The Art of Embarrassment and the Embarrassment of Art




There’s a blush for want, and a blush for shan’t,
And a blush for having done it;
There’s a blush for thought, and a blush for naught,
And a blush for just begun it.

— John Keats

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HERE COMES that shrinking feeling. You’ve smashed the glass, slipped on the peel, badmouthed a colleague in earshot. All eyes on you, a blush rushes to the surface.

We have all felt embarrassed and witnessed the embarrassment of others. It’s a universal emotion. It’s also a mainstay reality of the artistic process. For writers and performers who labor in the limelight, mortification is an occupational hazard. The act of creating art invites the potential of negative evaluation, the foundation of embarrassment.

Not all artists are willing participants in this pact. Dawn Powell was so nervous about the reception her novel Whither (1925) might receive that she bought and destroyed every copy she could.

But this fear of embarrassment also indicates why most people who make art do so in the first place: the desire to connect with others. Artists present their work to an audience in hope and fear, even if that audience is small — or not yet existent. Simply imagining the audience’s reaction can be enough to provoke abashment.

Yet embarrassment isn’t merely an irritating by-product of creation; this sticky social emotion can also provide artists with a rich seam of material.

Lindsay Ames is a Canadian comedian who runs My Diary, a monthly event where comedians, writers, and actors read aloud from their old diaries at the Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles. Ames leads her fellow performers down the path of self-humiliation by reading out tidbits from her childhood diaries.

“I thought it would be so fun to have a show where your favorite comedians read from the dark pages of their diary. Because you never get to see the real, true intimate side of these performers. You’re seeing their act,” Ames says.

The bare-all confessional is having a moment. In 2016, Richard Gadd won the Edinburgh Fringe Comedy Award with a personally revealing show called Monkey See Monkey Do. Live storytelling event and podcast Mortified also showcases comedy mined from real life. By not allowing participants to alter their diaries before they read from them, Mortified achieves what founder Dave Nadelberg describes as a “fly in the amber” effect: nostalgia-free preservations of who the performers used to be.

For the most cringeworthy anecdotes, the performers at My Diary and Mortified often look to their teenage years. That time when social status counts more than ever, physical changes are rife, and sexuality is a burgeoning novelty. The feeling of being conspicuous — what Charles Darwin called “self-attention” — becomes more frequent and intense as a teenager, while, at the same time, the criteria for social misjudgment increase exponentially.

Occasionally the awkwardness of adolescence and art converge. George Harrison recalled the period when he and Paul McCartney used to play music together after school in his small family home in Liverpool, England: “I remember him being a little embarrassed to really sing out, seeing we were stuck right in the middle of my parents’ place with the whole family walking about. He said he felt funny singing about love and such around my dad.”

Embarrassment doesn’t always engender creative hesitancy, however. In his memoir The Discomfort Zone (2006), novelist Jonathan Franzen draws a connection between his awkward high school days, his contemporaneous examination of himself in his journal, and his adolescent desire to become a writer:

I didn’t need school in order to experience the misery of appearances. I could manufacture excruciating embarrassment in the privacy of my bedroom, simply by reading what I’d written in the journal the day before. Its pages faithfully mirrored my fraudulence and pomposity and immaturity. Reading it made me desperate to change myself, to sound less idiotic. […] The Authentic Relationship I wanted now was with the written page.

Pubescent sensitivity is nothing new. In the early 1800s, poet John Keats tapped into the pains of adolescent limbo with aplomb, prefacing one of his collections thus:

The imagination of a boy is healthy, and the mature imagination of a man is healthy; but there is a space of life between, in which the soul is in a ferment, the character undecided, the way of life uncertain, the ambition thick-sighted: thence proceeds mawkishness, and all the thousand bitters which those men I speak of must necessarily taste in going over the following pages.

In his book Keats and Embarrassment (1974), Christopher Ricks propounds the view that “a particular strength of Keats is the implication that the youthful, the luxuriant, the immature, can be, not just excusable errors, but vantage-points.”

A word little used before the 1700s, embarrassment entered the common lexicon during the Romantic era, and became a hot topic of scientific inquiry, social analysis, and, for Keats, poetry. According to Ricks, “Keats as a man and a poet was especially sensitive to, and morally intelligent about, embarrassment.” (Not that Keats’s emotive and emotional style was always appreciated by his contemporaries — Lord Byron, renowned for his detachment, referred to his work as “Johnny Keats’s p*ss a bed poetry.”)

