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Ruthlessness and Art-Making

ISSUE:  Summer 2012

For some time, the subject of ruthlessness and art-making has lingered in the back of my mind. Like so many nascent ideas, this one has felt warm to the touch but without explicit features. What do I mean by “ruthlessness”? Do great artists possess more than their share of what we might describe as the overt or tacit willingness to disregard, or walk over, or hurt others either to create a masterwork or in pursuit of success? Do you have to possess some to make art well?

Years ago, a colleague had clipped a three-page short story from a magazine, and he and I had used it in a summer course for adolescents. In the story, a man decides against killing a pig because his son loves the creature and finds the notion of slaughtering it unbearable. I had found it moving and shared it with my father, Bernard Malamud. My father felt the writing was mediocre. To make his point, he showed me a parallel moment in Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, a writer whom he greatly admired. That scene displays Jude’s difficulty killing an animal and foreshadows the protagonist’s failure to live his life well.

Jude and his wife Arabella cannot afford to hire a butcher, so they must slaughter their pig themselves. Arabella knows they will earn more money if the meat has been “well bled”—and insists that the pig must die slowly to bleed clean. Jude cannot stand to make the animal suffer, and he finds the task of killing it dreadful. “Upon my soul I would sooner have gone without the pig than have had this to do!” said Jude. “A creature I have fed with my own hands.” Arabella implores him: “Don’t be such a tender-hearted fool! There’s the sticking-knife—the one with the point. Now whatever you do, don’t stick un too deep. […] The meat must be well bled, and to do that he must die slow. We shall lose a shilling a score if the meat is red and bloody! Just touch the vein, that’s all. I was brought up to it, and I know […] He ought to be eight or ten minutes dying, at least.”

Jude dismisses her knowledge and refuses: “He shall not be half a minute if I can help it, however the meat may look.”

Jude stabs the pig hard, and kills it quickly, sparing the beast at the couple’s expense, and simultaneously demonstrating to Arabella that he is not tough or comprehending enough to act in their world in ways that might let him live up to his aspirations or help the couple and their children prosper. To put it another way, Jude is too filled with ruth. He has too much empathy for the animal, too much compassion for its misery, to act as effectively on his own behalf as his survival demands.

“Ruthless” according to Webster’s is “having no ruth: merciless, cruel.” Ruth, a word I cannot remember ever hearing in daily parlance, is “compassion for the misery of another” and “sorrow for one’s own faults.” So, to be ruthless is to be merciless, to lack compassion and remorse: to lack serious distress or guilt about one’s own callous behavior.

Ruthlessness has two major domains of meaning when it comes to art-making, and the mercilessness of the artist is different depending on which one we consider. The first concerns the artist’s life; the second, his or her art. I’m not certain there’s a clean separation between the two, but they are not interchangeable either.

How much ruth versus ruthlessness to bring to bear in life is everybody’s problem, though it is often finessed, and rarely frankly named. Determining appropriate aggression, and syncing it with justice, love, and remorse, constitutes the ur-quandary behind millennia of religious and moral pondering. Each context defines, often tacitly, how much self-assertion-cum-aggression is acceptable, even favored, and how much makes someone an outlier—either through Jude-like empathy and timidity or, conversely, through excessive hardheartedness and love of smiting. Do you kill the pig too quickly or too slowly; too reluctantly, too readily, or not at all? And what implications does your decision have for your particular life, and for your kin?

It is no accident that Hardy put Jude in the pig-killing predicament. Not only was the novelist conveying the severity of his characters’ circumstance, but I suspect he was aware of how intimate the question is to art. Artists—especially dedicated or ambitious ones—have to deal continually with their own ruthlessness. Their actions cannot be handed off; one cannot simply decide to pay a slaughterhouse and look away.

Art-making (and here is one of the places it separates from simpler forms of craft) requires great courage. Sometimes it is the courage to keep going in the face of doubt and psychological conundrum; sometimes it is to “say” what many may not want to hear. Or it can be the courage to show frankly what is before you; to defy current convention; to push the limits of a form; to risk foolishness; to challenge the past; or simply to reveal bald difference. And, perhaps most of all, it requires courage because failure is assured. Even the greatest, most fully realized artists can see beyond their work, to what their work might have been.

Courage and ruthlessness are not the same, but they can overlap. Ruthlessness can be a byproduct of the artist’s courage, or it can be gratuitous, or it can be what is eschewed—a marker of the place where courage gave way. The painter Mary Cassatt commented about John Singer Sargent that “He cared too much what other people thought.” Cassatt apparently felt that Sargent lacked adequate courage to offend—a kind of failure of ruthlessness. She implied that the quality of his work was hobbled by his wish to please.

Even the honing of one’s ability to comprehend art sometimes requires the severing of easy loves, of sentimental inclinations or too much ruth, as my father attempted to demonstrate to me with Thomas Hardy. I was twenty-one and wanted him to share my excitement as I finished my first teaching job. He wanted me to feel the difference between a top-drawer writer and someone in a lower tier. He sought to initiate me; to teach me a standard he held dear.

