The Art of Confession: A Selected Bibliography

May 8th, 2018

What do midcentury “confessional” poets have in common with today’s reality TV stars? They share an inexplicable urge to make their lives an open book, and also a sense that this book can never be finished. Christopher Grobe argues that, in postwar America, artists like these forged a new way of being in the world. Identity became a kind of work—always ongoing, never complete—to be performed on the public stage.  

The Art of Confession tells the history of this cultural shift and of the movement it created in American art: confessionalism. Like realism or romanticism, confessionalism began in one art form, but soon pervaded them all: poetry and comedy in the 1950s and ’60s, performance art in the ’70s, theater in the ’80s, television in the ’90s, and online video and social media in the 2000s. Everywhere confessionalism went, it stood against autobiography, the art of the closed book. Instead of just publishing, these artists performed—with, around, and against the text of their lives. 

A blend of cultural history, literary criticism, and performance theory, The Art of Confession
 explores iconic works of art and draws surprising connections among artists who may seem far apart, but who were influenced directly by one another. Studying extraordinary art alongside ordinary experiences of self-betrayal and -revelation, Christopher Grobe argues that a tradition of “confessional performance” unites poets with comedians, performance artists with social media users, reality TV stars with actors—and all of them with us. There is art, this book shows, in our most artless acts. Christopher Grobe discusses The Art of Confession on May 15 at 6pm at the Co-op.

The Culture of Narcissism, by Christopher Lasch - Confessional artists are often tarred as narcissists: people so self-involved, they can’t even see an inch beyond themselves. That was certainly the opinion of Christopher Lasch, expressed in his 1979 bestseller The Culture of Narcissism. It wasn’t always thus, Lasch sighs, pining for “the confessional style of an earlier time.” Back then, “the artist bared his inner struggles in the belief that they represented a microcosm of the larger world.” Now all we have is self, self, self. He sees it in novels, films, sports, parenting styles, therapeutic discourse, political activism, and—well, just about everywhere. I hardly agree with a word Lasch says, but there’s still something thrilling about reading this book. It’s the thrill of the first ten minutes of cocktail-party chatter with a charismatic stranger. But when ten minutes turn into two hours and that corner you’re trapped in begins to feel tight, you suddenly know that you’ll never get away from this racing mouth and its racing mind. Lasch is a conspiracy theorist of American culture, and his capital-T Them are narcissists. In all honesty, though, I learned a lot from Lasch about how a work of cultural history could feel: kaleidoscopic, breathless, and free.

Sincerity and Authenticity, by Lionel Trilling - Seven years before Lasch unleashed his screed, Lionel Trilling published Sincerity and Authenticity, in which he looks at some of the same cultural symptoms and offers a different diagnosis. There were changes afoot in the West’s “moral life,” Trilling declared. Society was embracing a new “mode of conduct or feeling” as something “essential to virtue.” That new “mode” was “authenticity.” Compared to its predecessor, sincerity, authenticity was a “more strenuous moral experience.” It required more self-scrutiny, a deeper questioning of social structures, a warier eye cast on yourself and on everyone else. Confessional art was one part of this process. Ranging across millennia (from the ancient philosophy to contemporary psychology) and across subjects (from history and literature to theater and political thought), Trilling nonetheless speaks to the everyday realities of his moment—which, I’d argue, is also ours. We are still living in an age of authenticity—for now, anyway—and confessional art is still an emblem of that age.

The Selfishness of Others, by Kristin Dombek - This 2016 “essay” is essentially a book-length subtweet of Christopher Lasch—just as Lasch’s book, in turn, was a subtweet of Lionel Trilling. When read alongside Trilling’s magisterial opus and Lasch’s bilious screed, Dombek’s book feels instead like moving through a dream. Stories, confessions, and lyrical meditations sit side-by-side with deep studies of psychoanalytic theory and of the misogynist “manosphere” online. Blog posts share the page with classic works of philosophy and cutting-edge research in neuroscience. To all pundits, past and present, who feel we’re living through a “narcissism epidemic,” Dombek responds, Mm, and how does that make you feel? She probes why they want to see what they see—why they’re drawn to the stories they repeatedly tell. Why are narcissists the bogeymen of our age? What do we hope that we are, in contrast to them? Unlike Trilling and Lasch, Dombek doesn’t deal directly with confessional art, though she touches on reality TV. Nonetheless, she captures the spirit of our confessional age. For Trilling, authenticity meant we’d stop “play[ing] the role of being ourselves.” Lasch recoiled: the culture of authenticity, he says, only “encourages a theatrical approach to existence.” Dombek shrugs and then transcends this back-and-forth. These men, like all the “narciphobes” she studies, just want “excessive reassurance that there are ‘real’ people behind the avatars of others.” So, we’re playing roles—the world is theater—so what? As I write in The Art of Confession, “After all, even the truth must be performed.”

About Christopher Grobe: Christopher Grobe is assistant professor in English at Amherst College, where he teaches mostly drama and performance studies. His research explains how literary, performance, and media cultures combine to shape our everyday sense of the real. His first book, The Art of Confession: The Performance of Self from Robert Lowell to Reality TV (NYU Press, 2017), explains the rise of “confessionalism,” a style of art and a way of life in postwar America. In a similar vein, he is editing India & After, an early monologue by the confessional performer Spalding Gray, for publication by Bloomsbury/Methuen Drama. His second book will tell the cultural history of realist acting, with special emphasis on the role technology has played in shaping our sense of what a “realistic” human is. Meanwhile, his scholarly essays have also appeared in PMLA, NLH, Theater, Theatre Survey, Theatre Journal, and in several edited collections.

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