Radical Dilettantism

2024-06-17 12:40:555
Mary Retta , April 13, 2023

Radical Dilettantism

Franciscoreclaims the art of living A painting of two black women on a coastline, with a body of water in the background.Victora Laredo, On the Beach(1935–1943). | Schomburg Center
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Franciscoby Alison Mills Newman. New Directions, 128 pages. 2023.

In January, a viral tweet from @ricshatty arguably put the final nail in the coffin of a longstanding feminist trend. It reads: “enough girlbosses i need girlfailures. just an absolute loser of a female character. more women who suck!!!!!” The tweet inspired several similar posts, including a popular roundup of “girl failures” on Instagram—among them Allison Williams’s Marnie from Girlsand Serena van der Woodsen from Gossip Girl—and even a “girl failure” explainer on the website The Mary Sue.

Radical Dilettantism

The figure of the girlboss, a highly educated career woman most likely wearing a pantsuit, was both ubiquitous and short-lived. She was arguably birthed in 2013 with the publication of then Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s memoir Lean In, though grew to even greater prominence alongside Hilary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Around the beginning of the pandemic, however, publications like The Cutand The Atlanticbegan to proclaim that the “girlboss” was dead, as the combination of Covid-19, worsening economic conditions, and increasing climate existentialism caused a shift in popular thinking about “dream jobs” and labor more generally.

Upon first glance, one might assume the girlfailure is the exact opposite of a girlboss: lacking in passion or ambition. In reality, the figure highlights the difference between professional ambition—which the girlboss has in excess—and personal or creative ambition, in which the girlboss shows little interest. Girlfailures mayattend Ivy League schools, hold full-time office jobs, or otherwise achieve traditional markers of social and financial success, but these accolades do not define them. They are generally unconcerned with translating their passions into a normal economic or professional venture, and in fact feel rather bored by the idea. It is this quality that makes the girlfailure so aspirational: she refuses to live up to her potential.

It feels appropriate that Alison Mills Newman’s 1974 novel Francisco, about a young actress killing time in 1970s California, would be reissued at this moment. Born in 1951 in Long Island, New York, the daughter of a chemist father and a writer mother who died when she was quite young, Mills Newman was a regular actress in several television shows that pioneered African American entertainment, such as the 1968 situational comedy Juliaand The Leslie Uggams Show. Later in life, she also directed and starred in several films with her husband, Francisco Toscano Newman.

The sort of dilettantism Mills Newman describes is typically only afforded to those who are financially stable and have no dependents to support.

Franciscofollows the relationship between an unnamed twenty-one-year-old female protagonist and her filmmaker lover, Francisco. Though the book is presented as a novel, nearly every detail, including the names of the characters, is taken from the author’s actual life. The sense that the book is capturing unmediated reality is heightened by its style. Mills Newman’s prose is vivid and original; long, meandering sentences and a lack of punctuation make the text feel like a mix between a long poem and a diary entry. In a representative passage, the narrator describes a peaceful night shared with her lover this way: “i got in tune with francisco’s pace, which was slow and light and easy, my spirit in peaceful union with francisco’s. there we sat, two out of it niggas—the room we sat in, the record playa turnin round and round—ocean waves comin in and goin out—everythin was in union with us. we fumed without touchin.” Though Francisco found an audience at the time of its publication, even gaining praise from the likes of Toni Morrison, it has been largely out of print until New Directions’s reissue.

The central tension of the novel revolves around the protagonist and her lover’s different creative approaches. Francisco takes his filmmaking craft incredibly seriously, locking himself in his studio to edit for hours at a time. And it pays off: during the course of the book, he has two public film viewings and interviews political prisoner Angela Davis as part of a documentary (presumably a reference to Francisco Toscano Newman’s 1972 film Ain’t Nobody Slick). The protagonist, on the other hand, enjoys a more lackadaisical creative approach to her acting career. She alludes to various film and television projects she has been a part of but is never actively seeking work during the course of the novel. She is instead more interested in enjoying her life—partying, spending time with friends, meandering up and down the West Coast—and watching and supporting Francisco’s ambitions, sometimes to the chagrin of outsiders who believe her accomplishments should be more concrete.

Given that Francisco chronicles a man’s creative successes as seen through the eyes of his lover, it would be easy to dismiss the novel as an anti-feminist text. But to do so would be to ignore the anti-work politics shining just beneath Mills Newman’s prose. People call the protagonist lazy or unfocused, or insist that she is breaking her father’s heart by refusing to go to university—“my father told me i should go to college and do somethin with my life,” she recalls. Still, she refuses to make art unless it is on her time, in her way, and she is certain she will feel creatively fulfilled by it. “i wanted to protect my gift, my talent given me,” she explains, “up to a time that meant the inability to do things on a certain financial level.”

