Egos & Alter Egos in Writing and the Arts

Changing one's name offers a chance to explore one's identity. Artists regularly create alter egos and fictional life histories. Decades ago, when prejudice was more overt, actors changed their names to sound "more American." The concept of the stage name or the pseudonym was a common one. On the emotional spectrum, people changed their names out of fear, in hope of fame, because they were typecast as a brand and wanted to create work in a different style, to make a point, on a whim, to keep their writing separate from their profession, or simply to escape. Writers exploit this frequently and more quietly than visual artists, and the work tends to be more convincing. I've been trying to figure out why self-reinvention doesn't always work for visual artists.

We are used to writers with pseudonyms. Do we care that Mark Twain was Samuel Clemens or that Lewis Carroll was Charles Lutwidge Dodson? (No. But I can spell Lewis Carroll more easily.) Clemens signed his work Twain when he began writing as a reporter for a Nevada newspaper, and eventually Mark Twain became his humorous voice. He seems to have integrated the two personas, often signing both names together: Mark Twain written dominantly across S L Clemens. Dodson used his given name for his academic, professional mathematician life, and he took on Lewis Carroll for his creative works, keeping the two sides of himself separate.

George Sand, George Eliot, and James Tiptree, Jr. are men's names adopted by women. George Sand was the pen name of French novelist Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin (1804-1876), who collaborated initially with Leonard Sylvain Julien Sandeau under the pseudonym Jules Sand, and later modified the name for her own work. George Eliot was the British author (1819-1880) Mary Ann/Marian Evers Cross who kept her "scandalous" personal life away from her serious writing. James Tiptree, Jr.  was "hailed as a brilliant masculine writer with a deep sympathy for his female characters" when "he" (Alice B. Sheldon, a 51-year-old research psychologist) began writing science fiction in the late 1960s. She already had a career and she was writing on a whim; she wanted to keep the worlds apart. "Tiptree" was chosen after seeing a jar of Tiptree jam in a store.  (p. 211)

We accept fictional characters in literature. For example, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (alter egos in a dream and novel by Robert Louis Stevenson). Superman and Clark Kent (alter-ego comic-book characters, one among many). In Lolita, the fictional character John Ray, Jr., Ph.D. introduces the book as if he were asked to edit the original manuscript by Humbert Humbert, when of course the whole novel was written by Vladimir Nabokov, whose name is on the cover. The endnotes are written by Vladimir Nabokov, who claims to have done an "impersonation" of John Ray, and who wonders if the reader will think he is now doing an impersonation of the writer Vladimir Nabokov. Oh, I really shouldn't get started on Nabokov…"I never meta man…" (that's Will Rogers, sort of).

Musicans take on alter egos to play with genres and identity. David Bowie and Ziggy Stardust (Rolling Stone: "drag-rock" "theatricality" "the perfect touch of self-mockery, a lusty but forlorn bravado that is the first hint of the central duality"). Singer BeyoncĂ© Knowles and her two-personality album I Am ("intimate, heartfelt ballads")… Sasha Fierce ("uptempo, dance-oriented"). With these examples, it is clear that the singers are not creating a completely fictional character, but rather heightening a side of themselves that already exists.

What happens when an artist does create an entirely new character, with talents that are seemingly new, or with a fictional family history? P.D.Q. Bach (fictional descendant of J.S. Bach) allows Professor Peter Schickele to both imitate and reimagine a style of music. The same can be said for local artist Tim Sharman and the Doof Museum: he gets to situate the mythical Doof over times, styles, and cultures. Adrian Arias shows work from a distance when he presents altered books and objects, "Beautiful Trash: The Lost Library," as work by "an unknown artist" found on a "floating plastic island that arrived on the California coast in the summer of 2083," and he reflects and comments on it as if he were an archeologist. Santa Cruz artist, teacher, and librarian Jody Alexander collects objects and conceives of a character who might own or use these objects. The character provides a specific context and an entry point into her creative process as she arranges the objects into an artwork. Artist Kara Walker sometimes titles works by "A negress of noteworthy talent." She makes papercut silhouettes in an oldstyle tradition, but she brings the work to present day, making it relevant by using particular subject matter to comment on society. That commentary is an important element to the work.

When an artist, knowingly or not, creates an alter ego, what is gained? An artist may need to keep two selves separate. The art may need a different context in order to communicate. The artist may need distance from the work for personal or professional reasons. Does this distance veil the work and/or hide flaws, or illuminate it and provide clarity? We are used to fiction in literature, but fiction in art, perhaps because we don't have a name for it, is trickier to understand. Some of the art needs the fictional frame, it is an integrated part of the piece; if you removed the "creator," the piece would be confusing. In all cases, I would hope that the art would be  emotionally and/or aesthetically strong enough to engage the viewer. Ideally, each object-part would be powerful on its own, yet when combined with its fictional creator, the total would be a new and meaningful whole.


Barbara L. said…
Though I don't comment every day, I do read your blog daily and enjoy it all. Thanks so much for the variety of ideas and thought provoking writings. (And of course I love the bookbinding tutorials.)