I have held our pig exchange variously at different times, though in the moment I experienced it as unnecessarily harsh, even, in its own way, a little ruthless. A truth that lingers now is how much the ruthlessness dilemma haunted his own life, and how deeply and personally he felt the moment in Hardy’s novel that he read aloud to me. My father was an artist who possessed great compassion and great ambition. He understood Jude’s feelings, and he understood Arabella’s. He announced his intention to become a successful writer at fifteen, not long after his mother died or committed suicide in a mental asylum. He worked at it relentlessly, spending almost two decades seriously poor, practicing and refining his skill before he began publishing stories. Once he married, he felt responsible to support his family and so he taught full time as well as wrote. Furthermore, he wanted to be a good family man, at least in his fashion, and a loving father.

The resulting emotional conflict of where and how to spend his hours tested him sorely, particularly because, in order to achieve the quality to which he aspired, he had to put his writing first much of the time. And this priority created a predicament: how do you balance sacrifices? When do you give in to your wife’s admonitions and your children’s pleadings and join them for a Sunday at the beach? When do you abandon them again in order to spend the day in your office reworking a page of prose? How much time do you give to your students, or to colleagues and friends who ask for your help with their work? (Elena Delbanco, daughter of the great cellist, Bernard Greenhouse, described on NPR how she used to erase the names of his cello students scheduled for a given day, and write in her own name, hoping, futilely, that he might grant her one of their hours.)

So too, when do you diminish further your scant family time, departing the marriage secretly to pursue liaisons—because fresh seduction and romance fuels your ego and your work? And where the work itself is concerned, how often do you describe friends and intimates in overly frank ways in your fiction, come what may? Or, conversely, when do you leave a great story untold to protect someone you love? And, how much of your own short life do you give over to the book-lined room with the desk where you sit, pen in hand?

Most artists and non-artists alike have pondered variants of these questions; yet we tend to think of ruthlessness when we picture financiers or commandos, not people sketching with pastels or composing music. While the artist’s ruthlessness may be cosmically of a miniscule order beside the despot’s, it is of interest because of the way conflict about one’s own aggression—or even one’s healthy entitlement—inhibits or facilitates the creative process, contributes to defining the quality of the work, and promotes or hinders the realizing of ambition. It is also of interest because we traditionally associate artists with beauty and mystery, and we are uneasy noting the harm that can be a part a byproduct of creativity.

In her memoir Night Studio about her father, the painter Philip Guston, Musa Mayer describes behavior by both her parents that in the context of this discussion passes muster as ruthless (at least with a small “r”) and that sheds light on the meanings of the term. Guston was born in 1913 in Montreal, the fifth of seven children in a very poor family only recently immigrated from Russia. They moved to Los Angeles where Guston’s father, Leib, scraped by for awhile as a junkman, gathering up and reselling rags and other discards. Leib became depressed, and his despair gradually overwhelmed him. Philip was either ten or eleven when he came home and found his father dead, hanging from a rafter. The traumatized boy started drawing seriously the following year and worked at it assiduously in spite of difficult circumstances, including his favorite brother’s sudden death while they were both still teenagers.

By the time Philip was married and a father, he had strung a thick curtain between his adult life and what had come before—at least as far as talking about it. And his daughter grew up ignorant of his past. She rarely met any of her kin and knew none of them well. After he died in 1980, she set about filling in gaps, looking up relatives, and trying to make sense of her own childhood. As she learned about Guston’s early life, she understood for the first time its frequent representation in his paintings, and the way objects that had seemed randomly chosen actually carried personal history. Her discoveries heighten the reader’s sense, and no doubt her own, of how sorely anguish and memory dogged him.

Knowing even a little about Guston’s life, it’s also easy to grasp how the single-mindedness of his focus on his art is simultaneously the single-mindedness a desperate man must possess to climb a rope up through flames and exit a burning pit. However loosely and broadly we apply the term “creativity,” nowhere does it gather more transcendent meaning than in this use: when artists wrestle with the large emotions created by what has happened to them and transform them into something that happens for all of us. Orchestrating the transformation strains all muscles.

The father Mayer portrays in her memoir is a compelling, talented, traumatized and traumatizing, serious person; and a profoundly selfish one. He lives for his painting. Signed on to the mission, his wife always puts him first in their family life, where he also places himself—sometimes to a dumbfounding extent. His daughter writes, “My father’s needs always came first. I never thought to question this; it was axiomatic; an article of faith.” During a time when the family was terribly poor, and food short, if his wife (also named Musa, so I’ll refer to the daughter by her nickname, Ingie) offered an extra bit of bread to their growing child instead of to him, Philip would object and complain, experiencing her as a depriving rival rather than as offspring to be nurtured. Musa also gave up her own painting to better support his, and the memoir recounts a home life that had little room for compromise in the allocation of resources, or for competition or support between equal adults.

After her father’s death, researching her book, Ingie asked Musa how Philip had felt about her. “My mother paused for what seemed like a longtime before answering. ‘He didn’t want children,’ she finally said. ‘His work, well—you know. It was everything.’ ” Musa then recalls that when she became pregnant, “Philip was terribly upset. He was simply beside himself, saying I had ruined his life. I thought I had done something quite dreadful.” Ingie notes, “My mother stopped and looked at me as if suddenly concerned that what she was revealing might disturb me, then went on hurriedly to say, ‘Of course, when you arrived it was entirely different. Once he saw you.’ ”

In 1948, having won a Prix de Rome, Guston left his family for a year so he could live in Italy and look at art, and perhaps break through an impasse that had developed in his painting. Neither his wife nor his daughter fared well while he was away. The next summer, the mother departed for four months to join her husband, leaving the six-year-old on her own in a series of difficult camp experiences. When the parents returned, they noticed that the child’s personality had been transformed from curious and lively to shy and subdued:

“I shouldn’t have left you,” my mother tells me now, “but when Philip wrote and asked me to come, I didn’t think of you. I thought only of being with him, that he wanted me with him.”