There are many stories about the struggles Black women artists have faced to gain recognition in their fields given the prevalence of race- and gender-based discrimination. There are similarly many stories—like Broad Cityor Girls, which is notably enjoying a renaissance—about white women who want to enjoy life rather than centering their days around professional ambition. Rarely do these two genres meet: due to a number of social and economic factors, Black women are so rarely given the chance to be average, to fall short of societal expectations. The sort of dilettantism Mills Newman describes is typically only afforded to those who are financially stable and have no dependents to support—a group that disproportionately excludes marginalized people—while the few spaces available for women and people of color in the arts often forces Black women to work incredibly hard and shine twice as bright just to be considered in the way their white counterparts are. Francisco feels like a rejection of this scarcity mindset: an important reminder that to spend your days enjoying art and the company of people around you without the pressure of constant output can also yield a creatively satisfying life, one that everyone deserves.

As a reader, I found that Francisco held up marvelously well in 2023. As the author, Mills Newman appears to disagree. In the nearly fifty years since the book was published, Mills Newman has garnered, along with many film and television accolades, a newfound passion for Christianity. Many of the works she made later in life, such as 2004’s Virgin Again, which Mills Newman and Toscano Newman screened and promoted at the Cannes Film Festival, focus heavily on religion: Virgin Again depicts a woman’s communion with God following her husband’s adultery. In 2000, Mills Newman established the religious learning center Keep The Faith Ministries, where she is now a minister herself. And in a 2021 interview about her most recent work, Tree Widow 3, she noted: “This film is going to deal with the reality that there’s power in God to rescue us from living a life of sin, whether that sin may be lying, cheating, greed, fornication, homosexuality, or gender confusion.”

In other words, Mills Newman’s newfound Christianity has come with its share of social conservatism. In an afterword to the new edition of her book, written in May 2022, the author condemns the free-spirited lifestyle she enjoyed in the 1970s: “i have struggled with the release of this book due to the profanity, lifestyle of fornication, that i no longer endorse.”

Franciscorejects the model of art as a one-way transaction between creator and consumer, instead embracing art as a process of constant collaboration between artist and audience.

In addition to being disappointing, this highly judgmental attitude feels like a decisive break with the version of Mills Newman who lived and made art in California at the height of the free love movement. But in other ways, her embrace of God is the culmination of a desire for spiritual fulfillment that readers could see burgeoning in the 1970s. Though it is never named as such, the protagonist spends much of Franciscoon a spiritual journey: she is searching for something pure, something deeply true, in every person and piece of art that she encounters.

Throughout the book, this existential search for meaning often translates into a political and aesthetic critique, which we see when the protagonist speaks about her disdain for Hollywood and the apolitical, unoriginal films it continues to produce. In one scene, she airs her contempt for Jane Fonda, who went “to the academy awards and receive a trophy from the very same people that helped dilute the images of black people—of people who contribute to the very same existence that she is so strongly tryin to change.” In another, she describes her anger at the commercial films that have more success than the work of Francisco, who is doing his best to make art: “as i write this, i get more and more pissed. i mean where, how did all these people get into powa who keep pushing all this garbage down our throats, who do we let them think we are? and how can we allow them to make us such shit, by payin our hard-earned nickles and dimes, or sittin on our behinds watchin it. we accept it.”

The adoration and faith the protagonist feels towards her lover also borders on religious. And, notably, her fascination with Francisco began when she saw how devout he felt about his art. As the protagonist recalls: “for the first time i realized how he lived and breathed his work. sometimes i watched him without his knowin.” Later, at Francisco’s first public screening, she has a similar reaction, magnified by the presence of an audience: “i was a nervous wreck because i love francisco and i wanted that film to be great. i watched the people watch the film. their eyes never left the screen.” There is something reverent in her voyeurism, the awe with which she watches people watch art in the hopes she might glimpse it transform them.

Many talented artists struggle with God complexes, believing themselves to be superhuman when they make something that emotionally moves an individual, or maybe even shifts the culture at large. We see this idea play out in the very language used to talk about artists today: on the internet, creative workers of all kinds are known as creators, a word often synonymous with God in the Bible. Meanwhile, those who enjoy art are referred to as consumers. The label implies a level of passivity, reducing art to just another commodity to be purchased. Through her protagonist, Mills Newman subtly subverts this dichotomy: she argues that appreciating art, seeking to understand it, and developing a taste and a sensibility can be artistic practices too. Franciscorejects the model of art as a one-way transaction between creator and consumer, instead embracing art as a process of constant collaboration between artist and audience.

Some might argue Mills Newman’s low creative output means that she “failed” as an artist, but her book calls into question what artistic failure really looks like. In one touching scene near the end of the novel, her protagonist describes how she would live if she became rich or famous: “i’d be cookin and scrubbin down them walls, and watchin my kids’ nappy-headed uncombed hair grow, and singin and swimmin in a lake somewhere naked, and having parties and gettin up, after gettin down.” By this definition, Mills Newman seems to have achieved the highest creative success.





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