Conversations on Imperfection

March 4, 2021   •   By Vesper North

Steven D. Lavine — Failure Is What It’s All About

Jörn Jacob Rohwer

IT’S A CURIOUS THING to go into a biography or autobiography without prior knowledge of the subject; one usually begins having followed or been a fan of the person in question. But Steven Lavine? I had not heard of the president of the California Institute of the Arts when I began reading Steven D. Lavine — Failure Is What It’s All About.


Author Jörn Jacob Rohwer defies form, crafting a hybrid of biography and memoir. He leads Lavine through a series of interviews that move swiftly across topics: culture, family, mental health, loneliness, love, art, education, politics, racism — bringing the reader on a strange, unexpected journey through Lavine’s life. The last name quickly gives way to simply “Steven.”


The look and feel are that of a coffee-table book — with thick matted paper usually utilized for photographs — and the frequent transcript format makes it a breeze.


Oddly, Rohwer begins with Steven’s wife of more than 35 years, Janet — keeping in line with Rohwer’s eccentric approach to the genre. “Introducing you to her is also a way of presenting a fuller image of him.” He goes on to write, “Without Janet, even this book would not exist.”


Rohwer is generous with his descriptions — there’s a richness to his prose that works to engage the reader with some immediacy:


Born and raised as the offspring of a family descended from Russian Jews, surrounded by ambitious neighbors, melancholic aunts, and a mentally challenged uncle, she lived with her parents in bourgeois confinement, under the spell of the McCarthy era and far removed from the American Dream. […] Janet, like so many US artists and intellects, embodied the other America: a continent of multiplicity and richness of those voices, colors, and thoughts shaping a universal consciousness, and standing in opposition to the dominant “culture” of denial.


Meeting Janet before Steven struck me as odd and ominous — as if she were a primer to make Steven’s character more palatable. On this, I was incorrect. Rohwer’s brief introduction to Janet is informative if not commercial. Once you’re hooked on Janet’s journey, he namedrops the title of her recent book. However, I can’t entirely critique Rohwer for this, as I found myself unwilling to move from Janet and on to Steven.


Having been friends with Steven for several years, Rohwer doesn’t adhere to the same rules as other biographers. The style of the book’s introduction is reminiscent of The Great Gatsby as we learn who Steven is through the author’s eyes, then transition into interview transcripts — a biography à la My Dinner with Andre:


When he agreed to talk about himself for this book, it challenged and encouraged me to evoke in him his most significant reflections and memories. Because, interestingly, men of his rank are honored for their professional merits quite frequently but are often overlooked as personalities.


Rohwer sweeps the reader into the current of their friendship — he creates an atmosphere of admiring love if not also an air of bias. Rohwer begins the interview:


If I were to characterize you briefly, Steven, three words come to my mind: strength, doubt, nobility.


In fact, I am a compromiser. Which is not at all times compatible with nobility. […] As for strength: I’m terrible in crisis. I’m paralyzed until there is a kind of settling or hunch that something feels like the right thing for me to do. It’s only then that I turn into a rational, calm thinker who, with a sense of direction, can go on endlessly.


Steven’s humility balances out Rohwer’s deluge of awe in the book’s early pages. There’s a humanness to Steven in the sense that he’s perfectly imperfect:


Think[ing] of the man we saw the other day: sitting on the beach, hanging in there, dozing in the sun for hours, half naked. He wasn’t pausing or relaxing. He was pretty much letting himself go and had lots of time.


I’m ashamed of myself for not having given him something. I walked by because I didn’t want to be involved with him. I’d found him repellant. But I don’t like the part in me that found him repellant. Who knows how he ended up in that state?


The author allows the reader to glimpse moments when Steven may not register favorably: “I rejected Broadway music out of hand as vulgar entertainment.” — a line that made me bristle. As a seasoned theater performer with a love for Broadway musicals, I struggled to understand what could make them “vulgar.” But Steven continues, “I carry around a ‘high-culture-versus-popular-culture’ prejudice. But intellectually, I no longer believe it.” His self-awareness breaks the tension of what might otherwise be disagreeable moments.


