“For years, I worked so hard to hold my tongue, I nearly swallowed it. For years, I had slid around the dining room table in various costumes of the bright, eccentric variety, opposite the Klee, directing traffic with deft signals and smiling, always smiling.”
The Blazing World, and it’s no coincidence that the title is the same as a largely forgotten work from 17 th century female author Margaret Cavendish, is a complex look at Perception, Identity, and Gender politics in the art world. In this challenging intelligent novel, author Siri Hustvedt presents a fragmented, troubled portrait of a now deceased woman, artist Harriet Burden. Harriet, or Harry, as she was known, was at one time a young artist in New York with a few shows to her credit in the 70s and 80s. Then she met and married the phenomenally wealthy art dealer, Felix Lord, and for years lived in the background as his wife, a mother to two children and as a “chic” hostess to various, critics, dealers, and artists involved in the art scene. In her fifties and widowed Harriet is a deeply unhappy woman, a rejected daughter, a forgotten artist and once the wife of a prominent wealthy man. But these were all unsatisfactory roles for Harriet who is left, after the death of Felix, with a lingering feeling that life has passed her by and that the overwhelming bias of the art world ignored her talents.
Harriet devises a master plan, Maskings–an “experiment that took her five years to complete,” that was “meant to not only expose the antifemale bias of the art world, but to uncover complex workings of human perception.” Maskings was a series of three arts shows, The History of Western Art, The Suffocation Rooms and Beneath in which she masked her female identity by exhibiting her art under the names of male artists who colluded with her ‘experiment.’ According to Harriet, this project Maskings, would not only reveal the bias and hypocrisy of the art world but also yield a sort of gender and personal triumph.
The Blazing World appears to be a non-fiction book in which Harriet’s story unfolds through multiple narratives pieced together through Harriet’s labyrinth layers of deceit by an editor, a professor, who takes extracts from Harriet’s many cryptic journals as well as interviews with various people including her two children, filmmaker Maisie and writer Ethan, the artist Phineas Q. Eldridge, a friend, art critics, one of those “New Age fruitcakes,” and a final lover. A complex fragmented portrait of Harriet emerges, and as we see though her journals, she’s an angry woman intent on revenge. But revenge against whom? Against what?
After a meltdown, Harriet sought therapy which according to her daughter “unleashed a Harriet Burden none of us had ever seen before, as well as a number of other characters or personas she had been sitting on for quite some time. … protean artist selves that needed bodies.” Seeking to renter the art world using a succession of male names, Harriet selected three male artists as three successive beards or “masks,” who “acted as fronts for her own creative work.” While Harriet created the art for display and sale under the names of the three male artists, Harriet argued that an intriguing transaction occurred in each masking. She “insisted that the pseudonym she adopted changed the character of the art she made. In other words, the man she used as a mask played a role in the kind of art she produced: each artist mask became for Burden a ‘poetized personality,’ a visual elaboration of a hermaphroditic self which cannot be said to belong to either her or to the mask, but to a mingled reality created between the two of them.”
The three male artists Harriet chooses are all very different types; the first man, young, naïve Anton Tish, is a blank slate whose interactions with Harriet destroy his already fragile persona. The second artist (and one of my favorite voices) whose professional name is Phineas Q Eldridge, a black gay man who defends Harriet’s arguments of sex bias and who has already struggled with identity, is perhaps the most savvy and understanding of the voices when it comes to his relationship with Harriet. The third artist is Rune, a cultural icon, a virile blond, blue-eyed hunk of an artist who knew what it meant to be a celebrity. Rune’s show The Banality of Glamour which ensured his place as a rockstar in the art world included film footage of “facial morphing technology,” and “plastic surgery patients under the knife.” Rune offers various versions of his own elusive life, constructing fable upon fable, but according to one source, that’s just Rune:
Those stories he told to journalists were part of his shtick, a kind of tongue-in-cheek self-promotion, making a mystery of himself.
It’s with Rune that things really begin to go wrong. Rune’s dealer cannot answer whether Rune’s show Beneath was out of context for Rune and he admits that he “could tell you what was in or out of character for Rune,” a man who continually re-invented himself, using “maskings” of his own and whose previous great triumph of Art was vinyl crosses–a yellow cross, sold for 3 million dollars because “he had only made one.”
Of course, there’s a paradox to Harriet’s theory. If the art world is indeed hypocritical and disinterested in the work of an overweight, unattractive middle-aged woman, yet ready to worship the work of three male artists–no matter how moronic (Tish) or slick (Rune) they are, why would those who hold the reins of power–the critics and the dealers–care or even believe her when she reveals how she duped them all? Will they believe she was the “virago mastermind” behind the three art shows or will they see her as just another bitter, deranged, disappointed and talentless woman? Through the voices of the critics, in which fame and perception are locked together, we see absolute, blind adulation directed to the famous artists whose work fetches millions. According to one critic, Harriet’s early work was not ignored when she first appeared on the art scene; she simply opted out to be a wife and mother, yet another critic who profoundly disliked Harriet, insists that she was “so obscure she wasn’t even a has-been.”
One of the interesting aspects of the book is its structure. It’s written as though ‘edited’ by a professor of aesthetics who is trying to reach the ‘true’ story about Harriet Burden, now dead, so we get multiple perspectives about Harriet and her actions. I was intrigued by the author’s approach. How much easier to have written a straight fiction book–let’s say, for example, a book that was written chronologically starting with Harriet married to wealthy art dealer Felix Lord and watching any hopes of her career crumble away as she recedes into the roles of betrayed wife and ignored hostess to various luminaries in the art world. Instead this fictional work is presented as a faux non-fiction book. This construct is more complex and also takes a much more scholarly tone with many footnotes referencing the very real people mentioned throughout. While this approach doesn’t make an easier read (the footnotes can be distracting at times–I launched off on a whole tangent concerning James Tiptree Jr. at one point), Siri Hustvedt certainly creates a much more intriguing, in-depth and complex read by her bold approach to the topic. While this is the story of Harriet, her rage at a “phallocentric world,” and her attempt to unmask the hypocrisy of the art scene, this story is just one layer on the deeper questions: who decides what is great Art? Why is something Art while something else is trash? How much are critics and then by the trickle-down effect the audience swayed by image and celebrity? These questions are addressed in the multiple narratives within the novel–in particular through the voice of Case, an acidic art critic, one of the influential gatekeepers of the art scene, a man who decides what is great art and what is tired and boring. Throughout the book, the image of Harriet remains with some disturbing questions–how greatly was she tainted and damaged by her early perceptions of herself? How much was self-sabotage, lack of confidence, or simple life choices?