Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints
The thirty-one essays in Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints fall into several categories that bring together Joan Acocella’s interests and expertise in literature and literary criticism, dance and dance criticism, psychology, and women’s studies. Eighteen of the essays are on literature. They are primarily about literary figures of the twentieth century, both well known, such as Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Simone de Beauvoir, and Susan Sontag, and less known, such as Italo Svevo, Stefan Sweig, and Marguerite Yourcenar. One of the essays in this group is about Andrea de Jorio, a nineteenth century Neapolitan priest, who wrote a study of the meaning of hand gestures used by natives of Naples. The other essay in this literary group, the only essay that does not focus on a particular person, is titled “Blocked,” about writer’s block.
Another group of nine essays is about dance. Most of these essays are “portraits” of dancers and choreographers in ballet, Broadway dance, and modern dance. They include Vaslav Nijinsky, Frederick Ashton, Suzanne Farrell, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Jerome Robbins, Martha Graham, Bob Fosse, and Twyla Tharp. There is also an essay on Lincoln Kirstein, who was responsible for bringing George Balanchine to the United States and was the founder and manager of the New York City Ballet. An additional essay related to dance is on Lucia Joyce, the daughter of James Joyce who, before her descent into insanity, tried to be a modern dancer.
Of the three remaining essays, one is on the sculptor Louise Bourgeois. The other two are about “saints,” Mary Magdalene and Joan of Arc. Both of these essays are more about the cultural reception of these saintly females in the twentieth century. The springboard for the essay on Mary Magdalene is the popular interest in her cult arising from the 2003 novel by Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code. The essay on Joan of Arc focuses on the way her story was treated in films of the twentieth century.
In such a diverse group of talented people working with various forms of artistic expression, the question arises about whether any themes recur that in some way serve to unify this collection of essays. Acocella addresses this point in her introduction. The theme that she chooses is “difficulty, hardship.” By this she does not mean the artists’ background in trauma and its attendant psychological difficulties but rather “the pain that came with the art-making, interfering with it, and how the artist dealt with this.” She points out that many brilliant artists and writers have not had the inner strength, tenacity, and courage to persevere in the face of the many difficulties, rejections, and disappointments that are inherent in the artistic process and in remaining true to an artistic vision and purpose. Acocella wants to examine the “ego strength” that makes it possible for an artist to rise above the obstacles to creating and practicing his or her particular art.
In reading these essays, several problems emerge with Acocella’s thesis about the ego strength of successful artists. One difficulty is that a number of the essays demonstrate just the opposite, the fact that many artists lack this personal quality. The first essay on Lucia Joyce, for example, shows how the burdens of being the child of a famous writer limited her own artistic inclinations in dance. Joyce became so mentally ill that she ended up being institutionalized. The case of the dancer Nijinsky differs in the specific aspects of his life story, but the result was the same. Nijinsky had a phenomenal but very short career as a dancer before psychosis overtook him. The essay on writer’s block is filled with writers who never were able to realize their creative potential.
Another problem with the ego strength thesis is that Acocella never really analyzes what it is and especially how it operates in the case of the more successful artists and writers. When the artists do overcome obstacles, the key seems to be turning inward to draw on themselves. Acocella says of Baryshnikov, who survived the suicide of his mother when he was twelve years old and dealt with the creative restrictions placed on him by the policies of the former Soviet Union by defecting to the West, “Homelessness turned him inward, gave him to himself. Then dance, the substitute home, turned him outward, gave him to us.”
In addition, the price of ego strength in many instances is paid in the cost of the artists’ health and especially in their...
(The entire section is 1854 words.)