I’m a devoted fan of novelist Elena Ferrante, but I can’t match my wife—who is currently reading her sixth Ferrante novel and is game for more. Of course, we are hardly alone in our enthusiasm: Ferrante is ultra-trendy right now, and has emerged as Italy’s leading candidate for a Nobel Prize in Literature.
Except there’s a tiny problem—she probably won’t show up to accept a Nobel Prize. In fact, readers have no idea who Elena Ferrante really is. Ferrante isn’t her real name, and the author might not even be a woman. Various theories about the novelist’s identity have been bandied about, but the only thing her publisher will admit is that she “was born in Naples.”
By the same token, Satoshi Nakamoto deserves a Nobel Prize in Economics for his creation of bitcoin, the cryptocurrency that is changing the world of international finance. But there’s a problem here too—no one knows Nakomoto’s real identity. A number of candidates have emerged, including Australian Craig Wright, who recently tried to take credit for bitcoin, but many experts doubt his claim. The bottom line: The leading innovator in money matters is a mystery man, and we may never know his real identity.
Banksy is the world’s most famous street artist. Every new work stirs up media attention, and the artist’s net worth is estimated to be north of $20 million. But don’t expect to see Banksy in public. The painter’s true identity is shrouded in secrecy. Many believe that Robin Gunningham is the real Banksy, but others contend that a woman or a team of people might be behind the artist’s work.
Welcome to the strange world of modern-day fame, when it helps to be a nobody if you want to be a somebody! In some ways, we are returning to the rules of the medieval world, when major works of art and technology were created by anonymous innovators. But there’s a difference nowadays: Today’s mystery artists cultivate their aura of secrecy. They prefer obscurity over the perks of celebrity status.
Musical performers have a harder time playing this game. After all, they need to come out on stage at their gigs. Yet even here, the allure of anonymity is evident. Dozens of musicians and DJs, from Daft Punk to deadmau5, are putting on masks or helmets before making public appearances. A generation ago, only bank robbers and a handful of TV wrestlers wore masks when going to work, but now the superstars have latched on to face coverings as the hot new celebrity fashion accessory. In most instances, the real identity of these performers is known to fans, but the artists try to subsume their personality into their disguised persona. In a very real sense, they have turned into their own avatars.
We are all familiar with celebrity recluses—but they play by different rules than the new breed of anonymous artists. “I want to be alone,” Greta Garbo proclaimed in an oft-repeated line from the 1932 film Grand Hotel. Garbo lived up to that assertion in her private life, retiring at age 35 and studiously avoiding public appearances in later years. In retrospect, we can see her renunciation of the limelight as the first stirrings of a new kind of fame, amplified by avoiding the public eye. But Garbo didn’t crave anonymity, merely privacy.
Over the next half-century, other artists and innovators followed in her footsteps. J.D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon, Howard Hughes, Sly Stone, Glenn Gould, Terrence Malick, Harper Lee, and others played this game to perfection. Not only did they maintain a low profile, but in some instances even current photos were unavailable. Yet even these celebrated recluses still enjoyed the perks of personal fame. They may have kept a low profile, but never considered changing their names or denying responsibility for their works.
The new anonymous artists scorn such half measures. They don’t want to hide; they prefer to disappear.
We have a few examples of unknown artists from the 20th century. B Traven, author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, sold 25 million books while maintaining total anonymity. Guitarist Kid Bailey left behind some classic Delta blues recordings but his real name is a mystery. Yet these were rare situations, and my research into the Bailey case suggests that the motive for keeping out of the limelight in the Age of Garbo was embarrassment over awkward details of the artist’s private life.
When I tracked down the enigmatic jazz trumpeter Dupree Bolton in the ’80s, and secured the first interview with a musician who had eluded all researchers for decades, he admitted that he hid from view due to shame at his criminal record (on various drug charges). In the case of blacklisted Hollywood screenwriters, they also kept in the shadows—but, again, for practical reasons unrelated to their craft. They wanted the renown, but were forced to relinquish it.
The cases of Ferrante and Nakamoto are a different thing entirely. I suspect that they celebrate their anonymity. Certainly their admirers do.
Why is this happening at this juncture in history? Artists and empire builders of previous generations have always coveted fame. They devoted entire careers to cultivating it, and mourned its loss almost as if it were akin to death. Certainly we still have people like that. Look at Donald Trump, who puts his name on everything—a tower, a casino, a university, a board game, a cologne, and so on. Yet in the new millennium, such shameless self-promotion is increasingly passé.
The anonymous innovators strike us as cooler, hipper, perhaps even more trustworthy. After all, they have less to gain from the game of fame. They live ordinary lives, unnoticed when they go out in public, not much different from the average person. So perhaps we see them as more real—an ironic state of affairs given their total absence from the scene.
But let me suggest three other reasons why anonymity is turning into the new status symbol.
First, it’s so bloody hard to achieve nowadays. A host of technologies monitor our activities around the clock. Government and businesses act as if they are in a race to find out who can store the most data on the most people. Given this situation, I am hardly surprised that many of us fantasize about anonymity the way earlier generations craved fame.
Under this scenario, artists such as Banksy or Elena Ferrante are living the dream. They have somehow managed to avoid the constant surveillance that the rest of us have to endure as a matter of course.
The increasing use of avatars in the digital realm might be another reason for this new breed of celebrity. From this perspective, the anonymous celebrity is no different from the millions of people who keep their identities secret on Twitter or other digital platforms. The avatar almost becomes the brand image, more powerful—and more easily fine-tuned and photoshopped to match audience expectations—than boring flesh-and-blood people.
But there’s another likely explanation, perhaps the most encouraging one of them all. It’s just possible that audiences are getting tired of the unrelenting narcissism of celebrity culture in the new millennium. After seeing a thousand Kardashian selfies and hearing a thousand boasting rappers and watching a thousand TV commercials featuring the same five NBA stars… well, wouldn’t you crave something a little less bombastic and ego-driven?
A recent study from the University of Michigan shows that pop songs of the present day are increasingly filled with boasting and ego trips. Compared with previous eras, songs from the current decade are “more likely to include the singer referring to the self by name, general self-promotion, and bragging about wealth, partner’s appearance, or sexual prowess.” In an earlier day, this unrelenting self-referential tone was restricted to rap songs, but nowadays it has spread to other genres of popular music.
In response to evidence of this sort, pundits tell us that we are living in an age of narcissism. But perhaps they are looking at the cause, not the effect. Many fans saturated in celebrity culture—especially in this age of round-the-clock coverage—have already reached the point of overload and resistance. Their willingness to embrace these anonymous artists is perhaps a reaction against the tsunami of selfies and tawdry TMZ tidbits and Instagram updates.
Whatever the reasons behind it, I welcome this new cult of anonymity. In an age in which engagement with artistic works has been displaced by gossiping about celebrity artists, the anonymous innovators have forced us to return our gaze to the creative product. That can’t be a bad thing, and we would be wrong to consider it as a mere trend or passing fad. Maybe we should adhere to that same way of contemplating art even when we know the artist’s identity.