“Couldn’t you have taken me with you?” I ask.

My mother looks at me aghast. “Taken you? Oh, I wouldn’t have known how. Philip didn’t want you there.”

Careening in the wake of her mother’s bluntness, the daughter suggests it was terrible for him to make her choose between them. Her mother responds, “Terrible? But why? He was an artist. That was simply who he was.”

Putting aside for a moment sentiments that could variously be called ruthless maternal honesty and/or dismal parenting, part of what makes the exchange relevant is Musa’s unequivocal idea of an artist. Artist with a capital “A.” These days we mostly hear such claims in parodies, but I certainly remember when they were made un-ironically. The notion, as Musa expounds it, is that the artist doesn’t play by everyman’s rules. So, if you marry one, you know that you will put him first, and that you will not receive from him the husbanding that other women might expect because his calling demands that he put his art first, before any intimate relationship.

While it’s easy to feel wearied by the entitlement of the claim, there’s truth in it, too.

The most serious and dedicated art-making encourages artists to put a huge amount of themselves into their work—an enterprise which may be separate from their need to support their families financially and raise children. Even after hours, when she is no longer casting bronzes, a sculptor is often seeking out peers to help her keep up on the current art scene, compare notes, and inspire herself. Likewise, on many evenings, writers are reading, composers attending concerts, photographers gallery hopping, dramatists viewing plays, and so on. To realize significant work, a serious artist will certainly feel tempted to trade away, sacrifice, or ignore a good chunk of everyday family life.

Sometimes this eschewing is intrinsic to the demands of the work. It’s likely no more prevalent than with driven professionals, politicians, or business people, or with people who have to work two and three jobs at minimum wage just to pay the bills. Other times there may be a destructive, inflated self-importance that blends with necessity. Sue Halpern captures this kind of posturing perfectly in her review of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. She writes, “[Jobs] was a bully, a dissembler, a cheapskate, a deadbeat dad, a manipulator, and sometimes he was very nice.

Isaacson does not shy away from any of this, and the trouble is that Jobs comes across as such a repellent man, cruel even to his best friend Steve Wozniak, derisive of almost everyone, ruthless to people who thought they were his friends, indifferent to his daughters, that the book is often hard to read. […] Jobs himself dismissed his excesses with a single word: artist. Artists, he seemed to believe, got a pass on bad behavior.” We collectively seem uncertain about how much bad behavior is the real underbelly of genius, how much a self-indulgence.

Musa’s marital gratification arrived indirectly, like something hidden or smuggled. Her satisfaction came from creating the conditions that furthered her husband’s work; her mutuality from being in the presence of a creative person which offered the opportunity of witnessing his art-making and art up close, and from the honoring request, sometimes, to express opinions as well as admire. They also shared private intimacies unknown to their child or anyone else. Yet it was not easy. And in time, the wife’s sense of being loved became so agile, so adept at gleaning sparse fields, she managed to find sustenance even in her husband’s returning to her after his dalliances.

This supporting role plus the paintings were the marital gifts Guston had to give. And when he was especially exhilarated about a work in progress, and often quite drunk, he sometimes woke Musa in the middle of the night to have her look upon it with him. Eventually, when he became successful, she shared the money he earned and felt the satisfaction, pride, and reflected glory of his openings, his followers, and his acclaim.

Meanwhile, Musa’s belief, or theirs, creates more of a predicament for Ingie, who, like all children, is born into the family enterprise without opportunity to grant informed consent about either its aims or its emotional costs. You get a sense that she is often an afterthought. Yet Guston’s gifts to his daughter include upward mobility, likely some inherited wealth, and a father who, however preoccupied and absent, did not kill himself like his own father. He demonstrated to her how a person saves his own life, and how an artist fills a bare canvas. There’s little doubt he gave her, emotionally and materially, more than he had been given. Yet her reality commences with her own entry into the world, and she often experienced his behavior as destructive, even devastating. Although less visible, the psychological body blows she absorbed are as real as his paint. Cut off from his past, his thrashing about must have appeared to her as shadow-boxing that punched real bystanders. In a sense, what reads here as parental ruthlessness can also be seen as the collateral damage of an intense, all-consuming fight between a man and himself as he struggles to assimilate his own past (as well as the great painters who preceded him) and to produce original work.

Musa Guston is hardly the only person to feel reverence for artists. And it’s interesting to ask why exactly many are so inclined. Yes, because they can make art; and so embody the mystery of how some people manage remarkable or even exquisite things while the rest of us fumble. Artists divert us and entertain us, thrill us and disgust us, enlighten and baffle us; and they offer companionship. If we think of art as a bucket holding within it our whole invisible feeling life, artists are the bold “guys” who dip their hands in and fetch out the gorgeous and the gross for the rest of us to see. They offer us back to ourselves wet, fresh, and thrashing.

Artists also represent a relatively peaceable version of the collective, oft felt wish to defy our puniness and leave a mark upon the indifferent world around us. Some years ago I descended into a cave in the Dordogne in France, to look at a 20,000 or 30,000 year-old hand print carefully painted onto a dank, rough wall. The cave painter had filled a reed with a powdery red pigment, then blown the color over his hand, leaving an imprint for the ages, and an ur-painting. While it was a much simpler image than the extraordinary tableaus of animals in Lascaux, or Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, seeing it up close raised the hairs on the back of my neck.

