Why I Am Not an American Artist

I have never once considered myself an “American artist.” It has not really occurred to me that my nationality has anything to do with my voice or vision as an artist. Perhaps this is the chauvinism of the privileged: the freedom to feel that you are not defined by your group status but purely as a function of your traits as an individual. For example, most white people don’t really think of themselves as white; they just think of themselves as people; whereas society often pushes so-called “minorities” to define themselves more expressly as members of a group. So one could argue that my lack of identification as an “American artist” says something about how blind I am to the privileges of having been born on United States soil.

Or perhaps my feeling (or lack thereof ) on this subject says something about my ideology – an ideology of liberalism that is also identified as “American” all over the world. A central tenet of liberalism is the belief in the sovereignty of the individual. One can say – and people often do – that society owns individuals, and therefore also owns the fruits of their talents and labor. That is a perfectly fine point of view, but it is not the point of view of a liberal person or a liberal society. Does my art belong to me, or to my country? I believe that of course it can only belong to me.

This may explain why my gut reaction when asked to think of myself as an “American artist” is something like resentment, or even fear. I feel I am having my work taken from me, and given to my country. Maybe my reaction is silly, in that the term “American artist” could be read as simply descriptive: I am indeed an American, and an artist! But I can’t help but read in the term an assumption that it is my group status that matters here, and not my self. And since I am not much interested in the idea of community as defined by accidents like the location of my birth (or the color of my skin or my gender, etc.), I don’t like having my work evaluated by standards I don’t think are relevant.

Of course there are aspects of my work that can be understood best if one understands something about America. This is true of all artists; we all work in some specific cultural context. For example, I’ve never made a film that takes place in any other country, and all of my films are in English. Moreover, when I am not making very personal films, I am often drawn to historical themes and stories, all of which thus far have been taken from American history: the European Starling’s introduction to America, the Nixon administration, the American space program, and so on.

But do I make art in order to express something about my position as a member of a community – Americans, women, my generation? What about more specific communities: fatherless daughters, women who have had abortions, people who are in love? Or do I make art to express something about my self, my individuality, my soul, the unique set of experiences, insights and ideas that can only ever come from me?

In trying to answer this, I think of a metaphor that Anaïs Nin once used in her diary. She wrote that each of us has our own, private well. To make art that is unique to me, I must drink as deep as I can from that well. I can’t hang around the surface expecting insight into my own soul. But the grand, beautiful irony, and the secret to all good art, is that once I’ve gone as deep down as I can go into my own well, I inevitably discover the groundwater: the shared source of all wells everywhere. In other words, I go deep within myself in order to find a connection to other people. This is why a deeply personal film like The Voyagers, which was actually made as a love letter to one person, can resonate so strongly with people all over the world. This is why The Abortion Diaries, which began as an exercise in trying to express something very specific about my own experience, could become a rallying cry for so many women who have had abortions. And this is why I am hoping that Our Nixon (when it’s done!) will be more than just another look at an American president, but will have something larger to say about power, responsibility and betrayal.

So in thinking about what it means to be an American artist, I find myself ultimately feeling proud, even patriotic. America, after all, is supposed to be about the kind of freedom I’ve been describing in this essay: the freedom to discover my own authentic self, and to express it in any way I want. The goal with all my work is to go beyond the satisfaction of saying my piece: it’s to reach out and find communion with others. If it’s done well, it really and truly won’t matter what country I am from. I don’t always achieve this – it’s hard! – but isn’t that the point of art?