By raking over the “thousand bitters” of the past, the performers at My Diary and Mortified are revelatory about the present. They skewer the person they were trying to be in their diaries and, in doing so, reveal something of their current self-image. The potential for embarrassment at My Diary is tempered because, instead of fearing judgment, the performers judge themselves in a kind of self-schadenfreude, as snakes reviewing some scraggy skin they shed long ago. “I was a different person back then,” is a familiar refrain.

Retrospective self-disparagement is a common phenomenon. Artists frequently belittle their previous output, sometimes referring to it in terms that personally dissociate them from having authored the work in the first place. For instance, rock band Arctic Monkeys refused, for a time, to play songs from their 2006 breakout album Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, telling Spin they “cringed” at the thought. Lead singer Alex Turner commented that whenever the band did resurrect their old hits, “It’s almost like you’re doing a cover version of it.” Similarly, when author Zadie Smith was asked by Interview if she ever revisited her debut novel, White Teeth (2000), she said, “Never ever. To me it’s a book by a different person, and it’s not to my taste.”

But emotional reactions may evolve in the other direction, too. Regarding White Teeth, Smith continues, “now that I’ve grown, I can look back and think, Okay, it’s okay for a 22-year-old. […] It’s full of flaws but I think fondly of that 22-year-old who wrote it. Whereas before she filled me with total horror.” The book hasn’t changed but the lens through which Smith judges it (and its author) has. Arctic Monkeys now whip out their golden oldies with energetic abandon.

Besides the dissociation of self-ridicule, there is another reason why My Diary, Mortified, and other art borne of embarrassment doesn’t necessarily seem to embarrass the artist baring all. It’s the same reason why rouge was traditionally applied to actors’ faces: it’s a hard emotion to summon on command.

Embarrassment is spontaneous and inextricably linked with the occasion that caused it. A sudden recollection of an old mishap can certainly provoke a bout of the blushes, but storytelling events are (usually) voluntary, pre-planned, and rehearsed. Embarrassment is a hot shock felt in the moment, whereas the performers at My Diary and Mortified know what’s on the menu.

Then there is the matter of social expectations. If the My Diary audience anticipates the shocking, then it belies the unexpected origin of the emotion. What’s a transgression in a share-all space? The chances of the performer provoking the disapproval of others is reduced by the context.

Which isn’t to say these are no-fail zones. At the My Diary I attended in October 2016, there was one moment of genuine embarrassment. One performer, who is an actor and writer, spent the majority of his allotted time prefacing his diary. His set was almost entirely preamble — he couldn’t stop providing more and more context about his unhappy childhood. His inability to move on created a collective discomfort, exacerbated by time pressure. The audience was enraptured, if not necessarily laughing. And then, out of nowhere, he dropped his drink all over his shirt. The air crumpled with empathy for the man who’d spilled his guts and then spilled his beer. The whole room inhaled and winced as one.

Part of the appeal of live art is the chance that it could go wrong. There is also a perverse pleasure in observing the authenticity of a mistake in a contrived setting — for instance, actors “corpsing” can prove exhilarating in small doses. The trend of confessional art (and one may extend the point to reality television) offers similar authenticity within an artificial environment, if not to the same extent as an onstage mistake. As playwright and actor Tim Crouch puts it, “To see someone fail and to be embarrassed is a very real thing, and we like it real and unmediated.”

Crouch is a theater maker whose work often flirts with deliberate loss of control. In his two-hander An Oak Tree, only one actor, Crouch, knows the script before the show begins; his counterpart, who has been played by over 250 different actors, is fed scraps of the script and must improvise around the situation. Another of Crouch’s plays, I, Malvolio, is anchored in humiliation, based as it is on Malvolio, the ridiculous Puritan steward in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or What You Will:

If it’s going to be embarrassing, it’s something that you haven’t planned. In my solo Malvolio piece, it’s just me and an audience. At one point I am stripped down to a leopard print thong and nothing else, and I look fucking ridiculous. I consciously put myself into an absurdly ridiculous position, but don’t for a moment feel embarrassed. Because I know why I’m doing it: that play is all about an audience laughing at me and then me attacking them for laughing at me.

As Crouch suggests, control over humiliation is antithetical to embarrassment, and art is one way of gaining control. Barring any onstage mishap, performers at Mortified can transform a negative experience that once caused social isolation into a source of positive evaluation and community.

