artists’ writings counter deficits in generation of familial social capital?

Artists + Writing: Deficits in familial social capital provoking compensatory behavior in generating psychological capital in its absence

Is expressive writing a counter measure for lacks in real or perceived social deficits? This paper does not set out to answer this question, but is an initial step in unpacking possibilities of how social deficits may exist for the artist and of particular interest are those visual artists that also write.


In “Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital” James Coleman documents a notable negative trend in high school dropout rates associated with shifts in the familial home—loss of one parent and domestic geographical relocation (1988). He suggests a relationship exists between familial developmental adversities such as these with higher dropout rates due in part to the lack of the acquisition of familial linked social capital that arises through parental attention and networks. Perceived trustworthiness of social environments, which is influenced by the familial, is a criterion in generating positive social capital. Coleman uses the phrase social capital to refer to relationally constituted resources needed for social action by an individual or group. Thus disruptions to the family and to the trustworthiness of social environments appear to socially handicap children in generating social currency.


In the process of preparing to develop a psycholinguist coding system to analyze visual artists’ writings in terms of arousal, deliberation, and social positioning, I have chosen four eminent visual artists’ and their writings from which to create my initial coding mechanism—Anne Truitt, Agnes Martin, Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse (Sally Mann subsequently added with the 2016 release of her memoir). Overt developmental familial adversities exist for each woman. All proceeded to acquire college degrees yet chose solitary/isolated life practices. Each professed writing as significant.

Sculptor Eva Hesse, a German born Jew, escaped Hilter’s regime on one of the final Kindertransports bound for the Netherlands, reunited with her family in England and then relocated to NYC. Her mother committed suicide when her parents’ marriage dissolved; Hesse was nine (Begleiter & Shapiro, 2015). She later acquired her BA from Yale.

Though she connected with other artists, she remained relatively isolated. Hesse professed, “I am aware of connectiveness—it is impossible to be isolated completely—but my interest is in solely finding my own way. I don’t mind being miles from everybody else.” (Hesse, Nixon, & Nemser, 2002).

In a letter to Sol LeWitt, Hesse implicates the role of writing for herself, “I have gotten many reproaches for neglect (of writing), I really never stop writing…grasping at everything and nothing in hopes of finding self.” A snippet of LeWitt’s response touches on social distancing as a creative prescription, “You seem the same as always, and being you, hate every minute of it. Don’t! Learn to say ‘Fuck You’ to the world once in a while.” (Hesse & Brooks, 2015). See endnotes for like experiences within my population of study.

Sculptor Louise Bourgeois, whose father had an ongoing affair with her live-in tutor who resided with the family for a decade holds, a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from the University of Paris (Searle, 2010). And like the others in my study she gravitated toward aloneness. “I’m a complete loner. It doesn’t help me to associate with people; it really doesn’t help me…My first experience of great luck was when I was not picked up by the art market and I was left to work by myself for about fifteen years. I did not consider that I was ignored. I considered that I was being blessed by privacy. This is very, very important to me.” (Bourgeois, Bernadac, and Obrist, p. 165). She also notes the pivotal role writing has for her—“You can stand anything if you write it down. You must do it to get hold of yourself…you must redirect your concentration…words put in connection can open up new relations” (Bourgeois, Bernadac, & Obrist, 1998).

Painter Agnes Martin’s father died when she was two years old. Her mother to support them moved from house to house, renovating each and then selling—perpetual domestic relocation. Martin does not note the emotional connection with her mother, but on the surface it would appear Martin’s mother’s attentions would not have been on the children but instead on providing for them. Martin holds a Master’s degree from Columbia University (Princenthal & Martin, 2015). Martin, somewhat of a hermit, held that “to live an absolutely original life one has only to be oneself…since we are not alike the experiences of others is of no use to us…I suggest that people who like to be alone, who walk alone will perhaps be serious workers in the art field.” Martin claimed, “I paint with my back to the world” (Martin & Schwarz, 1991). Martin does not comment on the relevance of her writing practice that appears to have been in the form of lecture notes on the practice of being an artist.

Sculptor Anne Truitt’s father, dependent on a trust fund to provide for the family and not employment, was an alcoholic. Both her father and mother were plagued with bouts of depression. Truitt perceived her mother as emotionally distant (Truitt, 1984). Truitt hold’s a degree in psychology from Bryn Mawr College. She published three personal journals. In one she writes, “When I was twelve and my parents were both sick, set a pattern for my behavior that I have not, I think, quite outgrown, nor may I ever. I was so very much alone.” Later she notes, “It is taxing to think out and then maintain a view of one’s self that is realistic.” And, concerning the role of writing in her practice she wrote, “My hope was that if I did this (writing) honestly I would discover how to see myself from a perspective that would render myself whole in my own eyes” (Truitt, 1988).

ADD Notes on photographer Sally Mann who likewise experience particular forms of deficits in familial social capital but performed well academically and artistically as well as maintains social distance via living arrangements. Mann has a masters degree in Creative Writing. See 2016 Memoir.

