Excerpted from 33 Artists in 3 Acts by Sarah Thornton. Out now from W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
“When I was little, I thought the New York art world was everything,” says Lena Dunham in her distinctly sweet and scratchy voice. “I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of the mechanics. You go into your studio, you have studio visits, you have openings.” Until the age of 8, she wanted to be an artist. “I thought that was what people’s jobs were and I thought it was cool to be the same thing as your parents.”
During adolescence, Lena decided that being a visual artist was “old-fashioned” and “small.” It felt like “a trap.” In her view, the audience for art is “rich people” and “those who wander into the white box.” In a world of new communications technologies that have the power to reach millions, “it didn’t seem germane.” Being an artist felt stifling in other ways too. “My dad is such a verbal, funny person,” says Lena, “but he does this job where, for the most part, talking doesn’t exist.”
When Girls first launched, bloggers attacked Lena for benefiting from nepotism, as if Carroll Dunham ran HBO or Laurie Simmons had sway in Hollywood. “People were complaining before they had figured out who my parents were,” she explains. Shortly afterward, the Internet was flooded with articles about Lena’s “not-so-famous” artist parents. “No one is going to give you a TV show because of your parents,” she declares as she slips off her shoes and swings her legs up onto the velvet couch in the lobby of a London hotel. “It is just not going to happen.”
Growing up in an artistic household, however, had positive effects. “I was given the tools, the space, and the support to do whatever I wanted,” she explains. “New approaches to old problems were encouraged.” Lena thinks about creativity as “an ineffable bug that takes you over but also something that you can learn.” The idea that you need to be inspired is unhelpful, if not obstructive. “My parents taught me that you can have a creative approach to thinking that is almost scientific,” she explains. “You don’t have to be at the mercy of the muse. You need your own internalized thinking process that you can perform again and again.” Although Lena abandoned her desire to be an artist in the strict sense, her definition of an artist could be applied to her current role. “As an artist,” she says, “you get the opportunity to write the world—or create the world—that exists in your fantasies. It’s a really beautiful thing to do.”
From afar, Lena’s work in television might look closer to her mother’s collaborations than to her father’s solitary practice of painting, but Lena doesn’t see it that way. “Everything that I do comes out of writing. It’s the genesis point,” she explains. “You go within yourself, wrestle with your demons, scribble some stuff up and come out with a vision of what the world is like. It is closer to being a painter.” By contrast, Lena views being a director as akin to being a photographer because both are “managerial and social.” She shines as she admits, “It rescues you from the lonely life of a writer.” As an extension of her writing and directing roles, Lena is also a producer. Ironically, in television, the term “producer” is used interchangeably to describe either “the creator” or a person with the financial skills to raise and allocate money. It’s hard to imagine that happening in the art world, where artists who act like dealers are often viewed with suspicion.
When it comes to artists and actors, Lena finds few parallels. “You can’t indulge your private creative brain when you are following a script,” she says. An actor is more like a musician in an orchestra. “When I am acting, I don’t feel like a boss,” she explains. “I feel like I am working in service to myself as a director. And I wish every actor was thinking that way too!”
When Lena cast her mother as a dealer in Girls, Simmons behaved on set like the artist she is. In an interview broadcast after the program, Lena said, Simmons is “the biggest diva I’ve worked with in this business. She changed all her lines. She chose her own costumes. She gave direction to other actors as well as the DP.” Lena wavers comically between smiling and frowning when I confront her with her words. “I recognized that I was casting someone who can’t be complaisant. It’s not in her DNA,” she explains. “My mom always said to me, ‘The talent is allowed to act weird.’ She embraces the idea that, as an artist, she can act a little persnickety and say exactly what she wants.”
Your mother told me that she uses embarrassment as a tool in her creative process, I say, leafing through the transcript of an old interview with her parents. “If I am starting to feel like I am alone with my pants down in my studio,” said Simmons, “I think, OK, let’s keep traveling slowly in this direction.” Girls is full of humiliating situations. Do you use discomfort as a means of gauging the emotional importance of an idea? I ask.
“The kind of shame I deal with in my work is about returning to the scene of the crime with all my senses operating,” replies Lena. “I agree with Woody Allen’s theory that tragedy plus distance equals comedy.” The writer–director–actress describes herself as “insanely close” to her family so it is difficult for her to get perspective on their influence. “My dad is a little more consistent and unwavering in his work process and he’s more apt to display it to those around him,” she says, “whereas my mom goes away, hands flying, comes back, and something has been made.”
Lena sips her tea delicately, with the porcelain cup in one hand and its saucer in the other. She is calmer and more refined than her onscreen persona in the comedy series, whose tagline is “almost getting it kind of together.” Indeed, Lena sits a few rungs higher up the class ladder than her Hannah character.
Lena’s comfort with her public persona is one area where she and her father, despite their affinities, drastically diverge. When Carroll Dunham refused to be in Tiny Furniture, Lena wrote him out of existence. As he told me, “Father, what father? The kid was created by parthenogenesis or something.” Lena is adamant that the film’s “complete avoidance” of a father figure was “not in any way a ‘fuck you’ to him.” Rather, she felt that no one else could embody him and has “yet to figure out how to write him.”
Despite her intimacy with artists, Lena acknowledges that she has trouble depicting them. Among the quirky, complex male characters on Girls is an artist named Booth Jonathan, who is portrayed two-dimensionally as an arrogant egotist. One of the leading female characters compares him to Damien Hirst and then has funny-gruesome bad sex with him. “Artists are hard for me to write,” admits Lena. She imagines her “father’s disapproval when something doesn’t feel real” and she doesn’t want to contribute to the comic cliché that contemporary art is a con that dupes through pretension. “Booth Jonathan,” she admits, “was based on douchey college boys more than any of the cool, smart artists I’ve met through my parents.”
Excerpted from 33 Artists in 3 Acts by Sarah Thornton. Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Thornton. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.