Petty-bourgeois “innovations” lead to a break with real art, real science and real literature.
—Anonymous, “Chaos Instead of Music” (Pravda, January 29, 1936), translated by Victor Seroff, from the Usenet group alt.fan.shostakovich
“[M]y first complete free composition for that class, a scherzo for clarinet and piano, was performed at the school’s semi-annual concert. It was one of the most exciting things to happen to me during those four years in Music & Art, to sit in the audience and hear my piece being performed. I was so genuinely excited that I made sure everyone around me knew that I was the Charles Fox whose music was being performed. “That’s me, Charles Fox, that’s my music,” I announced to all within earshot, as the piece was being performed. I don’t think that it was a lack of modesty on my part, but borne of a tremendous excitement in hearing my music performed.”
—Charles Fox, Killing Me Softly: My Life in Music (Scarecrow Press, 2010)
In response to a variety of topics on these pages, there has been some debate about the ethics of anonymity, both in the writings of responses to essays that appear herein as well as in the world at large. It has been a topic that has long been on my mind and which I have extremely conflicted feelings about, so now seemed an appropriate time to address this issue front and center.
In the celebrity saturated culture of the 20th century, only a few folks who created work that is somehow behind the scenes (e.g. novelists, painters, composers, etc.) ever managed to grab some real limelight. Before I ever read a word of his prose, I knew who Truman Capote was since he was a regular guest on TV talk shows that my family watched when I was growing up. And folks like Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, and Igor Stravinsky—and much later Philip Glass—found their way into the public consciousness by connecting themselves to other celebrities or by appearing in advertisements for things that had nothing to do with the work they created. Music, of course, has an advantage over novels and paintings, in that the composer of it can also be involved in a public performance of the music. Undoubtedly Stravinsky’s numerous conducting engagements and Glass playing keyboards in his ensemble helped to make them visible within our own community before their notoriety extended beyond music fans.
But that doesn’t mean that creators who are much less visible don’t also want to be acknowledged. A resonant example is the second quote I placed at the outset of this essay which is from composer Charles Fox, who has composed music in a wide variety of genres including ballet and symphonic music but has been more widely acknowledged for the TV themes he created, as well as several Top 40 hits. Reading that passage gave me goose bumps, and not just because I’m also an alumnus of the High School of Music & Art. I do think that, all attempts at ego obfuscation (e.g. John Cage) and adamant non-engagement with the general public (e.g. J.D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon) aside, part of what drives creativity is calling attention to oneself. Interestingly, John Cage, despite all his attempts to erase himself from his music, was an extremely public persona.
Of course for a variety of reasons over the centuries (from fear of political or religious persecution to gender and race prejudices), there have been a great many creations that were first unveiled to the public under pseudonyms. While Charlotte Brontë is now one of the most widely read English writers, her most celebrated novel, Jane Eyre, was originally published as the work of Currer Bell. The first edition of Jane Austen’s earliest published novel was simply credited to “A Lady.” To gain a larger readership, sometimes books were credited to the fictional characters whom they were about: the first editions of Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels made no mention of Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift. And then there are all those anonymous limericks and erotic novels from the 19th and very early 20th century whose authors were afraid of being jailed for immorality. (No musical parallels for these immediately spring to mind.) More often than not, however, time has erased the identity of the creator rather than anyone’s willful attempt to conceal it. I doubt that the sculptor of the Venus de Milo, one of the most iconic images of all time, would have wanted to be forgotten. That lacuna is perhaps an even greater loss to the art world than that statue’s missing limbs. Similarly, I find it hard to believe that the author of Beowulf or the composer of The Play of Daniel would not want to be known to posterity and I am personally saddened that I don’t know who they are.
In recent times, work that is presented to the public anonymously usually has some less than savory agenda. Think of books like Primary Colors, now acknowledged as the work of Joe Klein, or the recently published O: A Presidential Novel. Yet for the past two generations there has been something of a cult of anonymity in certain musical genres which has no nefarious intent. In the dance music scene, very few creators put their own name on their work. Richard D. James has released oodles of recordings under the name Aphex Twin, but has also issued music as Blue Calx, DJ Smojphace, Polygon Window, etc. Sometimes people work under a variety of aliases in order to explore different styles since our society is so determined to pigeon-hole creators, which is why many authors of fantasy, mystery, and romance novels also write under aliases. Then again, even as immediately identifiable a creator as Eric Dolphy had to record as Richard Lane on one of John Coltrane’s albums since his record contract would not allow him to record for another label.
The realm of criticism, however, has always operated from a slightly different agenda. Years ago a noted critic who contributed an excellent essay on these pages refused to have her face photographed since it could make her immediately recognizable to people she was reviewing on a regular basis, a stance which she believed would compromise her objectivity. So instead we ran a photo of her feet! Food critics particularly worry that if a restaurateur is made aware of their presence, they’ll get better food than what they would have normally got if they showed up as “civilians.” Yet a completely anonymous review is something that no one can completely trust. And in an unfree society, such as the Soviet Union under Stalin (as in the first quote at the top of this article which originally appeared in the Soviet newspaper Pravda), such unattributed criticism can be truly menacing.
Yet in the 21st century, there is a completely new kind of cult of anonymity. The internet has created a new kind of public space, one in which it is possible to be invisible and still have an impact. While I have a firm belief in anyone’s right to present themselves to the world however they choose, I must confess to having a certain uneasiness about folks who are unwilling to own up to what they choose to share with the outside world. Like the Pravda attack on Shostakovich, it seems like the verbal equivalent of a sniper attack. Much of the time, the kind of content presented to the world anonymously is easy to instantly dismiss for more obvious reasons than there not being a real name affixed to it, like all those gonzo comments posted in response to articles on CNN.com and other mainstream news sites. But sometimes there are some valuable insights that are presented to the world this way which sadly seems to lessen their ultimate take away value, at least for me.