I watched Hannah Gadsby’s one-hour Netflix special, “Nanette,” in a slight defensive crouch. I admitted this to myself only weeks later, after watching it again. I had been moved the first time around, and sensed how original “Nanette” was in the world of stand-up. But my head resisted it
“You won’t hear too many extended sets about art history in a comedy show,” says Gadsby, in the middle of a righteous takedown of Picasso. And she’s right.
Why, then, my initial resistance? It wasn’t just, I hope, because I am a straight white man — a subcategory of human to whom Gadsby has a lot of pertinent things to say. It was also because I am an art critic, one who, in the course of more than two decades, has written a lot — and I mean a lot — about male artists. Male artists who painted lots of naked women. Male artists who achieved fame and power in a male-dominated world. Male artists whose success allowed them to get away with behaving abominably.
Gadsby is scorching on all this. It’s a shame, she says, in high ironic mode, that art history is such “an elitist sport” because it taught her so much about the world. Thanks to art history, she says, “I understand this world and my place in it. I don’t have one.”
Art history also taught Gadsby — who is lesbian but identifies more, she says, “as tired . . . just tired” — that there are two types of women: virgins and whores. Art galleries, she quips, are full of evidence that “women have existed for a very long time. Longer than clothes.”
“High art?” she concludes. “I’m going to call it, guys: Bulls---. High art, my arse. The history of western art is just the history of men painting women like they’re flesh vases for their d--- flowers.”
By this point in “Nanette,” we have learned that Gadsby studied art history at university, and that she has some interesting thoughts on Vincent Van Gogh. These last open a window onto “Nanette’s” fundamental theme: the preciousness of mental well-being; the importance of caring for one another.
Gadsby recounts how, after giving a performance in which she mentioned that she took antidepressants, a man came up to her, saying: “You shouldn’t take medication because you’re an artist. It’s important that you feel. If Vincent Van Gogh had taken medication, we wouldn’t have had the sunflowers.”
Gadsby absolutely rips into this idea. And I cheered when she did.
She tells us that Van Gogh was, in fact, being treated with medication, and that this medication — a derivative of the foxglove — has a little-known side effect: it can intensify the user’s perception of the color yellow. So it’s possible, says Gadsby, that “we have the sunflowers precisely because Van Gogh medicated.”
Van Gogh is, of course, the patron saint of all those who romanticize a link between mental illness and creativity. Their thinking is not only erroneous (serious mental illness is more often incapacitating and not at all conducive to high level creativity), it’s pernicious, because it discourages desperate people from seeking relief. Gadsby’s retort is a great way to puncture the myth.
Of course, she is a comedian, not an academic. So it sounds like quibbling to point out that the theory remains highly speculative.
But there’s a wider set of questions she wants us to think about: What would art history look like if it represented the visions of women as fully as it represents the visions of men? How would a just representation in art of the visions of all of humanity — not just straight white men — change our ideas about who we are, and our individual and communal potential?
These are the same questions society is asking about other fields of cultural endeavor, from film and literature to music and comedy; from the media and medicine to business and politics. Why does Gadsby focus on art history?
We get close to an answer — and a more interestingly conflicted position — when she turns to Picasso and cubism. At the outset, she damns Picasso for his well-known misogyny (“I hate him,” she spits, and you believe her) and in particular for his affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter, who was 17 when they met. (He was 45).
Gadsby herself was sexually assaulted when she was 17, one of several traumas she suffered at the hands of men. Who can blame her, then, for mocking the idea that we must all bow down before Picasso just because he (with Georges Braque) invented cubism? What’s so great, finally, about cubism?
It’s a mistake, Gadsby argues, to insist that we should keep art and the lives of the flawed people who make it separate. Doing so simply plays into the hands of the powerful men who elevate their own reputations above the lives of the less powerful — usually young women.
Yet it’s not long before Gadsby circles around to the other side of the issue and — like a whole new type of comedian; a cubist comedian! — looks at it from an entirely different angle.
“Cubism is important,” she says. “It was a real game changer.” By opening up multiple perspectives, Picasso, she says, “freed us from the slavery of having to reproduce a believable three-dimensional reality on a two-dimensional surface.” If we think about this innovation in terms of power, isn’t there something profoundly liberating about it?
Gadsby doesn’t, mind you, let Picasso off the hook. He may have painted images with multiple perspectives, but none of those perspectives, she says, was a woman’s. (Admittedly, it’s hard to see how they could have been). He “just put a kaleidoscope filter” on his penis. (A wonderful piece of art criticism.)
But still, believes Gadsby, “Picasso was right”: “we could paint a better world if we learned how to see it from . . . as many perspectives as we possibly could.”
Gadsby has a lot to say about art, some of it great, some glib. But she has even more to say about comedy itself. She claims that comedy has been bad for her. Telling self-deprecating jokes, she explains, wasn’t allowing her to tell her story properly.
The mechanics of comedy — setup, punchline, repeat — meant that Gadsby’s most formative experiences — discovering and coming to terms with her sexuality; being molested as a child, assaulted as a teenager and raped in her early 20s — were frozen at their trauma points; sealed off in jokes. Through repetition, the joke version of her experiences had fused with her memories of what actually happened. And yet the joke versions were not sophisticated enough to help her undo the damage done to her in reality.
This is incredible stuff to be hearing in a stand-up routine! But that’s precisely what makes “Nanette” so original.
Having grown dissatisfied with the mechanics of conventional stand-up (create tension, provide release), Gadsby converted some deep thinking about both comedy and art into something entirely new. Something which just happened to capture the imaginations of millions of people.
Which is wonderful — because isn’t it also the way breakthroughs happen in art?
We value artistic breakthroughs in themselves, but also because we know that they don’t come easily. That difficulty is part of what leads our interest on.
The cubism of Picasso and Braque; Matisse’s experiments with color; Frida Kahlo’s and Cindy Sherman’s radical self-portraiture, Louise Bourgeois’ harrowing sculptures — these breakthroughs may not have come out of mental illness (which — Gadsby is right — is usually debilitating). But they most certainly did come out of psychic pressure. In many cases, extreme psychic pressure.
You can hear that pressure, I think, in the slight quaver in Gadsby’s voice; in her deliberately wide-eyed stare, suggesting repeated alarm behind her forced smile; and in the faux-friendly, I’m-okay-with-it voice that follows hard upon every explosion of passion.
Picasso, for his part, was feeling extreme pressure when he painted “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” the breakthrough that led to cubism. He was more tormented than at any other point in his life — in part, you could argue, by his confusion about sex, his misogyny: “If you hate what you desire,” says Gadsby, “you know what that is? F---ing tense.” (It’s a great insight, and she is, quite rightly, unyielding: “Sort your s--- out,” she advises all men.)
The point is, breakthroughs in art, and perhaps also in comedy, come when the preexisting forms are broken. Although Gadsby doesn’t address this, it may be that it is hard to feel the extremes of pressure experienced by truly innovative creators and remain, at the same time, a consistently kind, community-minded, compassionate human being.
If we like those innovations, if we care about art, this — awkward as it is — bears thinking about.
What makes “Nanette” so remarkable is not only that Gadsby, under pressure, breaks the preexisting forms, dismantling our expectations of what a stand-up comedian does. It’s that, in the process, she addresses huge questions: trauma, creativity, kindness, representation, resilience, love. And she does so with tremendous courage.
The new Oprah exhibit looks like a reward for her $21 million donation. But honestly, she deserves it.