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?