Pushcart XLI: Dominica Phetteplace, “The Story of a True Artist” from ZYZZYVA #105

From video trailer for <em>A Book of Uncommon Prayer</em>, Matthew Vollmer, ed.

From video trailer for A Book of Uncommon Prayer, Matthew Vollmer, ed.

I was once a star on YouTube. With my friend Cam, we went by the handle Cam&Lo,
our videos were all variations of the same theme, which we created together. Most of the screen would show whatever videogame he was playing, with his joke commentary. The lower left of the screen contained a box that showed only the top of my head. Just my eyes, rimmed with liquid liner, and my blonde hairbow headband atop my black hair, I would make various exaggerated expressions, depending on what was happening with the videogame. That was my commentary.
At our peak, we had 800,000 subscribers. Which is a lot, though maybe not quite enough to justify calling myself a star. But I felt like a star. I got fan mail and hate mail. I got recognized at Celebcon, where fans would stop and ask to take selfies with the top of my head. My parents never understood what made our work popular and funny and interesting.
“I don’t get it,” they would say. “Can you explain that?”
“Exasperated sigh,” I would say. “If you don’t get it, then my explaining it won’t help. Shakes head.”

The thing about this story is how it keeps coming at you. Wave upon wave, every paragraph, sometimes every sentence, a six-layer cake of character, action, meaning, and it just never stops. It’s exhausting, and wonderful. Just like Lourdes. Hey, if you were named after Madonna’s kid and had “a large body and a weird sense of humor….brown skin and a poor family” and a craving to make art, you might never stop either.

A lot of readers might be put off right away by the details of setting and character. A couple of teenage YouTubers who speak their expressions? Shakes head! By the way, that was one of Robin
William’s many norm-shattering shticks as Mork back in the 70s, heavy sigh. But before you’re put off by the excruciating self-conscious pop-cultureness of it all, think about a few things.

For instance, think about what it means to be reduced to the top of your head. Granted, that’s a little better than being reduced to T&A, but not much. That’s what I mean about the six-layer cake: along with this image (and in spite of myself I keep imagining MST3 on Twitch), there’s this little thing about female objectification, another about race- and fat-shaming, then there’s the role of the sidekick (shakes head again! Nothing new under the sun), and of course parents – or readers – who don’t get it. Parents never get it, whatever their kids’ “it” is, clothes, music, books, Elvis, art. Beware of the parent who does get it, in fact. But to add another layer to this opening page, income from the eyebrows’ Taco Bell endorsement paid the mortgage for Lourdes’ family while her dad’s out of work. That’s an interesting family dynamic.

Then there’s the dynamic between Lourdes and Cam. Co-artists, sure, and of course it goes deeper than that, at least for one of them. Their art has heartbreaking dimensions: “One of our installations was the performance of trying to be popular.” What kid hasn’t dabbled in that genre? For that matter, what adult hasn’t seen the movie everyone’s seeing just to talk about it, or taken up golf because that’s what the boss does? For many of us, our lives are exhibitions of performance art titled “I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, And Doggone It, People Like Me.” Art as a way of distancing yourself from your deepest fears.

But all that is just exposition. The story starts when Cam heads off for greener pastures – or, as he puts it, “to pivot mediums in order to grow as an audience.”

Cam ended us in first period.
In second period he was posting his first Vines.
By third. He already had 100,000 followers and counting.
At lunch I wasn’t sure who to eat with, so I went to the courtyard as usual.
“Facepalm,” he said when he saw me.
“Sigh,” I said.
“It’s just that the Popular Kids installation is going to be a solo work from here on out. Also, it’s now called Popular Kid, singular.”
I was too stunned to even say the words “stunned face” out loud, so I just turned and walked away.

I have to admit, knowing that Vine has, since this story was written, been shut down, gave me a little sense of Schadenfreude. Of course, Cam would’ve moved on to something else long before that announcement, but still it’s nice when Real Life adds an ironic twist to Fiction.

If the idea of Cam, with his good looks and rich family, leaving Lourdes, with her big body and her brown skin and poor family, behind to find real fame and fortune on his own seems high school, think of it as the 45 year old mother of two whose husband decides he deserves a 25 year old trophy wife, or the 55 year old handed a pink slip because he’s just not cutting it now that the market’s more tech savvy, or the erstwhile best friend who becomes scarce when her promotion means hobnobbing with a higher class of barflies at places no underling can afford. Transferability. It’s what gives this story the impact of a freight train.