We tend to make artists special not just because they will scrunch for days in odd positions in order to inscribe the musculature of a horse upon a rock surface deep underground, but because we ask their works to map the outer edge of what is psychologically, aesthetically, technically, and imaginatively possible. We ask them to move us deeply. To appropriate Kafka’s famous thought about books, we ask their works to labor as ice axes breaking “the frozen sea within us.”

One way we sometimes attempt to reconcile our species’ temperamental contradictions is to conflate artists with their work. We superimpose our awe at the cave paintings onto the artists who painted them. Or we assume that if someone carves a Pieta, he must be saintly. We say that he or she is a great artist, and from there it is an easy mental elision to make him or her a great human being. Even though we know better, we can still feel ever so slightly queasy fully loving a beautiful object or verse whose very creation communed with harm. (One good example of this phenomenon was the post-World War II generation’s ambivalence about attending performances of operas by the rabidly anti-Semitic composer Richard Wagner.)

This curiosity about the connection between art and maker also contributes to our fascination with artists as rogues. Caravaggio comes to mind. His brutality opposes the care and detail we find in his work, and confounds our wish for consistency. In recent decades, we have— living a contradiction without reconciling it—tended to romanticize some artists exactly because they are unsteady, and we’ve admired their art as the gold salvaged from their shipwrecked lives. (Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko, Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace, and on and on.) We idealized them oppositely. Not for any simple human greatness or proximity to the gods, but for their art’s intimacy with such visible suffering.

While we might want art makers to be less than harmful in their personal lives, some claim that this is unrealistic. The poet W. H. Auden opined, “Real artists are not nice people. All their best feelings go into their work and life has the residue.” So, too, in her short biography of James Joyce, the novelist Edna O’Brien asked rhetorically, “Do writers have to be such monsters in order to create? I believe that they do. It is a paradox that while wrestling with language to capture the human condition they become more callous, and cut off from the very human traits which they so glisteningly depict. There can be no outer responsibility, no interruptions; only the ongoing inner drone, rhythmic, insistent, struggling to make a living moment of both beauty and austerity.”


But what about the rest of us? What if we have not lost parents, and/or we are not as focused as Philip Guston, or geniuses like Picasso or Joyce, and are perhaps just trying to master a craft or make art more modestly, why do we have to contend with the question of ruthlessness?

First of all, because time is ruthless. It consumes us indifferently. Each art maker’s or craftsman’s one, only, unrepeatable life is the stack slapped down on the table whenever the croupier spins the wheel. The terms are stark; nothing is guaranteed, and if a person cares only about the realm of significant accomplishments, he or she may give everything and get little back. What if all Guston’s efforts had been in vain, and he’d never shown a painting, or if he’d sat in his studio for years and never painted one? The creation of significant work, much less a masterpiece or great oeuvre, the garnering of financial success or fame, is rare. A photographer can spend decades taking pictures and never find a gallery to represent her, or even a single buyer. That reality can be devastating or less consequent depending on how she’s framed her purpose. I once heard the writer Richard Bausch note that literature is like music. We read a great play or book not to get to the end, but to enjoy each note of the song. People making art who possess a portion of that feeling toward their own labor are more likely to harvest the joy of the enterprise separate from the achievement. Still, most of us also need some fantasy of audience and success to sharpen our effort and push us along through its difficulties.

Meanwhile, mastering a craft and practicing it, especially if you are simultaneously holding a day job or looking after children and a household, is no simple matter of nine to five. The hours working at art are stolen. Even when aims are relatively modest, all art-makers and craftsmen have to decide how much of their emotional and physical energy, their money, their lost wages to put into their work.

How much support can you expect from those around you?

Is it fair to ask your mate to earn disproportionately to pick up the slack created by your underpaid effort? Is it fair to hire extra sitters or lean on the grandparents, and sometimes see less of your spouse or kids so you can make your way to your studio after hours? What can you scrape together out of the family budget to buy the musical instrument you need, or to pay for lessons? (The most striking revelation in Renee Fleming’s memoir about her life as an opera diva is of the endless lessons, not simply of voice and performance, but of movement, foreign language, elocution, and on and on.) Is it good for your family if you work in your studio all day on vacation? When does your self-absorption start causing harm you cannot either accept or rationalize away?

But if you are too well endowed with “ruth” and you don’t grasp that it is inevitable that you must face these vexing questions, don’t grasp that to bring a work into the world you must sometimes act from parts of yourself that cannot by-any-stretch-of-the-imagination be called attractive, don’t grasp that too much “nice” is a death-kiss for adequate audacity, serious effort, or originality, then you may give up on your work without consciously calling it quits. You are likely to retreat from the difficult decisions. And you will end up feeling that you have failed at something you sought—rather than knowing you consciously weighed its price to you, at this moment in your life, and chose to pursue it or not.

The most ruthless gesture many of us might need to learn is the simple but uncomfortable one of saying “No.” Both to others and to the parts of ourselves that feel too guilty or embarrassed if we do not always put family, friends, and other obligations first before our work. “No, I cannot get together today for coffee; no, I won’t chaperone the class outing this time; no, I’m afraid you’ll have to go without me to visit your sister; no, I’m really sorry, but I won’t be able to watch your hockey game this week.” The dilemma is hardest where children are concerned.

