her conflicts and does not attempt to resolve them. She points the camera at herself and films herself walking through the streets of San Francisco and concludes the film with her entering the Art School. The camera goes in and out of focus and sometimes only part of her face is visible. Power and authority work in photography, through focus, framing, “clarity.” Blurs, scratches, etc. can produce in a photo an image that is not transparent but impure as against the attempts to create “ART.” Finally, this “impurity,” akin to the scratches and blurs of photography, are like memory. Real life is not stable, but in motion. All these scratches, blurs don’t so much establish fixed meanings, but rather tease the mind into active thought. For Joey, “Nothing was supposed to be any certain way.” The film is ultimately her personal and intimate reflection of her life at the Art School. Art is Life and Life is Art. And finally, after she shows the Rushmore film to her class, she sees Suz smiling at her from across the room and Joey smiles back, thinking, “The gulf between us hadn’t disappeared. In fact, it seemed even more impenetrable now. How far away she looked. How unknowable. How okay I actually was with that.” She does not need anyone’s approval. She is responsible only for herself: “The screen goes black and my classmates remain silent, as if more might be coming, but that is it. That is the end. That’s what I’ve made. I have done it. I am done.

Chelsea Martin’s Tell Me I’m an Artist brilliantly conveys the emotional highs and lows of being an artist in these embittered times, where certainty, status and power are valued over one who is poor, sensitive, weak, and emotionally complex. Anyone who is an artist will immediately relate to the novel, especially if they attended an art school. I graduated from an engineering school, but the same issues of class and status were visible during the four years I was there. In choosing the writing life and not to pursue my degree were met with consternation bordering on disgust. Where’s the money in such a life? Every artist must solve the problem of money in their own way and hopefully in a way that doesn’t interfere with the creation of art, especially if you’re not a trust fund kid. Most artists eventually end up teaching in universities. After all, a loft in the East Village costs much more than it did, say, in 1965, because of the Real Estate boom in the 80s, and those wealthy investors who eventually bought up all the properties in Lower Manhattan: “Some people are given everything in their lives. Then they are given, on top of everything else, the freedom of not doubting whether they deserve it.” Martin’s Tell Me I’m an Artist will have you smiling and nodding your head in agreement on every page, remembering those lectures that never seemed to end, agreeing or disagreeing with a professor, hanging out with friends after class, having late night conversations, and wondering about the difference between you and your friends and the meaning of it all.

Tell Me I’m an Artist, by Chelsea Martin. New York, New York: Soft Skull Press, September 2022. 368 pages. $26.00, hardcover.

Peter Valente is a writer, translator, and filmmaker. He is the author of twelve full length books. His most recent books are a collection of essays on Werner Schroeter, A Credible Utopia (Punctum, 2022), and his translation of Nerval, The Illuminated (Wakefield, 2022). Forthcoming is his translation of Antonin Artaud, The True Story of Jesus-Christ (Infinity Land Press, 2022), a collection of essays on Artaud, Obliteration of the World: A Guide to the Occult Belief System of Antonin Artaud (Infinity Land Press, 2022), and his translation of Nicolas pages by Guillaume Dustan (Semiotext(e), 2023).

Check out HFR’s book catalog, publicity list, submission manager, and buy merch from our Spring store. Follow us on Instagram and YouTube. Disclosure: HFR is an affiliate of Bookshop.org and we will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Sales from Bookshop.org help support independent bookstores and small presses.

Comments (