Last night I finished Patti Smith’s book about her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids. Lying in bed with tears rolling down into my neck, I had so many thoughts racing through my head. Life, death, New York, art, the artist, the idea that a love can transcend multiple planes. I laid still, taking in everything I had just read and letting it permeate. It was a good book and I enjoyed the journey.
However, during my time reading Just Kids, there was an underlying current that kept gnawing at my psyche. An idea that made me question my own views on art and the artist. Mid-way through the book I began questioning the validity of the two characters. I chastised them both for being directionless, for creating for the sake of creating with seeming disregard to what the medium was. To me, they appeared to be waiting for something to stick. Robert in particular bothered me for his creative ambitions seemed to solely revolve around fame and fortune. His creative outlets were more erratic as he desperately tried finding what would catch. My faith in him as an artist wavered even more when it appeared his art centered more around being shocking than anything else.
My idea of an artist has always been someone who was either blessed from the womb with an artistic gift or knew very early on what their artistic path in life would be and they spent years cultivating that craft. To me, Patti and Robert seemed like two lost souls, trying the roulette wheel of creative mediums until one finally gave way to them.
This idea picked up greater steam when I thought about the other “characters” in the book. Characters like Andy Warhol, The Factory gang, Lou Reed, and Richard Hell. All artists who are not necessarily know for being masters of their craft, but masters of wanting to be masters of their craft…and looking good while doing it. People who dedicated so much time and energy to their cause, that the illusion became bigger than the product and in turn, they became symbols of art. This ocean of floating tokens became known as the Great East Village Sea and it was filled with others just like them. Like Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. They all became a representation of a time where everyone was attempting the same goal. In Just Kids, Patti critiques the view of Robert’s idol, Andy Warhol, by saying “I preferred an artist who transformed his time, not mirrored it” and I can’t help but feel the same can be said for Patti and Robert.
For the lack of a better word, I saw them as scenesters. Very good at creating the idea of who they are and what they contributed to the world.
This led me to think about the overall view towards East Village in the 70’s and 80’s. Such a saturated time of artists, progressives, intellects, and weirdos. It is a time that many of us emulate. We curse our parents for not birthing us sooner. We think maybe, maybe in a past life I was one of them too. I wonder why do we idolize them? And the answer I came up with was because they’ve shown us that if the desire is strong enough, we can be like them too. It didn’t look that hard to be an artist.
At this point you’re probably shaking your head, already coming up with your retort in the comment section. At least I hope you are. However, I have to tell you, after finishing the book, I came to think a different way. After reading about the decades of dedication and sacrifices Patti and Robert made for the sake of art, I came to the conclusion that there isn’t just one definition of an artist. An artist doesn’t necessarily have to be Michelangelo or Beethoven to contribute to the world. They also don’t have to create a product that every single person can relate to. The reason why Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe and the hundreds of other unique artists that came out of New York at that time are so popular is because they continue to inspire generations to come- including myself.
And when you really boil it down, isn’t that what being a good artist is all about?
My question is where is that scene or group with such vast influence in the last twenty years. Is art no longer the cultural touchstone it was? Who are the faces of the future up and commers?
Video killed the radio star,
Internet killed the Video star,
Digital and Instant gratification killed the Artist…
The Artist is now Imitation Elvis in a trailer park chapel.
Oh man. These really are the big questions. Like, the REALLY BIG ones.
I like the definition of "Artist" as someone who inspires others. The definitions of art, and what kinds of art are worth paying for (which, of course, effects artists' ability to get paid for it) will always change, but we'll always have pretty much the same potential to be moved and inspired.
I like the story of Patti and Robert for how much they wanted to be their to support each other. Everyone should do that.
If we need to call ourselves artists to feel that kind of support for each other, then, hell… we should ALL call ourselves artists.
With all due respect to Smith and Mapplethorpe, who undoubtedly have influenced some of our best and brightest, I sometimes bristle at the glorification and idealization of that era in NYC, and of art in general. I also bristle at the way people think of "artist". I know many people who wouldn't consider me a "real" artist because I have a day job in finance, regardless of the fact that I have a busy and committed career as a writer for the theater. Just because you're starving and hang out in cool bars doesn't mean you're an artist either. I think one of the problems lately is image over substance. If you look the part, then you ARE. I can't tell you how many people consider themselves artists who don't really create anything and/or look down on other creatives for not following some prescribed path or image. The image that Smith and Mapplethorpe created seems to be the standard, but is nearly unattainable by today's standards. The world has changed.
An artist is a person who uses their creative mind to try to answer the big questions of life. They put the searching into some sort of form – painting, music, theater, sculpture. They need not be as famous or as relevant as Smith to be an artist. The artistic landscape has certainly changed, and will continue to, but I think the thrust of why people become artists hasn't changed all that much.
Insightful review, I'm putting it on hold at the library now. I didn't even really know about Patty Smith, a bit before my time, until recently.
Scenesters as you call them, seems to be what good artists are. They know how to command a presence, whereas artists who create and then retreat, never gain the fame that may be due.
What are you reading now after such a good book? I hate when a good book is over…
I liked this post. Honestly it seems everyone I know right now, IS TRYING TO BE AN ARTIST. I commend them for trying – but have that niggle that surely talent is born? Someone suggested I study a Fine Arts degree instead of the Pscyhology deg I intend on finishing…and I'm thinking, well yes, i like to make stuff – but i dont think actually think I'm any good at it. And that is not a self-esteem issue. I really don't have any talent for it. Anyway, I digress, back to…I like this post. You write very well.
I just looked up the definition of art to prove a point here:
"the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance."
The very idea of categorizing something based on "what is beautiful" is impossible. The subjective nature of art makes it purely impossible to categorize.
Someone may adore your work, while others will be repulsed by it, and that is the nature of the beast. To find art that is fulfilling to the artist from a creative point of view, valued by the consumer, and respected by the critic is a combination that most are unable to achieve. I think that Smith and Mapplethorpe (and especially Warhol) were smart enough to understand the "business" of art to approach their creativity with all three of those criteria in mind. Is that "true art"? I don't know. No one does. There is no such thing as true art.
I suffer with the idea of a medium myself. As someone who primarily regards herself as a performer, I am constantly seeking another outlet, a way to produce more tangible creations, and I don't think that that is "cheapening" the process of being an artist in any way.
We all seek art as a form of expression and there is no "wrong" expression. The world needs to find a way to encourage it for purposes other than commercialism. That is the most important thing right now.
Wow, I rambled.
i like to consider miself an artist. i was born with a creative mind and a talent for writing. i idolize Patti Smith for her unique perspectives and overwhelming boldness. Art to me is something like an ameba, something simple yet complex and ever changing. Art is supposed to be beautiful, intriguing, thought provoking, repulsive, and memorable all at once to any people. It should encapsulate an emotion and touch everyone in a deep place. Art should be free and unrestricted but still have limits. i'm only 18 but i have mi opinions. also i love your reviews. (B
Inflammatory Writ summed it up nice. I agree with what she said.
[…] thought about my friend Lauren’s post on her blog, Hipstercrite, while reading this book, and particularly her first few lines: […]