Even when artists and craftsmen earn for their labor, and have more flexible schedules than other workers outside the home, and are physically more present in their families, and are happier for possessing an absorbing errand, they may be psychologically preoccupied with their work. When the distractedness is low key, it’s not an issue. When it’s intense, it can alter the landscape and feel depriving to those most intimate to them.


When the intense desire for fame dominates over the wish to create, ruthlessness takes a different turn. Great ambition for public recognition often requires its own extreme single-mindedness. Yet in the process, the preeminence of art-making can become displaced—or corrupted. The fierce hunger for adulation is like a Trojan horse that sometimes sneaks imposters through art’s gates.

In some ways, Leni Riefenstahl is a poor choice for a discussion of ruthlessness because she spent so many post-World War II years as the poster child of awful artist behavior. On the other hand, it’s remarkable she wasn’t put to death after the war when so many lesser collaborators were executed.

As a young woman, Riefenstahl tied her wagon, and perhaps her lingerie, to Hitler’s rising star, and she spent the Nazi years wined and dined as the regime’s darling. During the war, when almost every serious artist in Germany was murdered, forced into exile, or jailed, she prospered and became world famous. She lived lavishly in a big house (which some say Hitler bought for her) with a fancy car, able to dress to the nines, travel where she wished, spend what she wanted, and party on the “A” list of the most elite Nazi social events. She was the consummate insider. No one but Hitler himself had say over her movie-making budgets, and since he both loved her films glorifying his regime and believed that hers was the true and sublime German sensibility, he rarely refused her entreaties for more cash. Triumph of the Will and Olympiad (her film of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin) are classic works of crowd-stirring propaganda.

However repugnant her love affair with Nazism, observers tend to grant that Riefenstahl worked ferociously hard, and that she was guided by a strong aesthetic sense that made her into a serious innovator of film, both in movies and photography. She had grit and physical courage. As a young woman during her early career in front of the camera, she was willing to ask anything of herself—climbing glaciers, hiking mountains barefoot—to make a scene work. She sustained injuries that would have retired reasonable people, and she kept going. Later, as a director, she repeatedly pushed herself so hard to perfect her official Reich film projects that she more than once collapsed in nervous exhaustion.

Riefenstahl appears to have been almost completely amoral. Her signature refrain was an insouciant, prescient, deeply revealing and, in her context, appalling bon mot: “Reality doesn’t interest me.” In 1939, assigned to film Hitler’s armies as they marched into Poland, she witnessed an early civilian massacre by German soldiers. On this occasion she protested vehemently about the army’s behavior both to a general and to Hitler himself. In that moment she seems to have felt overwhelmed by horror and by ruth. During the war she experienced a series of illnesses and nervous breakdowns, as well as periods of deep depression that suggest the moral contradiction within her choices did plague her however hard she tried to push conflict from her mind. But she generally accepted the terms of her success, turning a blind eye to brutality and genocide in order to harvest cash and fame.

Riefenstahl’s ruthlessness has broad scope and large consequence. She wildly glorified Nazi virtue and encouraged a nation to delude itself. If ever we could place responsibility for deaths and suffering on the doorstep of an artist, Riefenstahl’s movies make the case for her culpability. After the war many people despised her. She spent decades trying to cover her tracks and edit her story—first to spare her life, and then to allow her to reestablish a career. It’s unclear whether she registered remorse or shame. Certainly, her public actions suggest not.

Rather, it seems she substituted charisma and vitality for conscience and published her last book of photography when she was 100 years old. She died at 101, still controversial but widely honored and largely rehabilitated with few of her fans bothering to distinguish propaganda from art. And, in a sense, it was her genius for confusing the two domains which made her historically important.

To find a current celebrity who embodies the hunger for adulation as intently as Riefenstahl, we need look no farther than Lady Gaga—Stefani Germanotta. I know of no performer alive who seeks fame as ferociously (and ably) as she does. As she herself noted, “I will kill to get what I need.”

Yet, she disavows her ruthlessness even as she baldly states it. In a voiceover in the “Marry the Night” video, uncannily reiterating Riefenstahl, Gaga proclaims, “It’s not that I’ve been dishonest, it’s just that I loathe reality.” Later she adds, perhaps ironically or subversively, perhaps in a Steve Jobs grab for justification, “Mais, je suis une artiste.” But I am an artist.

While some would say Lady Gaga’s music-making represents serious artistry, others would claim its chief purpose is display. Her videos are sometimes compelling and fresh—sometimes kitsch, slick, campy, often soft pornie, fast-paced and strange. They are advertisements. Germanotta is a brilliant advertiser—primarily of herself, her life, her costumes, her psyche, her sexual fantasies, and her body.

But there’s also plenty of product placement. Indeed, some of the videos can be viewed as vehicles to sell telephones, computers, or bottles of liquor. Her songs are energetic and catchy. Only time will tell how much her work will stand as a talented, self-aware send-up of commodity culture and extreme self-display, and how much it will wear thin, revealed as psychological need posturing as art. Clearly, it contains both, and the balance shimmers—and wobbles.

Still, Lady Gaga’s combination of sexual trope, media savvy, creative energy, talent, and huge drive, together with the quick camera work of her pieces, keeps viewers entertained and fans enraptured. Several of her videos on YouTube have more than 100 million views, and “Bad Romance” has been watched almost half a billion times, an astounding number. The grandiose struggles in her videos—for example, between good and evil in “Judas”—represent battles as old as time, conducted now by Stefani’s avatar on a global media level. “Jesus,” she sings, “is my virtue. Judas is the demon I cling to.”

