Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


Against self-expression

Painted (on commission) by Hieronymus Bosch

Today, on a Zoom call, David Thomas of Pere Ubu was saying again that “self-expression is evil.” He said it twice — once, 30 years ago, in a television interview that a couple dozen of us were now watching with him, and again, afterward, to us.  And of course many other times over the years in other interviews.

Thus the answer to why in its 45-year history Pere Ubu has recorded almost no love songs. 

This served as a reminder that this tough-mindedness is part of why I could never cozy up to the singer-songwriter movement of the 1970s, but instantly sutured myself onto Pere Ubu 35 years ago when I first heard them.

But before I go on let me be careful not to ascribe to David, whose work I admire tremendously, opinions that are mine and not his. Whatever he means by “self-expression” may not be what I mean by “self-expression.” I generally mean that baring one’s soul through art is not in and of itself interesting; a few drinks with a friend at a pub would sort that out better. Doing it through what you think is art is actually quite boring — as evidenced by the sort of poem that used to appear in Reader’s Digest, and also by countless high-school journals, including mine, in which I endlessly pined for girls in ways that still embarrass me, 40 years later, because I can’t forget my own adolescent weakness.

If you’re lucky, people will be interested in your art.  If they were primarily interested in you, you’d be a reality TV star.

And that’s the way it should be for artists. Art first. Confession and “self-expression” never.

I’ve worked with hundreds (and hundreds) of playwrights over the past 30 years. And, of course, actors and directors and scenic designers and musicians and visual artists and choreographers and so forth. I take it for granted that they’ve all had hurtful childhoods — some of them actually hurtful, some of them a hurt of their imagination (which doesn’t make it any less real). Even after all these years, while I like almost all these people and am glad to know them, I find it hard to get worked up about their personal pain. By its nature it’s so self-involving that it just can’t be interesting. How interesting can childhood trauma be, if everyone’s had some version of it? Childhood trauma isn’t unique — it’s universal.

Art, on the other hand can be profoundly interesting when people put their hurt into it in service of the work. I’m not sad to say that I can’t get moved by the early death of John Lennon’s mother — but him screaming about it on Plastic Ono Band certainly gets my attention and approval. That isn’t self-expression, that’s art that includes self-expression. (And, anyway, was Julia’s death bad luck for him — or was it what he needed to become a Beatle? We should note that Paul McCartney also lost his mother in his childhood.) We know almost nothing about Hieronymus Bosch’s life, but I know all I need to know from his paintings, and I can assume that some of him is in there, even though they were painted on commission.

That’s how it should be.

If the art is interesting, the self that comes through that art is interesting. Art that serves as self-expression is best kept with your middle-school participation trophies, forgotten in a closet filled with such clutter.

In the other practice, self-expression is presented on a platter, a la those mawkish TV romances made for dowagers. Most of the explicit self-expression I see in would-be art is handed to us as confession. Confession and sharing are antithetical to conflict, and it’s conflict that makes art powerful. What are those classic three storylines? Man versus man; man versus nature; man versus himself. Note that each of those has a “versus.” On the other hand, when a character sits down and earnestly tells another character how sad she feels, you can feel the play sink like the House of Usher. This is why for years in my writing workshop, I’ve railed against plays whose central story is this:  “Grandma’s dying, and I feel sad.” Well, that’s you. How do we in the audience feel about it?

Pere Ubu, meanwhile, has achieved 45 years of powerfully moving work that is utterly devoid of sentimentality. Is it filled with feeling? Absolutely. Does it elicit feelings in the audience? Of course. The staying power of the music, and the thrill it engenders in its adherents, provide testimony to that. So too is attending a live show and seeing the impact of the music on all those assembled; there is a charge in the air, every time. But none of it is saccharine, none of it is handed to you, and none of it asks you to crank up emotions you don’t have. Like all great art, Pere Ubu respects the work too much for that. It would be degrading to stoop to mawkishness.

5 Responses to “Against self-expression”

  1. Adrian Burns Says:

    Fine piece Lee and to the heart of the matter. Of course, Pere Ubu has recorded, many, many love songs. Why I Hate Women is choc-a-bloc with them. But, all in accordance with the principles you have identified!

  2. Lee Wochner Says:

    (The poorly titled) “Why I Hate Women” came to mind while writing this. I wish a better title had helped it find a larger audience, because in the canon of Pere Ubu, it’s in my Top 5. One of its themes (or, at least, a theme I draw from it), of women having power over men because we desire them, is longstanding and compelling; what else are the Sirens in the Odyssey about?

    You’re right that whenever Pere Ubu does a “love song” it still follows those principles. I would add that in some way every Pere Ubu is a love song — a love of music, and a love of being alive. If David weren’t so smitten by it, why would he caution people against becoming musicians? He knows it’s a heartbreaking profession.

  3. Dan Says:

    When an artist talks about art, I usually react with an indulgent shrug. In your case, I reacted with interest, and for some reason recalled works of self-confession like Charles Jackson’s novel THE LOST WEEKEND, Truffaut’s film STOLEN KISSES, and Van Gogh’s self-portrait with the bandaged ear.

    What I conclude is that self-confession is not necessarily art, but it can be made so. As for conflict making art powerful — again, it ain’t necessarily so. Conflict can be merely the vehicle used to carry powerful concepts. HAMLET is powerful, but it centers on something very like self-confession (in the character, not the writer) rather than conflict.

    And finally, I must protest your indictment of mawkishness. What was it Noel Coward said about cheap music?

    Thanks for adding so much thought to my Sunday!

  4. Lee Wochner Says:

    I confess that I hadn’t heard the Noel Coward quote, but consulting Mr. Google turned it up: “Strange how potent cheap music is.” Well-chosen, and spot-on. Mary Wilson having just died, the music of The Supremes comes to mind — and it’s wonderful.

    I would disagree with you about “Hamlet” (and there is an entire industry devoted to disagreements about “Hamlet”); the character is exploring who he is, and his role, precisely in order to divine the action he should take. It’s an internal conflict, and certainly one that actors play in that way.

    While we’re on the subject of “Hamlet,” let me say that I fully endorse last year’s novel “Hamlet” — which provides a searing portrait of grief, gave me a new window onto life in the late 16th century, and winds up packing an astonishing reminder of the power of art… that happens to align with the topic we’re discussing.

    Re Van Gogh, I thought about him while writing this piece. The point I’m making in my post is that self-expression THROUGH art is desirable; art that puts self-expression in the forefront, without primary care to the art, is rubbish. I can point you to any number of wallowing memoirs or plays that support this. Also re Van Gogh, two of the finest art museums I’ve ever been in were in Amsterdam, and are very different: The Rijksmuseum, devoted primarily to Rembrandt, and the Van Gogh Museum, devoted to you-know-who. The first is large and dark, perfectly suited to presenting those large and dark paintings. You may be happy to discover, as I was, that Van Gogh’s museum is smallish, colorful, and brightly lit, his work bringing joy too many.

  5. Adrian Says:

    Very true re the love of life that runs through the albums. And, trying to be decent despite being imperfect. The WIHW title isn’t in my eyes poorly chosen. It fits with the content and is in line with the ‘self expression … dictum. However, it does require a familiarity with Mr Thomas’s sophisticated story telling and the types of literature and music that inform his technique. A casual reviewer, DJ or record buyer may see the title and just go ‘WHAT!’ ‘Why I Love Women’ may have betrayed the art of this set but it would have headed off the misunderstanding. I love your blog pieces Lee. Ps typing this on a small phone so cannot see all my words so apologies for any typos. XA

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