16 May 2011

Of Artists

Sometimes I wonder what it is that makes an artist. After all, I have written. Or rather, I wonder what one has to do to earn the designation artist. After all, I write. I do not want to engage here in the idea of ‘what is art,’ and therefore, who is the artist, though of course, something of that debate will cling heavily to this discussion. Rather, I want just to trouble the notion of what it is that one must actually ‘do’ to identify or be identified as an artist. In what kind of labor—in what type of effortdoes one engage to be recognized in the social world as an artist? 
I have long held that the designation ‘artist’ belongs in a very material way as a type in the general category of ‘worker,’ though certainly the artist produces in a different way than say, a sanitation worker; definitely produces a different type of product; and usually functions with greater autonomy than most workers in the world. Well, but sometimes this is not true. I am thinking of Wallace Stevens who served as the President of Hartford Life Insurance even as he produced the large body of poems that now sit at the center of twentieth century American literature. I am certain that Stevens went to his office at the company most days, though I remain curious what he did behind those closed doors. Sometimes, I know, an ‘artist’ works with little recognition in his/her lifetimeI am, of course, thinking of Vincent Van Gogh, who did not sell a single painting when he was alive, lived in relative poverty supported by his generous brother, Theo, but whose work now rests pricelessly in museums, and whose priced work sells for upwards of $87,000,000. When exactly was his work characterized as ‘art,’ I wonder. And sometimes an artist achieves great success earlyhere I think immediately of Jonathan Safran Foerwhose writing earned him recognition and praise in his twenties with his very first novel, Everything is Illuminated. But the designation of ‘artist’ cannot be assigned by present popularity or reputation, a fact to which the first example of Vincent Van Gogh above attests. And then, how might we understand the reputation of Pearl Buck, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature but whose work today few read and even fewer study. Was she then but is no longer considered an artist? I have to believe (but why must I continue to believe?) that the characterization ‘artist’ cannot be attributable to a genetic trait that at some moment activates, and voilà, what she produces is deemed artistic work, anymore than I believe that at a certain moment in a person’s life s/he becomes as if by magic a medical doctor. Though I might believe that at some moment a person might decide, as if by magic, to become a doctor and then set out to realize that ambition. 
I know that people see the world with different eyes, and I do not know how they have come to that personal vision. I suppose that is work for the analyst. But it seems to me that an artist (and yes, I hope my doctor can be included in that category) possesses a vision, an overarching belief about how the world and its lives proceed, and the artist enacts that vision in her daily life. The enactment is what they do. It is their life. It is their art. They are artists. I have for a long time believed that art requires great effort, and that as Emerson said of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the present work must have had a great foreground. Every work of art has a great foreground, and appears through great labor. Though sometimes the work of the artist may be judged (by some and not by all) mediocre, there is always work to be done that must be then subject to someone’s assessment. I think here of Philip Roth whose body of work spans five decades. Or I could here reference Rembrandt, Picasso or Grandma Moses. 
I have just finished reading Patti Smith’s memoir Just Friends, a portrait of the Village scene at the close of the 1960s decade and the first years of the 1970s. The book is also an intimate account of Smith’s relationship with the photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe. Smith’s book won the National Book Award for 2010. As I read her work I could not help but think of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein. Stein and Toklas resided at the very center of the Paris art scene during the first decades of the twentieth century, and across their portal passed everyone who would become central to the world of arts and letters: Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, and of course, Gertrude Stein. Indeed, it was Stein and Toklas who gave support to these artists who would transform the nature of art and literature in the twentieth century. Through the voice of Alice B., Stein notes that she, Alice, has known three geniuses in her lifetime: Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Alfred North Whitehead. Stein writes of Alice that she typed the manuscripts of Stein’s numerous and increasingly more complex texts. Stein worked fully at her writing. 
In her book Patti Smith recounts the arts and letters population amongst whom she and Mapplethorpe moved: Harry Smith, Sam Shepherd, Andy Warhol (and, of course, his entire Factory), Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Roy Lichtenstein, Janis Joplin, Phil Ochs and more; I would not continue name dropping the name dropping that fills Smith’s memoir book. If 23 Rue de Fleuris was the center of the expatriate artistic community in Paris, then the Chelsea Hotel and Max’s Kansas City served as the meeting place of late 20th century avant garde art and rock and roll. And circling ever about it and attempting to enter was Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, at the time her friend (just friends) and lover. Eventually, of course, both succeeded in their quest to attain prominence in that circle—Mapplethorpe became a renowned photographer and Smith an early and very influential incarnation of punk. 
I am not familiar with the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, though I did follow the controversies surrounding what some consider his pornographic photos. At some point Smith says that Mapplethorpe turned pornography into art, though I have a feminist daughter who says that pornography is oppressive to women and antithetical to art. I am not at all prudish, but I am uncomfortable with some of the S&M images Mapplethorpe produced. Nor am I in the least qualified to judge Smith’s assessment. I have looked at other art books reproducing Mapplethorpe photos, and looked on-line at a few others, and I find some of his portraits startlingly beautiful. I know that the world of art holds Mapplethorpe’s corpus in very high regard and that at any time several exhibitions of his work are mounted in international venues. I know he is an artist. 
