In his monthly column, Drew Zeiba considers the creative merits of giving up through tales of defiant scriveners, starving artists, and painters fluent in refusal

I went to a university for Type A strivers and aristocrats so minor they might have to work one day. C—, the first real artist I probably ever met, loathed many of them: they couldn’t help but tell you how busy they were. She hated hearing the harried sideshows in the dining halls of people one-upping another with their litanies of looming deadlines. It was all smoke and mirrors, she thought. Nobody had that much to do.

But C— was busy too. To never stop sculpting, she’d sleep on her grandmother’s chinchilla coat in her studio, living off Ritalin and Red Bull and cold noodles served on empty DVD cases (this was 2012). And while I knew better than to say it, maybe I was busier, which was one way of handling an untreated mood disorder and being closeted (this was 2012). By handling I mean avoiding. Anyway, I was so overtaxed from jamming my schedule with classes and gigs and extracurriculars that by the time finals rolled around I was falling asleep standing up waiting for the bus to my volunteer teaching job. I’m sure these commitments encouraged in me some sense of Puritan prestige, but above all they freed me from deciding much myself; like binge drinking, deranged busyness gives life to the whims of some greater force. The difference between my busyness and C—’s was that no one was telling her to get anything done. She wasn’t busy with assignments she could check off an oversized calendar hung for roommates to see; she just wanted to make some art.

In the 12 years since, in order to have a long thought, I’ve managed to refuse some mandates of productivity and even say “no” once or twice. Unfortunately, I’ve done so mostly in service of ideating the production of more things: books or short stories or arcane video essays, if only on my own terms. But the literature I read is replete with semi-aspirational antiheroes whose biggest action is inaction—a horseshoeing that at once accepts and rejects the normative rejoinder that plot is a causal sequence of a protagonist’s choices. (Not choosing is a choice made over and over.) Archetypal is Bartleby, Herman Melville’s scrivener who, one day when his lawyer boss asks him to do his legal proofreading work, responds, “I would prefer not to.” The boss, who narrates Bartleby’s tale, is miffed, but he gives the responsibilities to the other scriveners, Turkey and Nippers.

The problem is Bartleby starts preferring not to do a lot else: He won’t work; he won’t drink beer; he mostly just stares out the window at a brick wall. He also won’t go home. His boss can’t stomach firing him, so he leases another office and leaves Bartleby behind like forgotten furniture. When the new renters move in, they can’t get the ex-scrivener out, so they have him arrested. He’s sent to The Tombs, where he refuses to eat, and, eventually, expires.

For Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas, Melville’s character is an example of a whole “literature of the No,” as he explores in Bartleby & Co. Vila-Matas’s novel—published in 2000 in Spanish and translated to English in 2004—ostensibly comprises a diary that is also a compendium of 86 “footnotes commenting on an invisible text,” as its hunchbacked narrator writes at the outset. He explains that he had written a novel 25 years prior, and “on account of a trauma that I shall go into later” swore off writing another. That is, until he misheard his boss’s secretary refer to a “Mr. Bartleby,” catalyzing this investigation of “Bartleby’s syndrome”: “the illness, the disease, endemic to contemporary letters, the negative impulse or attraction towards nothingness that means that certain creators, while possessing a very demanding literary conscience (or perhaps precisely because of this), never manage to write.” Vila-Matas’s character recounts the refusals or failures to work by writers and artists—such as Robert Wasler, Robert Musil, Bernardo Atxaga, Pedro Garfias, Marcel Duchamp, and Arthur Rimbaud—while also unveiling his own psychosexually conflicted life.

Ironically, considering his prolific output, Bartleby & Co.’s narrator mentions Franz Kafka several times. “Literature was precisely—the same was true for Kafka—the only means I had to try to become independent of my father.” “I began to imitate the gestures Kafka would sometimes use.” “I thought of the Trapeze Artist who refused to touch the ground with his feet.” “Kafka and Bartleby are two fairly unsociable characters I have tended to associate for some time.” Etc.

Kafka glows with the quintessence of ambivalence, making him a popular subject for would-be acolytes of the no—“would-be” because these Kafka devotees must write, must publish books, in order to quiet the voice telling them that their desire not to could free them. Released by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in March, British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips’s On Giving Up takes up Kafka numerous times across its nine chapters on refusal. Phillips opens the title essay by considering a Kafka aphorism: “From a certain point there is no turning back. That is the point that must be reached.” Why? Why is redoubling a thing we cannot, must not, do? In Phillips’s analysis, tragic heroes—among whom he counts Kafka’s enduring, often Sisyphean, protagonists—are tragic precisely because they refuse to give up despite all evidence that they will, in some sense, fail.