You can read this fantasy struggle as correlative for her own turmoil as she tries to clamber up to the top of fame’s pig pile and still preserve a sense of herself as a good person. Germanotta attended Catholic schools, so it’s not hard to imagine the sources of her conflicted imagery. But its meaning to her is less clear. Watch her for awhile and you realize that the constant, kaleidoscopic camera cuts in her videos keep action from possessing consequence. Everything, including the results of her mock violence and sexual posing, disappears as fast as it appears. Inner and outer worlds merge. All is virtual.

She’ll do anything, but none of it matters—a view that reflects accurately something about the current zeitgeist, and likely also reflects our collective, larger confusions about what, if anything, remains real or consequent in our media-dominated and distorted ever-more-virtual existence. At her best, Lady Gaga riffs on this contemporary absurdity. Ironically, she also demonstrates the long-term impact of Riefenstahl’s “innovations” as a propagandist, the way Riefenstahl’s use of film documentary to create a false-world-purporting-to-be-true has evolved into a huge cultural muddle about whether there can be any such thing as truth or even shared reality.

When you explore the media coverage of Lady Gaga, you see how the more she becomes a mega-star, the more she—or her handlers—at once exploit and yet carefully soften the over-the-top ambitions of her drive. She seems intent on having her fans love her because she is a nice, Catholic, family girl who likes to cook, and is close to her parents, and who supports good causes; and equally intent on having them love her for how “bad” and “out there” and immodest in all the ways she can be. The contradiction would be completely tenable if she didn’t leave the impression that self-promotion is her uber-goal, and that her other efforts, claims, and self-portrayals just might be in its service. In exchange for their adoration, she gives herself to her fans. What if one day she just wanted to be the old, anonymous, private Stephanie again? It seems impossible. She is possessed by her alter ego and its legion of followers. Will she be the rare person who can surf that wave? Or will she eventually tire and drown under it? Time will tell.

When interviewed on talk shows, Lady Gaga presents herself as a “freak” or outsider, who defines her music-making as a space where she can feel safe and unafraid, and as a way to share that radical self-acceptance with her fans. She describes a nervous breakdown and displays her vulnerability, her sense of herself as an outcast, the “Mother Monster.” She tells the audience on The View, “Getting picked on in school, it sticks with you for life.” She suggests that if she can be totally out there and still feel okay about herself, her fans can feel okay about themselves, too.

Lady Gaga has an anti-bullying foundation and has publicly opposed “Don’t ask don’t tell.” When on Oprah, she counsels her audience to spend five minutes a day feeling compassionate feelings for themselves—as, she told them, she tries to do each day for herself. Her decency seems sincere. But it lies uneasily with her madly ambitious claims. “I’m going to be a fucking superstar,” she exults on a trailer for a 60 Minutes stint. So, she appears to be saying, I have ruthless ambition, but I am not ruthless; I am a very good, very nice person—albeit with a dark side. Perhaps she is right. Yet such a severing seems in part like a defiant fantasy or at least an impossible distance to bridge. At moments, she resembles a sexualized child dressing up and playing adult. And her success can partly be located in the way she embodies and mirrors back the great contemporary distress about how to grow up, and how to survive, when so much in the world is disrupted and nuts.

Still, Lady Gaga grasps (from her own great need, if not from conscious perception) that self-love is what mass culture is offering up (selling) as sustenance to people—as the oxygen tank in an otherwise airless landscape. And, unsupported by much else, it’s paltry. Ruthlessness seems to get disavowed and deemed inconsequent in her (and perhaps our) mad pursuit of this widely touted but elusive elixir. The meanings of words and actions dissolve in the turmoil. We are not ruthless, we are not even responsible for much; we are simply a country/world/universe, Lady Gaga postulates, of weird, bullied, people hoping to find a path through the chaos, and a way to feel good about ourselves.

Why dwell on Riefenstahl and Lady Gaga?

Riefenstahl provides a high water mark of ruthless ambition in a self-proclaimed artist; Lady Gaga shows us a partial, updated version of a similar urgency for fame, accompanied by a strong wish to be, or be seen as, both wildly out there—and yet as kind and caring. Together Riefenstahl and Lady Gaga offer us a lesson, a way to ponder how much drive, not to mention how strong a stomach, is required to pursue huge success.

But the other, less predictable reason to look at these two lives is that they help us picture the distance—the orders of magnitude—between the profoundly ambitious, and the typically more modest artist or craftsperson. The majority of very talented, serious, very successful artists live a less destructive trajectory than Riefenstahl’s, and a less meteoric one than Germanotta’s. What ruthlessness they possess is better defined as the strenuous work they do to keep their focus, and to eschew many normal distractions—including certain kinds of diffuse interests, wool gathering, or generosity with time—which divert the rest of us. While each person is different, I imagine that many are inclined to be thoughtful about the trades they make, and to acknowledge sacrifice and consequence.

The great reason for exploring the extremes is so that we can think about where we want to position ourselves and why. But lest we get carried away with the virtues of such hypothetical moderation, there’s a wonderful reminder for us in a line in Robert Penn Warren’s novel All The King’s Men, where the narrator posits that a man’s virtue may be “but a defect in his desire.”