And when Rohwer feels that Steven isn’t being entirely forthright, he challenges him:


How did the occurrence of AIDS change [New York] from your point of perception? 


I didn’t experience it change through AIDS, perhaps because I didn’t know what it was before AIDS.


You arrived in 1981, the year AIDS was detected. In 1984 it became publicly known. While the Reagan government withheld funding for medical research and treatment, thousands of patients, among them many artists, died. There were huge public demonstrations, not just in Manhattan. AIDS resounded throughout the nation — and you didn’t notice it? 


I saw the protests. But I didn’t see the misery, certainly not in the beginning. AIDS was something I saw in the streets rather than among my acquaintances. […] I was probably more exposed to the fact of AIDS in Africa than I was in the US because of some medical people at the [Rockefeller] foundation working in the developing world. In the art world I certainly met gay people all the time, but for me they were absorbed in the category of artists.


You didn’t (and don’t) have to be gay to be hit by HIV.


I understand that. But I think AIDS as a real fact came much more to my awareness once I was in Los Angeles.


Steven moved from New York to California, where he ran CalArts for 29 years. From the jacket description, Steven’s leadership at CalArts, and the institution itself, appear to be the book’s focus. But the real soul of it is how Rohwer deconstructs and expands Steven’s character. The topic of CalArts itself dulled next to the intimate emotional portrayal of Steven and his inner circle.


There’s an added history lesson that comes with Failure Is What It’s All About as Steven illuminates obscure sections of the past. It’s impossible to avoid mentioning the Disney family, as Walt was integral to the creation of CalArts. Steven recalls how Lillian Disney, Walt’s wife, “kept refusing” to donate to CalArts. “Years before, while on a visit to CalArts, she had seen two kids running around naked, screwing in the grass and was pretty appalled by it.”


As I journeyed through Lillian’s story, I couldn’t help but conjure her face in my head, one that stared back at me repeatedly while aboard a Disney cruise ship. I hadn’t been able to assign any form of personality to her until now:


Lillian Disney was a very conservative lady. She was Midwestern, loved her flowers and had her quite old-fashioned ways like Walt himself. I had to win her back and get her to see that there was more to CalArts than that. And that took time. And in fact, the fifty-million dollars she gave to build the Walt Disney Concert Hall was money that was originally thought to be set aside for CalArts someday.


Despite Rohwer’s nepotic view of Steven, his portrait feels honest. The dialogue between two friends engrosses and entertains the reader with light humor sprinkled in throughout:


Constantly arguing with oneself seems to me a very Jewish thing. It’s what rabbis do, trying to give advice, creating learnedness. However endless worries and doubts can also lead to confusion.


And I create a lot of confusion around me, including my work. Because of my not being clear enough myself or to others about what’s next to do. Janet even picks it up when we’re on the freeway: “Is this the right exit?” she asks. And I reply: “They say, this is the exit.” But then I go on doubting it: “Am I remembering it properly?” And Janet gets really annoyed and says: “Why are you hesitating — we just decided the exit is two exits down! You know where it is now!” But somehow I forget.


Rohwer builds rapport with the reader through this honesty, particularly as he juxtaposes when he met Janet and when he met Steven:


It strikes me that, as opposed to Janet, I cannot recall when I first met him. […] What I do remember is that initially I had a hard time figuring out Steven’s physiognomy. His facial expressions changed quickly and seemed somewhat hard to unravel to me. […] Was he hiding behind a fence despite being warm and engaging in his demeanor?


The spirit of Rohwer’s unsatiated curiosity drives the narrative, leaving almost no stone unturned in the course of Steven’s life.


