This book is a keeper (though I have to return my library copy, alas!).
It narrates the true-life incredible journey of two struggling artists who clamoured to the top with nothing more than raw talent and their dreams. It is also a portrait of New York life in the 70s, life on the fringes of Warhol’s Factory and the short blaze of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and the artistic poverty of the Chelsea Hotel playing out to the backdrop of Vietnam.
It is one generation’s answer to the question: what does it take to be an artist?
1. Belief: Patti Smith and Robert Maplethorpe were not born into families steeped in artistic tradition. Maplethorpe came from middle class Catholic Stock, while Smith’s family was poor though intellectually inclined. Somewhere along the way, both of them decided art was their calling. Smith used to steal art books and pore over them. Maplethorpe experimented with LSD and chucked a stable career as a commercial artist. Each ran away to New York, where they met entirely by chance.
The road of the artist who has no benefactor is paved with hunger and poverty and working monotonous jobs and struggling to keep the spark alive at night and sometimes selling your body in order to buy men’s magazine’s to make the collages that will take the world by storm years later. It takes some conviction to keep going even when gallery after gallery turns you away.
2. Imitation: Artists come into their own aesthetic by studying the work of other artists. They also move among likeminded people, drawing inspiration from them. They cultivate their own style, sometimes starting out looking like clichés. But the common rule is to give free reign to their impulses and then structure the results. I used to mock people who seemed to self-consciously arty. But now I can see that taking on the mantle of the artistic life can actually stimulate creativity. Patti and Robert landed up in the Chelsea Hotel where they rubbed shoulders with poets, artists and musicians, both established and budding. They gained acceptance to this circle because the gatekeepers saw potential in them. They also worked to gain admission to some circles such as that of Andy Warhol. And thus they gained opportunities within the creative vortex of the age.
3. Support and freedom: The other interesting aspect of their story is their relationship. They started off as friends who quickly became lovers, but then Robert discovered he was homosexual. However, they had made a pact to be there for each other for life, and they were. On and off, they had other relationships. Their core friendship was bigger than these. There may have be jealousy and friction but they endured. It’s a model of an alternative to the institutionalized marriage. They were more connected and supportive of each other than most married people, yet they were sexually and creatively free.
4. Humility: Patti has a poetry reading that takes the art scene by storm. Offers keep pouring in, but she turns them down. She feels that things are coming too easy (considering she had to steal for food sometimes, I don’t think so) and that she’s not ready. She turns them down, until she feels she is worthy. How refreshingly different from the ‘grab every chance’ we’ve been schooled on. This resonated with me because I myself turn down opportunities if I feel I’m not ready for them. I have seen people jump at the chance to be promoted even if they have little experience. To some extent I’m of the old school. I believe in apprenticeship. I haven’t done too badly, but others have done better.
5. Free-spirits: We like to think of artists as allied to one medium only, but it seems like an artist is an artist is an artist. A medium is just that, a way of expressing something that serves the idea. Both Patti and Robert moved through mediums until they found what they were comfortable with. And though Robert is best known for photography and Patti as a rock star, they probably didn’t think of themselves that way.