And don’t forget the other layers. Lourdes has a virtual therapist. Let me tell you something: all therapists are virtual therapists. It’s a perfect little addition to this scene of art removed from all things artistic, of popularity removed from relationships, of people removed from what makes us human. When her virtual therapist tells her to find her authentic self, Lourdes runs out of time before she can reply that there is no authentic self (shades of Zhuangzi’s concept of wu-wei), so heads for the bathroom where she leaves graffiti as Marina Abramović, a 70-year-old Serbian performance artist so world-famous even I’ve heard of her. Lourdes knows how to pick role models, even if she does suck at picking best friends.

The story keeps coming back to art in different ways.

I often worry that only rich people can be true artists…. If it were just me, I wouldn’t fear homelessness. I would live in a dumpster and call it an installation. It’s just that I had two parents and two siblings and they would prefer not to live in a dumpster.I oftentimes worry that you can’t be a true artist if you have a family that depends on you.

Note the change in tone here. The artifice is muted, leaving nothing but a straight-up consideration of a topic that’s appeared in a variety of blogs and literary magazines from Toast to Salon and the New York Times (not to mention my twitter feed). Nonartists romanticize the Starving Artist trope or pronounce solemnly that maybe these artists don’t have talent, which ignores the kind of persistence needed to get a different artistic vision seen, let alone appreciated.

And what of artists who have a vision distinct from white middle class America? I’m not familiar with how it works in the visual arts, but we all know the Academy Awards is run by old white men who will tolerate only certain visions. In writing, there’s been a certain amount of activism recently to get writers of color and women more well-represented, starting with book reviewers and editors, but progress has been slow. Granted, this is some distance away from YouTube success, but who am I to say where the line is between art and entertainment. The story’s finest moments are to generate reflection about such thing, Is the value of art measured by the number of Likes or subscribers or income? and Who gets to make art (which follows from, who can afford to take those prestigious unpaid internships).

Let me slip in a word about the author, Dominica Phetteplace. I hope to see a lot more from her. She writes a lot of science fiction, and, be still my heart, she’s a math tutor. This just gets better and better. And I didn’t even know any of that when I read the story.

Back to Lourdes. If I’d seen a girl like her in Real Life – and, hey, I live blocks away from an Art College, I see girls like her all the time – I’d feel a touch of annoyance at the “look at me” desperation. But that’s what’s so great about fiction: I learned to see Lourdes beyond the hairbow. She’s naïve, she flaunts artifice, but damn, even when her heart’s breaking, she does the work, she plows through disappointment and fear and keeps going and turns her tears into art. If that isn’t authenticity, I don’t know what is. I hope she has the chance to grow into the artist she so wants to be. And that means I hope all the Lourdeses out there, the ones who aren’t fictional characters, have that chance.

I’m ambivalent about the final scene. Is she creating something new, or retreating to an old pattern? Has she allowed herself to be reduced to something else? Is that what every artist does, reduce themselves to a particular work, and it just becomes more blatant in performance art? Has she merged the authentic and the artifice? Is my ambivalence the point? Is ambivalence the point of all art – to raise questions, not to give answers?

Unlike BASS and the PEN series, Pushcart doesn’t order its material alphabetically. This story was chosen to lead off the collection; I think it’s useful to wonder why. Will questions about art come up throughout the volume? Is it meant to set a mood, to remind the reader of the paths the writers of the material between the covers have travelled to make it to our living rooms? To make us appreciate that, for the cost of three fancy coffees, we can participate in an aesthetic experience, even if we spend most of our day in distinctly non-artistic pursuits to pay the rent? To inspire? To give thanks? To remind us of all those, also worthy, whose art is not here for reasons having nothing to do with talent or artistry?

It’s a story about insecurity, love, financial pressure, abandonment, loyalty and not, revenge. It’s sad, funny, thought-provoking, inspiring, addictive, infuriating. All at once, coming at you, every paragraph, sometimes every sentence. Awe-stricken stare.

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