While Riefenstahl was weaving her thread upon Hitler’s loom, Thomas Mann, the German novelist who in 1929 won the Nobel Prize, was busy fleeing Nazism, first to Switzerland in 1933, then on to the United States in 1939.

Mann, too, weighed in on ruthlessness, and his observations lead us close to the heart of the matter where art-making itself is concerned. I earlier asked why ruthlessness is a question for all artists and craftspeople, not simply the most ambitious. The significant answer concerns the way artists must “look” at the world and at their own work. Much of art is about translating close observation. The horses in the field become the horses on the cave wall. And so the capacity to observe frankly, sometimes ruthlessly, becomes a deeply important component of artistry.

Mann states it well:

The look that one directs at things, both outward and inward, as an artist is not the same as that with which one would regard the same as a man, but at once colder and more passionate. As a man, you might be well-disposed, patient, loving, positive, and have a wholly uncritical inclination to look upon everything as all right, but as artist your daemon constrains you to “observe,” to take note, lightning fast and with hurtful malice, of every detail that in the literary sense would be characteristic, distinctive, significant, opening insights, typifying the race, the social or the psychological mode, recording all as mercilessly as though you had no human relationship to the observed object whatever.

Mann grants ruthlessness direct relationship to creating excellent work. Though perhaps too severe in his manner, he tells us something true. Isn’t “recording all as mercilessly as though you had no human relationship to the observed object whatever,” a restatement of Arabella’s admonition to Jude, and of ruthlessness? The artist’s eye must resist any invitation to look away, must resist the unconsidered reflex of ruth. The claim, “at once colder and more passionate,” deftly holds two necessary opposites. Your job as an artist is neither to spare the pig, nor, Riefenstahl style, to smear lipstick on it and call it by some other name, but to look, act, and feel, and to transform all that is bearable and unbearable into your work. In this sense, Jude’s failure is not simply that he cannot stand to make the animal suffer, but that he cannot bear to suffer the feelings that harming the animal will awaken in him.

In May of 1962, the Guggenheim Museum held a retrospective of Philip Guston’s paintings. His daughter describes how Guston almost cancelled it because he was terrified of seeing his work en masse; of feeling so exposed, judged, and found wanting that it would kill off his hope for himself as a painter. But he changed his mind. And while the event was extremely difficult for him, and shocking, he “recovered” gradually. “It took me about a year to get started painting again, and stop brooding about the work. But it was of great value to me. I think I became more ruthless with myself in the work following.”

It’s frustrating not to know exactly what he means here, what he could tell us about the shift of becoming more ruthless with himself. But certainly he alludes to how difficult it can be to be as bold, self-demanding, and detached as originality requires—to renounce your easy satisfaction in your hard-won productions; overcome intense attachment, and put quality ahead of fondness. I similarly learned from my father how relentlessly a writer must cross out words, toss pages, tear up drafts, in order to create one fine short story. Though his daily laboring was ruthless enough, he once burned the single manuscript of a novel that displeased him. Some people give up on mastery because they don’t grasp how rigorous the observing process actually is, how demanding of multiple tries, and of courage, so they fault themselves for not achieving more sooner or working more rapidly.


Lillian Hellman’s memoir Pentimento long ago fell from grace after many, most famously the novelist and critic Mary McCarthy, challenged its veracity and called Hellman “a dishonest writer.” McCarthy’s unforgettable line, now a cultural trope: “every word she writes is a lie including ‘and’ and ‘the.’ ” Still, I remember as a young woman loving a story in it called “Turtle” which ponders the ruth/ruthless question, and the whole larger artist’s dilemma of attachment and detachment, and I recently reread it. Whether or not it hews close to any facts, the story offers strong psychological commentary on the failure of ruthlessness in art-making.

Killing one’s own meat is something Hellman favors but unexpectedly finds unbearable when confronted on her farm one day with a snapping turtle that won’t die. She tells her lover, Dashiel Hammett, “Dash” who has trapped and attempted to slaughter the reptile after it lamed one of their dogs, “You know very well that I help with the butchering of the animals here and don’t like talk about how distasteful killing is by people who are willing to eat what is killed for them.”

But, playing Jude to his Arabella, she continues, after witnessing the effort the decapitated reptile (head dangling from neck by a thread) makes to escape from their kitchen, to drag its bloody, dead self down the steps and back toward their pond, she is overcome. Feeling that its primeval tenacity has earned it the right to be buried rather than eaten, she tells Dash that she doesn’t want its flesh for soup. He dismisses her scruples and refuses to assist with grave-digging; so, in the middle of the night, a whisky-emboldened Hellman stumbles forth with her shovel and buries the carcass; too shallowly, it turns out, for within days animals dig it up and eat it. Or so the story goes.

Veracious or not, Pentimento became a best-seller. The book’s success was no accident since feminism was gathering steam, and Hellman offered one of the few glimpses yet available in that now-almost-inconceivably-sexist American world of the early 1970s, of a way for a woman to live that seemingly wasn’t subservient and submissive. While we know in retrospect that Hellman’s portrait of her own boldness is often more wish than fact, in the historical moment her fudged self-portrayal held great appeal. She put herself before her readers as an aging woman who had lived hard—artistically, sexually, sensually, independently, courageously—achieving great success with plays like The Little Foxes and The Children’s Hour, and yet not compromising her integrity in the process. And, in the United States in 1973, such a public image of female was anomalous.

