In a huge way, staying anonymous as an artist doesn’t make much sense. After all, we as a society tend to romanticize artists (think of actors, directors, writers, and musicians), putting them on pedestals and shining our blazing hot spotlights on them so we can marvel at every perfect detail they have wrought with their art. And who wouldn’t love to master the bold, thickly textured brushstrokes of van Gogh or the twisting language of Shakespeare, that Elizabethan Pun Factory?
Art is about more than just entertainment. It’s about piecing together the puzzle of what it means to be a human—to fear death, to want love, to fight The Power, to lose everything, to get it all back, and (perhaps most importantly) to laugh. At its best, art shrinks the entire human experience into the format of a poem or a novel or a movie or a TV show or a painting. At its worst, art is a soul-crushing slog, a failed attempt at mastering personal expression. And realistically, it’s probably an act never fully realized, no matter how expertly executed.
But some people don’t want to be recognized for the beautiful art they produce, for reasons that may seem mysterious to those of us who haven’t yet mastered the act of bringing brilliant things into this world. Maybe one of the reasons some artists remain anonymous is that everyone can be a critic nowadays, thanks to the Internet. Or, perhaps in some situations, the artist is afraid less of what the masses might think and more of what the authorities might do to her.
One of the most famous and contemporary examples of an anonymous artmaker is Banksy, the reclusive British graffiti artist who’s always got a grievance to air with this consumerist globalized world we live in. Even though there have been efforts to reveal Banksy’s identity, he has remained officially anonymous. There are plenty of other examples of anonymous artists, some who go to their graves stubbornly holding onto their status of “Unknown,” others who were simply forgotten as the sands of time buried all memory of their true identities. Huzzah for French cave horses!
And then, of course, there are the funny examples of anonymous art. The Bad Lip Reading series is a YouTube sensation whose creator, whoever he is, has mastered the art of overdubbing ridiculous dialogue into famous movies and TV shows. The series is called Bad Lip Reading, but most times the snippets of alternative dialogue that are put into the mouths of these characters are hilarious and look quite accurate, if absurd.
Some of my favorites from the Bad Lip Readings series are Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Walking Dead, and Star Wars. It’s almost as if the better the actors you have, the funnier the clips are when you put absurd words into their mouths.
“So who is this guy?” a Rolling Stones article asked back in 2011, referring to the creator of the series as the Bad Lip Reader (or BLR for short). “He's a successful ‘late-20s-ish’ music and video producer from Texas — ‘It's a one-man show; it's just me’ — whose introduction to lip reading was personal. BLR's mother, herself a musician, went profoundly deaf in her 40's: ‘She went from having perfect hearing to having no hearing in just a matter of months, and the doctors never figured out why.’ BLR marveled at the way his mom, of necessity, became an expert lip reader. He would sometimes sit around at night, watching TV with the sound off trying to pick up the skill himself. ‘I was terrible at it.’”
It makes sense that he grew up doing this sort of thing. The act of fitting absurd words into people’s mouths seems like a really difficult feat—unless you’ve had a lot of practice at it since an early age. Even though he totally misses the mark when interpreting what these actors are saying (with hilarious effect!), each video seems to get funnier than the last. And after five years of making this genius stuff, the creative mind behind Bad Lip Readings is still going strong! If I were the brilliant mind behind these vids, I would definitely want to take credit. After all, what’s better than making people laugh? It’s proof that your art is paying off.
And in case you were wondering, the guy behind Bad Lip Reading is still anonymous, at least according to an New York Times article from August 2015. At the end of this NYT article, the reporter Katie Rogers asks, “Why have you chosen to remain anonymous?”
The Bad Lip Reader responds, “I work in several different areas, and I like to keep those areas separate. At least for the time being. So, staying anonymous helps in that sense.
“But the anonymity thing is something that just interests me in general. I actually have quite a few anonymous or pseudonymous projects out there, some of them predating Bad Lip Reading by several years. It’s fascinating to watch these things grow and spread on their own. It’s an interesting social experiment.”
You may recall that J.K. Rowling, after the Harry Potter series rocketed her to fame, began publishing novels under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. It must have been liberating for Rowling to finally have the opportunity to write anonymously once again, to take risks that Rowling herself (as an established author) could no longer take, and yet it didn’t take long for a clever-eyed sleuth to figure out Galbraith’s true identity. Maybe by looking at hugely famous people like Banksy and the Bad Lip Reader (and the not-so-famous author Galbraith), we can begin to understand why some artists choose to shrug off notoriety and slink out of the spotlight. Sometimes it can just be too much to have everyone looking over your shoulder, wondering when your next masterpiece will be released.
Which brings us back to our original question: why do some artists, masters that they are, prefer to stay anonymous? Maybe it’s because they have “real” jobs and don’t want to be found out as members of the perpetually discontent artist subculture. Mopers, we call them. The Internet has made anonymity, or at least the illusion of anonymity, a reality in all things. Trolls can wreak their emotional havoc online, telling perfect strangers what they think of them. But, on a more optimistic note, dissidents living under dictators can use services like TOR to speak freely without fear of reprisal.
Speaking of dissent, especially under regimes that restrict free speech, it’s no wonder why some artists decide to stay anonymous. When artists speak out against a ruling party, they can fall victim to lengthy prison sentences, or worse. Indeed, sometimes a regime can grow so oppressive that the shadow of the executioner’s sword will fall over an artist’s neck, and then the long prison sentence that comes as an alternative to execution can feel like a reprieve.
So, absent the fear of prison or even execution, what other reasons could there be for staying anonymous? Maybe an artist’s desire to stay anonymous is a larger statement on the act of art itself—and of all types of expression: no matter how beautiful your art is, and no matter its intent, once you give it away for public consumption, it becomes bigger than you (and your ego). Or if it doesn’t become bigger than you (read: if it doesn’t become popular), then it at least becomes a different entity than you, something that lives its own life, does its own thing, enters other people’s lives, means different things to different people. You no longer have much (or any) control over who sees your art or what becomes of it.
In a way, even the oeuvre of that bawdy bard William Shakespeare was written by an anonymous gentleman, because we can never go inside his head and know what he was thinking during the act of composition. So maybe an artist choosing anonymity, which seems on its face like such a strange impulse, is actually the default toward which all art tends. Especially after an artist dies and his art lives on, he can no longer control what his art is. The ancient horse paintings in the caves in France have outlived their creator, and they say the same thing that all art says: “You may now be forgotten, but as long as I exist, this beautiful part of you will live on forever.”