And I was in the 1970s enamored of Patti Smith, and in my basement warping apace are original pressings of her early albums, Horses and Easter. I experienced a number of live, and celebrated her performance. At one show at the Bottom Line I have a distinct memory of Smith holding a plastic catsup dispenser as a penis and spraying the first tables with catsup ejaculate. Someone in the front was not pleased, and after berating her for staining his clothes she tossed him some bills to cover his dry cleaning. I lost touch with her not long after that, or she dropped away from the scene when she married Fred Sonic Smith in 1980. I thrill each time I hear the version of her collaboration with Springsteen “Because the Night,” and several years ago I purchased a CD of hers for the anthemic “Power to the People.” 
I teach a course steeped in autobiography, and so her memoir interested me not only for its portrait of the 1960s in which I was very much a participant, but for its genre and style as well. I am interested in how people tell their stories. Autobiography is as much about hiding as it is about revelation, and as much is learned from the former as from the latter.  And, besides, my dear friend Gayle had read the book; she and I were both Patti Smith fans (I think we attended the concert at the Academy of Music together) and I thought that it would be pleasurable to sit over wine with her and discuss ourselves and Patti Smith. 
But I am going to return right now to the original question: what does it take to be an artist? What does one have to do to become an artist?  Smith and Mapplethorpe both wanted to be artists, though I am not certain what either of them might have meant by that term. There does not seem to have been for either of them any overriding vision of art so much as there was a concept of being the artist. For Smith, her ideal seems to have been Rimbaud and Jim Morrison. Bob Dylan albums played constantly in her background. I don’t recall who Mapplethorpe set up as model, if he held to any at all, although Mapplethorpe held Andy Warhol in high esteem, though, again, I do not recall anything he said concerning Warhol’s art; the book does not address this area. Rather, it was to Warhol’s lifestyle and notoriety that Mapplethorpe seemed to have been most attracted. Now, Patti at least owned art books, acquired as regular gifts from her mother and by her own purchases from book stores, but Smith doesn’t suggest that Mapplethorpe knew very much about the contexts in which he worked. As Smith writes, first he made necklaces for his mother, then he dabbled in drawing and moved serendipitously, it seemed, to photography via an acquisition of a Polaroid-Land camera. Prior to this obtaining, there had been almost no mention of any interest in photography at all. No study of its technique, its methods, or its aesthetic. So with Patti Smith: though she always sketched and wrote poems, there seemed no discipline or direction to her work. Indeed, most of her work took place clerically at Scribner’s Book Store on Fifth Avenue or downtown at the Strand. For a number of years her salary served as their primary source of income. And both seemed to stumble along in their daily lives mostly talking about being artists, but not seeming to work at being artists. I never got the sense that the eventual success of either of the two derived from their work but rather, from the influences of who they knew out in the world. They simply needed the proper environment and they would then blossom as artists in the same way as a rose with care becomes what it was meant to be: a rose. 
Both Smith and Mapplethorpe made friends with the rich and powerful, and these powerful friends were able to purchase for both of them the entry into the society that would entertain and assist in the dissemination of their work. The quality of their work never in question: they were artists and what they produced was art. Both had rich patronsMapplethorpe subsidized by Sam Wagstaff and Patti Smith by Sam Shepherd (and others), and their work received a public viewing because their patrons has influence and money to buy then equipment, supplies and artistic venue. And I never had the sense in the book that the two of them were ever doing much more than playing around in their art as children might run about in a playground. Smith and Mapplethorpe starved as do artists, involved themselves in the art world and surrounded themselves with artists, but they did not seem to ever work like artists. The work they produced, the book suggests, resulted then, from their genius and not from their effort. And I think this is a very bourgeois romantic view of the artist. The artist derives from Nature.
There is an unconscious revelation that suggests this late in the book. Patti has traveled to Charleville and visited the grave of Arthur Rimbaud. “I wanted a souvenir,” she says. As if the event would not be authentic unless she took back a material piece from it. And so at a flea market on the place Ducale, she found a “simple ring of gold wire,” not unlike one purchased for her earlier by John McKendry. But, Patti Smith says, she could not afford the ring, and so did not acquire it. But, the entire trip occurred in the first place at the largesse of Sam Shepherd who underwrote the entire pilgrimage. Then she adds, “I imagined Robert here by my side. He would have gotten me the ring and slipped it on my finger.” Of course, the first ring wasn’t purchased by Robert nor placed by him on her finger, and Robert would have only had the money to purchase the ring from the financial support he was receiving from his benefactor, Sam Wagstaff. On the very ample financial foundation of the benefactor’s funds, Smith has constructed an entire fantasy of poverty-stricken romantic artist-lovers. The image is romantic but counterfeit: it substitutes fantasy for reality and invents an impossible scene filled with idealistic longing and emotion but lacking in substance. It wasn’t going to happen that way. Nor does art. 
The two achieved great success, but in Just Friends I can’t discover the effort. The illusion presented here then is that the two are simply brilliant and their work erupts spontaneously and effortlessly out of their ample genius. I cannot accept this perspective. 
I mean: it took James Joyce seven years to produce Ulysses, and Whitman worked his entire life on Leaves of Grass. And the novels of George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) fill and weigh down all by themselves a full book shelf in my basement library. And Dylan, now seventy years old, has been touring throughout his life and for the past twenty-five years or so without pause. And still regularly enough produces new work. These, to my mind, work and their work we deem art. They are artists. At least today.


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