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Lives of the Artists

December 16, 2010

I’d had Patti Smith’s Just Kids on my shelf for a few weeks, but was motivated to start it after seeing her on Colbert.  I’m drawn more and more to books about New York, especially in the days when it was accessible – that golden age (of sorts) from the 50s through the 70s when it was possible to move there without being a millionaire first.  I’m sure it’s still possible, for those who are young and flexible enough to live poor, but I’ve lived really, truly poor, sick and poor, and have a particular horror of living on the economic knife edge again.  So the city must wait, for me.

I was wary I suppose because it was a book by a “poet,” a wariness that seeing her on Colbert took away.  She was so forthright and simple and unadorned with airs and manners – I was dreading a cascade of “luminous prose,” that most overused cliché of book reviewing, or a mountain of fetishized “sentences.”  But what I got was Orwellian prose, in that Orwell once said (really the only thing you need to know about writing) “Good prose is like a window pane.”  Her “voice” (another overused word that’s become both politicized and diluted) was so clean and clear; she let her story, and the story of her lifelong friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, tell itself, knowing that the story itself was magic and that was enough.

We often think of the sexual outlaws of days past as having been born free, as if the moment they discovered their sexuality, it was unleashed.  But now I’ve read two memoirs of this era, this one and Edmund White’s City Boy, which give the lie to that.  White was the author of The Joy of Gay Sex, and yet he was in therapy for years for his homosexuality, convinced he was “intrinsically disordered” as the Catholic Church would say.  Mapplethorpe, even after he was producing his most outré work, was terrified when Smith announced she was getting married, because Mapplethorpe had long before that told his mother that he and Smith were married.  “I guess you will have to have to tell her we got a divorce.”  “‘I can’t say that,’ he said, eyeing me steadily. ‘Catholics don’t divorce.’” So there’s the tradeoff – they had their “sexual freedom” back then, but only externally; internally even many of the boldest were still prisoners of guilt and fear and shame.  That contradiction fueled a lot of great art, but at what price.

I’m always amazed how many people successful artists seem to know.  I get to the acknowledgements section of some books and they go on for ever, there are so many people to thank for their contributions.  I don’t know that even in NYC I would be any less solitary than I am now – were a brazillion dollars to drop in my lap, I could see myself spending years as a “consumer,” seeing plays and concerts and art and traveling, traveling, certainly writing this blog and working towards a novel, going to Columbia or NYU for art history, all that good stuff available to a cultured Gentleman of Leisure.  Smith herself was criminally shy, and yet all these people came into her life – maybe just being there, just being around art and artists, while making art, draws you in.  No doubt you have to hustle and self-promote and network and go to parties relentlessly to succeed in your field, but maybe just maybe just being there would be enough to give you a life.

I’m glad I changed the focus of this blog, and my ambitions for my next novel, to art from AI.  I’m amazed at the increase in traffic as a consequence – admittedly a good average day is 11-20 hits, but compare that with 0 or 1 or 2 hits a day during “The Alex Project.”  Either I wasn’t writing anything of value on that subject, or it wasn’t “Googly” material, full of nutritious and delicious keywords.  I’m both appalled and envious of Timothy Ferriss, who essentially used AdSense to focus-group everything that became The Four Hour Workweek, up to and including the title – appalled because it would bore me to spend my time searching for the lowest common denominator that would bring the widest possible success (which I am sure took him much more than four hours a week), and envious because now he can afford to work four hours a week.  I feel deprived of material in some ways now, because my posts on the Chaos & Classicism exhibit and Barthel Gilles’ “Ruhr Battle” are really driving traffic – how long will it be before I get back to NYC to see more, to have more to think and talk about in this department?

I should have known all along, I suppose, that a change was due, since I was complaining all that time that my only traffic was coming from searches on “Cezanne mountain paintings,” glancingly referenced in a review of a Johah Lehrer book.  Patti Smith might have said it was a sign, there to see all along.

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