While giving up itself is “usually thought of as a failure,” what, Phillips asks, if we considered it as “a way of succeeding at something else”? Giving up encompasses giving up on our ego-ideals (“our fantasies about the people we believe we should be”), thus laying bare those ego-ideals’ very function. “When our preferred versions of ourselves are not an inspiration, they are a tyranny (a tyranny with which we can humiliate ourselves).” A feeling familiar to any tragic tryhards, I’m sure.

Referring to Kafka’s “Before the Law,” Phillips argues that it is “as though Kafka’s theme is not what was once called existential dread, but tantalization. The lure of foreclosed possibilities. The very real freedom of being able to turn back, or to give up, seems to be a freedom Kafka fears: he wants to reach the point from which there is no turning back, no turning back from wanting whatever is wanted.” So, if in Kafka, “it is the giving up that has to be given up on,” to riff on Phillips’s take, this exertion forecloses any desiring beyond the desiring to preserve a vision of a self who doesn’t give up. Kafka’s “heroes” long to give up and long to persevere, forgoing the perceived self-destruction of surrender in the name of self-flagellating commitment. They give up on giving up’s hope. One must reach the point of no turning back not to abolish the desire to cave, to quit, but to abolish the possibility of acting upon it. “For Kafka giving up was a forbidden pleasure,” writes Phillips.

Both he and Vila-Matas refer to another of Kafka’s many depictions of the inaction-as-action, “A Hunger Artist.” In the story, a touring hunger artist fasts in a cage, with a straw floor, decorated at first with only a clock and eventually flowers too. After 40 days, the maximum set by the impresario, his emaciation is measured and celebrated. His artistry is the refusal to eat. Even after fasting, he doesn’t leave his cage. But despite his rigor, he’s dogged by dissatisfaction: No one can understand the true significance of starvation but the artist who starves; he is “the only spectator capable of being completely satisfied with his own fasting.” However, just because he’s capable of being satisfied doesn’t mean he is. Fasting, he tries to tell everyone, is “the easiest thing in the world.” Turns out, he reveals near the end, the reason he couldn’t be anything but a hunger artist was simply that he’d never found anything he enjoyed to eat. The hunger artist transformed his lack of desire into his drive, hoping to “surpass himself in some unimaginable way,” and in some sense he does: in the circus where he’s been relegated as his tours wane in popularity, he’s largely forgotten. He wastes away, dies. A panther replaces him in the cage, ravenous and muscular.

Today, cheery participation and hyper-visibility reign, even for artists and other Romantic unemployables.”

One of the only known photos of Stanley Brouwn shows the artist performing I Have Hunger. He stands before an audience bearing a spoon and knife, a cord ensnaring his head. Valentine’s Day, 1964. Brouwn tried to destroy every booklet this and a couple other photos were in—though clearly he didn’t succeed. The late conceptual artist is famous for what he didn’t do: pose for photos, tell the tale of his life, deliver many interviews, deliver much info about his minimal work, allow that work to be documented, allow the work to be contextualized.

In this spring’s issue of Spike, Eli Diner writes of the just-closed Brouwn exhibition at the Hammer Museum, with its terse wall text and strict prohibition of photos, that “Brouwn’s strictures around his work are easily recognized for a depersonalizing tendency,” but that if he wanted to hide the author, “in practice, I found it a different, at times opposite, effect.” Diner goes on: “It’s not that the exhibitionary conventions were simply absent, but that their absence was seen and felt everywhere. The absence was a kind of medium by which Brouwn directed how people moved, looked, and spoke.” Everything he doesn’t do—every bit of art making and art ritualizing he refuses—makes all that he, and the work, is.

Today, cheery participation and hyper-visibility reign, even for artists and other Romantic unemployables. Hustle culture and cults of personality in art, literature, and “creative industries” can feel intractable—especially with social media. Not playing into tech giants’ spectacular hands registers as self-sabotage when you see the success delivered unto “platform-based authors” and self-promoters who moonlight as painters. Still, some try. Six years ago, I wrote about several artists who dropped out of Instagram. (The magazine made me cut a few quotes from artists—the women I’d interviewed—who also refused to be named in their refusal.) All of them are back online.

“Refusal—as during a work stoppage or hunger strike—can be, without paradox, participation.”

Refusal to move; refusal to vote; refusal to work; refusal to follow the rules; refusal to speak; refusal to accept. Refusal—as during a work stoppage or hunger strike—can be, without paradox, participation. A hitch. A slowdown. A fracture. A bit of friction. Inaction is one of the most pronounced actions one can take, especially in a culture of mandated productivity. (I think of the sign the smug man holds in the well-circulated “a day in the life of a leftist” meme-photo, which lists various activities of phantasmal layabout left-wingers. Item number 4? “Quote passages from books they’ve never read.” “What is a rebel? A man who says no,” I’ve elsewhere read that Albert Camus wrote.)

“6. Remain unemployed, drift.”