Sculptor Judy Pfaff, not currently one of my primary subject, but nonetheless, relevant as seen in this quote. “I was a Cockney from London, and I came to America when I was about twelve and did not fit. I was quite unruly. So, I think probably there’s a fantasy or a romance in these ideas of real beauty and form coming out of a sense of the land I just love. I was such a scrapper. I still am. I still have a street urchin mentality, even though I know better. There’s no reason to have those feelings anymore, but I think you keep a lot of stuff from your past. So, I think those other kinds of glorious ideas and those really sane visions of the universe intrigued me because, probably, essentially I didn’t have that. The work has always had those two components in it. There’s organization and finesse, which always sort of surprises me, and then this roughness in it and a sort of put-together aspect, too. But I think both of those things interest me. One is probably more who I am, and the other is who I would like to be.” And a touch of bio from WIKI “Her father, a Royal Air Force pilot, was absent from her life. Pfaff’s mother moved to Detroit soon after Pfaff’s birth, leaving Pfaff and brother to be raised by their grandparents. Post-war London was bleak; Pfaff has described playing in bombed out and abandoned buildings, gathering “raw materials for fantasy buildings.”” And though Pfaff lives in NY, it is not NYC. She lives in a rural isolated setting. I am unsure as yet Pfaff’s relationship to writing.

So as with the other artists of study, Pfaff experienced a degree of familial absences and domestic relocation, all of which correlates with Coleman’s studies that suggests these items as criteria in social capital deficit in social capital on which social actions are commonly dependent.

ASIDE: In each case the artists note a relationship between social isolation with their creative process.


The developmental adversities apparent in my sample resulting from familial disruptions—suicide, death and geographical domestic dislocations, as well as, alcoholism and infidelity—did not appear to disrupt the necessary acquisition of social capital needed for actions each artist needed for academic and artistic success. Yet there seems implicit in the artists’ writings and biographies, in terms of their solitariness and desire for it, an inability to perceive social situations as trustworthy. These artists’ tendencies toward solitariness, social dropout, seems correlated with a lack of familial social capital in light of Coleman’s associations between family conditions, social capital and high school dropout rates.

Additionally, if identity is socially constituted, which implies a need for social currency, then the deficit in familial social capital may need rectified by alternate means for the artist to successfully perform in the social space of academia and subsequently in the artworld. How do artists then counter their social capital deficits that occurred in their formative years? What resources do they turn to in funding their actions?

As always I return to the hunt for how writing may function for the artist. Does artists’ writings facilitate a substitutionary capital for funding their creative practice? This sent me to an introductory review of research on psychological capital to explore a substitutionary currency for the social capital deficit. There are four components involved in generating psychological capital—confidence, hope, optimism and resilience (Luthans, Luthans, & Luthans, 2004; Sharma, n.d.). These, for me, correlate with positive self-appraisal, regulation of affect, cognitive reconfiguration self-defining moments as useful, and adaptive but persistent action. This appears to correlate with the results of studies on trauma and patterns in expressive writing that appear to improve health and academic outcomes (Graybeal, Sexton, & Pennebaker, 2002; North, Meyerson, Brown, & Holahan, 2012). Additionally, Pennebaker notes that those less inhibited are more likely to experience positive outcomes from writing. Reduced inhibition has been noted as a common feature in artists (Simonton, 2009). Is writing a manner of gaining psychological capital and done so to counter familial social capital deficits? This is not to suggest that these capitals provide like currency in social situations but may bolster transactions in different ways, perhaps specific to creative output.



Begleiter, M., & Shapiro, K. (2015). Eva Hesse Documentary. Retrieved 2016, from http://www.evahessedoc.com/#!about-eva-hesse/c144p

Bourgeois, L., Bernadac, M., & Obrist, H. U. (1998). Destruction of the father reconstruction of the father: Writings and interviews, 1923-1997. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press in association with Violette Editions, London.

Brooks, K. (2015, October 28). Sol LeWitt’s Advice To Eva Hesse Is What Every Creative Person Needs To Hear. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/eva-hesse-letters-sol-lewitt_562f79ede4b00aa54a4b18d8

Butler, J. (2005). Giving an account of oneself. New York: Fordham University Press.

Coleman, J. S. (1988). Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital. American Journal of Sociology, 94 (Supplement: Organizations and Institutions: Sociological and Economic Approaches to the Analysis of Social Structure).

Graybeal, A., Sexton, J. D., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2002). The Role of Story-Making in Disclosure Writing: The Psychometrics of Narrative. Psychology & Health, 17(5), 571-581. doi:10.1080/08870440290025786

Hesse, E., Nixon, M., & Nemser, C. (2002). Eva Hesse. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Luthans, F., Luthans, K. W., & Luthans, B. C. (2004). Positive psychological capital: Beyond human and social capital. Business Horizons, 47(1), 45-50. doi:10.1016/j.bushor.2003.11.007

Martin, A., & Schwarz, D. (1991). Agnes Martin: Writings. Ostfildern: Cantz.

North, R. J., Meyerson, R. L., Brown, D. N., & Holahan, C. J. (2012). The Language of Psychological Change: Decoding an Expressive Writing Paradigm. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 32(2), 142-161. doi:10.1177/0261927×12456381

Princenthal, N., & Martin, A. (2015). Agnes Martin: Her life and art. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Searle, A. (2010, June 01). Louise Bourgeois: A web of emotions. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/jun/01/louise-bourgeois

Sharma, D. (n.d.). Bridging Human Capital and Social Capital Theories. Value Creation, Reporting, and Signaling for Human Capital and Human Assets. doi:10.1057/9781137472069.0011

Truitt, A. (1984). Daybook, the journey of an artist. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books.



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