As part of the artistic community, I’m well aware of the prevalence of mental illness among our ranks. Many artists also come up in this world feeling like outcasts. Rohwer writes in his introduction: “Some of Steven’s notions keep ringing in my ear. Such as the fact that he never thought he fit in socially.” The two touch on Steven’s emotional struggles living with depression and experiencing suicidal thoughts:


While teaching a course on American Jewish literature at [the University of] Michigan I was trying to figure out if writers like [Saul] Bellow could help me understand the task of life and if, maybe, I’d connect to my Judaism through their version of Judaism it would offer me some guidance. I was always looking for what life could possibly mean. Much of the time I felt quite suicidal during those years. I wasn’t brave enough to commit suicide but I certainly thought about it. I thought, “If I’m unhappier than this I can always end it.”


Those who were deprived of picturesque childhoods or endured trauma in their youth can relate to Steven: “Many of my earliest memories are pretty unhappy. I’ve repressed a lot of my life — just pushed it out of my mind … I have repressed good memories as well as more painful ones for some reason.”


And Steven’s emotional and mental ailments are not isolated to him. Rohwer writes: “Among other things, I learned that his mother’s misery had left its mark on him.” Steven notes:


She kept a kind of baby-book during the first months of my life, in which she noted her reflections on what she was seeing in me, but also criticized herself for anxieties she was passing onto to me. Constantly worrying about what the next thing was she ought to be doing, she found she was making me a nervous baby.


The two cede the floor to Steven’s parents beyond the chapter dedicated to them — the more interesting of the two is Steven’s mother, a failed concert pianist who “struggled with depression and fatigue.” Steven reflects:


I guess it was my mother who taught me about the pain of life. Because I saw it every day. It didn’t have to be dramatic, it didn’t have to be wild suffering or disease or poverty — it seemed built into this nature of being alive.


Steven’s mother enters and exits as a tragic character. Beyond her battle with depression, she “was often disappointed in herself for being unable to look too good dressed up because of her weight” and fraught with the pain of confinement:


She felt trapped in Melrose and later in Superior — places where there was no outlet for the cultural part of hers. I remember her as both unhappy and fairly upset, shouting a lot of the time about various things. […] My father loved the town he grew up in and he loved the small-town life he lived with my mother. For her it was deprivation.


Steven speaks candidly on most aspects of life, though it is on politics — especially regarding arts and education — that he speaks with particular zeal. Rohwer recalls an earlier quote from Steven, proffering the idea that the United States needs leaders who are not only diverse, but who are also educated in voices that are not their own. He contrasts this idea against the former secretary of education, saying — without naming her — that she promoted “elitist schooling.” Steven replies: “Elisabeth DeVos has no idea what she’s doing: causing damage.”


Throughout the book, Steven also critiques Trump and capitalist aspects of American society, albeit in a diplomatic tone. While I don’t always agree with his assertions, he speaks rationally, minimizing the risk of creating a combative relationship with the reader. 


Yet amid the criticism — and a running thread of melancholia — flows a steady stream of hope. Though Steven reflects on the trauma and negativity that have surfaced in both his life and the United States, he remains an optimist: “Today I think the United States needs Germany’s example almost as much as Germany once needed the United States.” As Steven explains,


Under Nazi leadership it was as bad as the world has ever been. Now Germany is the world’s great upholder of human rights and human decency. I’m sure there were many Germans who initially thought Hitler was a good idea until, at a certain point, it was too late for them to go back and there was no or little place left to resist. I still have to believe that at the end of the day, as in the case of Germany (even though it took intervention from the outside), people in America can rediscover their best own interests, that eventually they’ll find out whether something is hurting them or helping them.


Rohwer mounts upon the shoulders of hope a self-help aspect, making Steven a motivational figure for those experiencing self-doubt:


He may not have had the strength to be true to himself in his younger years. Perhaps that is what Steven, when looking back, identifies as his failure, for it has shaped his early biography. However, more importantly, is that Steven aims to reflect and reveal this and perhaps, by doing so, becomes more at one with who he is.


Failure Is What It’s All About has diverse potential to grab the reader: the history, the profound conversation, the self-help aspect, or sheer interest in the subject — either Steven or CalArts — Rohwer covers a vast territory, casting a wide net to gather in a larger audience.


¤


Vesper North is a writer, artist, and instructor teaching English and communications.