What if giving up is the work? Or a work. Lee Lozano, who’d already stopped speaking to women, famously staged her exit as art in the early ’70s: A successful painter turned successful conceptualist turned life-art innovator, well-networked into New York’s scene, Lozano at some point had had it. Making monochrome paintings and dosing acid all the time (tune in, drop out) or producing documentation of her correspondences and smoking habits weren’t scratching her proverbial itch, so it was time to push art to its limits by making the not the (non-)thing itself. She moved back to Texas and cut her ties with the art world; she stopped producing anything else. She called it Dropout Piece, which, as writer Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer notes, secures “art’s frame around a certain zone of defiant, difficult and joyously (ce)rebellious thinking.”

“DROPOUT PIECE IS THE HARDEST WORK I HAVE EVER DONE,” Lozano wrote in her journal. But she was committed: “I WILL GIVE UP MY SEARCH FOR IDENTITY AS A DEADEND INVESTIGATION . [. . .] I WILL NOT SEEK FAME, PUBLICITY OR SUKCESS,” she jotted elsewhere. Before she died of cervical cancer in 1999 at age 68, she requested her grave be unmarked. Today her paintings—of screws, skulls, waves, and lines—sometimes fetch nearly seven figures.

When it comes to writing or making art, can one give up? When one refuses, one’s refusal is seen as yet another radical act: registered by critics like Lehrer-Graiwer and novelists like Vila-Matas and analysts like Phillips. This refusal to be present or act how an artist is expected to—a recusal of the self—leads the self to overshadow most else, at least in the eyes of others. (Even the narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2018 dropout opus, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, frames her self-administered 12-month somnolescence not unlike a project, plus she consents to starring in an art film during a drug-induced stupor.)

Perhaps the fascination by graphomaniacs such as myself with dropouts revels in the tremendous presence—the effort—required of nothing, the not, the no. The no is the yes of the highest order, alchemized radical and real.

Honoré de Balzac’s “The Unknown Masterpiece” follows an as-of-yet-unfamous Nicolas Poussin as he attempts to learn from Flemish portrait painter Frans Pourbus the Younger. When they first meet, Poussin shows up unannounced to Pourbus’s studio at the same time as a wealthy old artist, Frenhofer. Frenhofer’s there to debate and instruct, and at some point tires of mere talk and picks up a brush to dash some marks on Pourbus’s picture of Saint Mary of Egypt, enlivening it. Yet despite his skillfulness when it came to Pourbus’s painting, Poussin learns, Frenhofer can’t finish his own masterpiece, which he’ll show no one.

To help him out, Poussin has his girlfriend Gillette pose so Frenhofer can realize this great work. He proclaims it, at last, complete. Pourbus and Poussin go over:

‘Do you see anything?’ Poussin asked of Pourbus.
‘No… do you?’
‘I see nothing.’

They eventually discover an adumbral canvas featuring “a bare foot emerging from the chaos of color, half-tints and vague shadows that made up a dim, formless fog.” They’re spellbound. “He is even more of a poet than a painter,” says Poussin; however they agree that the fuller figure that Frenhofer sees is nowhere to be found in this color field: “But sooner or later he will find out that there is nothing there!”

Overhearing, Frenhofer sardonically declares, “So I am a dotard, a madman, I have neither talent nor power! I am only a rich man, who works for his own pleasure, and makes no progress, I have done nothing after all!” These painterly effects, the shadows like the softest shadow upon the face his visitors fail to see, have cost him “unknown toil,” he counters. (As Lozano and Brouwn and a generation of dematerializing conceptualists would later demonstrate, it takes a great deal of thinking to do very little.)

That night Frenhofer burns his canvases—all of them—and thereupon dies.

Earlier in the story, Frenhofer assesses Pourbus’s Saint Mary painting saying that “[i]t is all there, and yet it is not there. What is lacking? A nothing, but that nothing is everything.” That nothing is everything. Of his own work in this scene he mused, “I have been at work upon it for ten years, young man; but what are ten short years in a struggle with Nature? Do we know how long Sir Pygmalion wrought at the one statue that came to life?” When committed to incompletion, Frenhofer’s mood fares better. His unfinished canvas represents less failure than deferral, but both can be refusals in their own right—even if only subconsciously. In his doing he has “done nothing at all,” making him at once the inverse and the duplicate of Kafka’s hunger artist.

The unfinishable canvas, the fact there might be “no such thing as drawing, and that by means of lines we can only reproduce geometrical figures,” that art’s value is precisely that it can’t be life and that it is life—as Lozano later shows—is enough to paralyze Frenhofer, yet it is his creative paralysis that sustains him. Had he refused—which looks a lot like giving up—he might have continued to live. Is there a lesson here? Not one I am prepared to learn. I will keep trying at the failure that are these little lines, that is art and life—writing this column, and next month’s, and, if they’ll have me, those for the months after, trying without success as does Kafka’s hunger artist, always to surpass myself, unable to do anything but this.