The “who kills the meat” dilemma in “Turtle” figures into our discussion because it sheds further light on ruthlessness by noting that it has long been superficially gendered. Outside of that pariah, the abandoning mother, and the occasional portrayal of the political female—Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, and the two Lear daughters come quickly to mind, as do fairy tales of diverse witches and step-mothers—the lion’s share of ruthlessness has traditionally been assigned to men; a split that has historically held true as well where art making is involved. One hasn’t traditionally associated ruthlessness and the female artist, however incorrect the lapse. But then, until a slow, oft-interrupted, turnaround began sometime in the 19th century, female artists in the United States (outside of those pursuing the “domestic” arts, stage and movie fame, or music) were relatively few and far between; and largely scorned if they tried to cross into a center stage of the public world.

Whether one reads her lines or between them, Hellman’s presentation of herself as a bold, tough, successful female playwright (and perhaps not coincidentally, an unmarried woman without children) seems inseparable from her meat-killing injunction. While she never directly speaks it, her self-portrayal is a testimony to her assumption that the two are necessarily linked. And, as Hardy points out with Jude, and Hellman enacts with her quandary of the turtle, killing one’s meat correctly, and in Hellman’s case eating it with appropriate gusto, demands a certain ruthlessness. One must not allow one’s empathy for the creature to interfere with the task at hand.

Yet in “Turtle” Hellman endears herself to her readers by both knowing the rule, and finding herself unexpectedly swayed from her fidelity to it. When one recalls her historic moment and the staggering difficulty for a female playwright in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s to elbow her way to the top of the theater world’s male-dominated heap, one can only assume that at times she identified more than she could say with the battle-weary reptile who, though bested, crawled forth, head dangling by a thread. And perhaps she also felt remorse for the fellow creatures she’d snapped at and lamed as she blundered along. Most of all, she intuited that to write successful memoirs for the rising generation of women, she would have to present herself as having somehow worked out the ruth/ruthlessness quandary enough to succeed in the then male-dominated public world.

But what if we read her story momentarily as a fable about her own effort to write a memoir, and about whether or not to hew ruthlessly to the more literal or more complex truth? Then her predicament becomes a psychological one about art making instead of soup making. In this reading, her compassion for the turtle would be for herself as fictionalizer, the writer self who wants to let that maimed creature—the ugly, imperfect, ambiguous truth—escape out the back door and earn a quiet burial. (And yet, as Freud observed about unconscious conflict, it inhabits a shallow grave and won’t stay buried.) By this interpretation, one can read her struggle as a battle between the part of her that would rigorously write a memoir of facts, versus the part of her that finds truths about her life discordant with her purpose, or finds her lived past unbearable, and the process of retrieving and writing about it overwhelmingly painful—perhaps shameful or politically incorrect, perhaps sad, perhaps brimming with regret, perhaps simply inconvenient. The writer spares the “turtle” self the final indignity by creating a better, braver, and more memorable Hellman than the real one who lived the actual life. In this sense, Hellman’s failure to accurately recount her history is a failure of adequate artistic ruthlessness.

Hellman enjoyed her fame. And maybe she fictionalized to increase her odds of having the memoir make her more famous—which it did. (So famous that in 1976, over seventy, she posed in a widely published Blackgama fur advertisement, wearing nothing but the coat.) Maybe her particular ruthlessness was not in the service of her art qua art, but for the sake of a captivating last act. Maybe she lulled herself into believing the fiction was the truth and wrote the words she sensed would bring her most acclaim. By the time Hellman came to writing memoirs, she had lost whatever stomach she may earlier have possessed to separate the self-protecting woman from the artist; to look upon herself coldly, at least with pen in hand. Obviously, memoir offers more of a predicament than fiction in this regard, because the object of the gaze is the self, and there is nowhere to hide. The fiction writer’s screen is exactly what the memoirist claims to forsake. And perhaps what ultimately is moving in “Turtle” is some resonance of the author’s invisible yet present struggle with this failure of writerly courage. Someone declared at Hellman’s own graveside, “She was awful but she was worth it.” And I suspect the quip’s truth was in the mourner’s grasp of the artist’s wish to have been other than how she was: and of the way that wish created a lovable dimension in a very difficult women—a view separate from the more glamorous one Hellman sought to project as herself.

But, if my conjectures about Hellman’s narrative of the turtle are on the mark, it underscores again how ruthlessness serves different masters. The compelling requirement, which a jury of her peers suggests Hellman failed, is for ruthlessness—here meaning some combination of honesty and rigor—to labor in the service of the art making itself. In retrospect, I think this message is the one my father wanted to convey when he dug out his copy of Thomas Hardy, and the one I pass along here.

Finally, now, when I reflect back yet again on our conversation, on my father’s life, and his insistence on holding onto Jude’s perspective and onto Arabella’s, I realize he offered a second lesson perhaps more subtle, but equally important: Being able to kill the pig, yet also experiencing your remorse, holding onto both sides of the “ruth” dilemma, living its complexity—as he did in his stories, and in his life—is a strenuous yet worthwhile undertaking.


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Jeff Bowman's picture
Jeff Bowman · 7 years ago

Good article, Janna. Lots of good points for my artist life. I think "Ruth" (I'm guessing, mind you, and could be wrong) may have a biblical origin. Being "ruthless" would be not having a compassionate person like "Ruth: (book of Ruth).. "Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me." Thus, Ruth changes her religion and sticks with Naomi, caring for her and showing much compassion to Naomi.


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