Embarrassment often provokes empathy, and tales of social misfortune forge a “Me too!” bond between the viewer and the performer. That’s the case for actor and writer Jessie Kahnweiler, who explores her tragic-comic struggles with bulimia in the web series The Skinny. “I think the embarrassing really resonates with people,” she says. “The more vulnerable scenes are what people specifically tell me about.” For instance, in one sequence, her character retrieves an entire cake from the trash, scoffs it, and vomits it back up.

By portraying uncomfortable, deeply personal issues, Kahnweiler follows in the vein of preeminent writers David Sedaris and Lena Dunham. “Over-sharing” is something of a calling card for Dunham in particular, both as her fictional character Hannah Horvath in the HBO TV series Girls and as her actual self in the capacity of writer and broadcaster. (A blurred distinction that has occasionally led to controversy.) Girls drew much attention in 2012 thanks to its portrayal of life warts-and-all, the warts being genital and the all including visits to abortion clinics. Interestingly, what attracted many of Girls’s steadfast fans is the same thing that repelled many of its vehement detractors: the discomfort the show induces.

Rejection, whether an unfavorable review or a “We’ll be in touch,” can hold significant sway in the life of an artist. Inda Craig-Galván is one of eight on this year’s prestigious Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference. However, as an experienced comedian previously on the books of Second City, she had been working toward a career in improv — until a particularly disastrous audition caused her to change course.

The one thing [the Second City instructors] said was “Do not cry.” If you’re a woman, do not go there as a character. And I got up there and I started crying. I left and was like, “What was that?” I think that it was me subconsciously knowing that was the wrong path — I sabotaged myself. I shouldn’t have been running from the thing I should have been doing my whole life.

Craig-Galván has crafted her cringing failure into a Nietzschean redemption: the setback has become part of her journey as a playwright, essential to the overall success of her story.

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The most significant ramification of embarrassment, however, is realized in what we don’t do. Fear of embarrassment often prevents us from acting. In the 17th century, the word embarrassment was used as a synonym for obstacle, and it may still function that way for artists. On one hand, it could be argued that fear of embarrassment is a good thing for those attempting to make art: it prevents unnecessary hurt and rejection. It also encourages consideration of the audience. On the other hand, it’s impossible to quantify the number of artistic masterpieces never executed for fear of embarrassment. Blushes may have been spared, but what has been lost?

Though embarrassment is naturally associated with making mistakes, it is not the recourse of a rookie: artists of the highest caliber are subject to it as well. The potential for it occurring does not disappear with success — perhaps it only disappears with the disappearance of ambition. For instance, although the Beatles were the biggest band in the world in 1968, Paul McCartney was particularly sheepish when presenting the song “Hey Jude” to his co-writer John Lennon, as Ian MacDonald reported in Revolution in the Head:

[H]e took the tape to Lennon, apologising for the lyric as the first words that had come into his head. His partner would have none of this, dismissing McCartney’s embarrassment over the line “the movement you need is on your shoulder” and declaring “Hey Jude” all but finished as it stood. (He later described the song as the best his partner ever wrote.)

McCartney may not have liked his own lyric. He may have feared an acerbic reaction from Lennon, who was known for criticizing his friend’s “silly love songs,” (which is no piss-a-bed poetry). Additionally, McCartney wrote the song for Lennon’s son Julian Lennon — originally singing “Hey Jules” — and the personal nature of the song may have also induced a certain sense of vulnerability. Regardless, the anecdote shows that, even at the peak of his abilities and success, McCartney was susceptible to abashment, cared about the opinion of others — especially of his writing partner — and was capable of misjudging when he ought to be embarrassed. That “funny feeling” he experienced at George Harrison’s childhood house never went away.

The creation of art actively courts embarrassment, and fear of it is natural. But only by risking the pain of disapproval can an artist possibly experience the riches embarrassment can offer. There’s the solace, too, that if it really goes very wrong, the failure can be turned into more art, or coalesce into the story of overall success. In the best cases, like McCartney’s, the artist teetering on the edge of embarrassment may have produced a masterpiece.

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Jamie Carragher is a writer from Birkenhead, England. He is a graduate of the Young Writers’ Programme at the Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse, England, and holds an MA in Arts Journalism from the University of Southern California.

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Photos of Tim Crouch courtesy of Greg Goodale.

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Parts of this essays appeared in Ampersand LA.


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