Published by The Ladies Network, 28/08/2016
In the 1800s, Charlotte Brontë first published her work as Currer Bell, and Mary Ann Evans called herself George Eliot, because they knew they wouldn’t be taken seriously as female authors. Whether for privacy or to avoid discrimination, female artists throughout history have chosen to remain anonymous. Today, Elena Ferrante is the pseudonym of the author of the best-selling Neopolitan series of novels that begins with ‘My Brilliant Friend’. The author’s identity and also their gender remain unknown, generating constant speculation as readers search for the person behind the expansive, involving stories. In a world where we demand access to every aspect of the lives of public figures through social media, Ferrante is an exception. Their anonymity provokes an exploration of the modern relationship between artists, their work and the public. With such an intimate connection to the lives of our favourite artists we may feel that we know them like our best friends, but what are we owed by those we idolise?
Making art of any kind is an almost-unavoidably personal process. Whether it’s a song or a drawing or a poem, we love art because it makes us feel something, and we think that at some point the artist must have felt something too. Good art theoretically creates an emotional link between the public and the work, but in the public’s collective consciousness the work often gets tangled up with the identity of the artist. This is why it is so hard for us to accept Ferrante’s decision to remain unknown. We read autobiographical details into the novels and see reflections of the author and ourselves in the main characters, one of them tantalisingly also named Elena. We want to know about the person who can produce such memorable novels, and we also want them to know how much we feel for them. But Ferrante doesn’t want to know us. Perhaps this is because while vulnerability in art, or illusion of it, is often a work’s biggest strength, openness can have a personal cost for the artist.
As Ferrante has explained in interviews, their reasons for remaining anonymous seem to be creatively driven. Other women, like feminist writer Jessica Valenti who hasn’t been active on Twitter since she received rape threats against her daughter, are forced into privacy. Social media enables unprecedented, direct access to people who have high-profile careers or even just use the Internet (which is pretty much everyone).
This can have a positive effect in stimulating ideas and building communities, but it also exposes an individual to abuse that can translate into physical or mental harm in the real world. It is unsurprising that some female artists chose to keep their distance from the public, considering the disproportionate amount of harassment they face online. A recent study by The Guardian found that although the majority of their regular opinion writers are white men, the 10 regular writers who got the most abuse were eight women (four white and four non-white) and two black men. This can mean that due to discrimination, women and members of other marginalised groups lack access to the invaluable tool of social media in the endless task of artistic self-promotion.
Some artists manage to balance the demands of the intimacy of their work with their personal lives. Sia performs with her face hidden by her signature wig, explaining, “I don’t want to be famous or recognizable. I don’t want to be critiqued about the way that I look on the Internet.” Beyonce’s carefully constructed public image is also an example of a female artist using social media to her advantage. As an album, Formation is so raw it has started rumours about her marriage, but she refuses to reveal how much of the lyrics are based in reality. Similarly, on her Instagram account she posts carefully curated shots that allow her fans to see just behind the scenes, but when some unauthorised shots emerged in 2013 her publicist requested that they be removed from a Buzzfeed article. At the other end of the spectrum, Miley Cyrus posts images of herself doing everything from hanging out with her dogs to smoking a joint and Willow Smith’s account is a beautiful, confusing keyhole through which we can view her life. These varying degrees of public access represent the challenge of negotiating creative practise in the modern world.
Ferrante believes that “that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors… True miracles are the ones whose makers will never be known; they are the very small miracles of the secret spirits of the home or the great miracles that leave us truly astonished. I still have this childish wish for marvels, large or small, I still believe in them.” On the Internet we do not believe in miracles, but maybe we should if that means we can appreciate a piece of art such as ‘My Brilliant Friend’ without demanding more from its author.