Sunday, January 16, 2011

Patti Smith's National Book Award answers questions

At first I thought it might be comparable to Charis Wilson's memoir of her life with Edward Weston (itself by no means despicable)  or some account of Stieglitz and O'Keeffe (from one side or the other, both defensible) and attributed its high Amazon ratings to the fascination of Robert Mapplethorpe.  I knew nothing of Patti Smith, her rise to fame coinciding with my convent years and my knowledge of rock outside of the popular major labels being negligible: I have already reported collecting posters without knowing the bands themselves.  But her winning the National Book Award for non-fiction, 2010,
http://www.nationalbook.org/nba2010_nf_smith.html, with very stiff competition, suggested something different.  And last Thursday she was across his famous table with Charlie Rose, who is never more delighted than when his guest is a truly remarkable woman.  Natalie Dessay, for example, was unforgettable.  Patti Smith, as most of you will know, is a multi-faceted artist and at least as unforgettable.
I had to read her book, and what with Kindle I had it in 30 seconds and now have read it.  Would it fill in much of what I'd missed during the 1970s and even in the late 1960s?  I had been called upon in the late 1980s to teach History of Photography (when a colleague was wooed away) and I had never had time to consider Robert Mapplethorpe apart from the photographs, biographically.  For photography after c. 1965 I had to cram every major photographer and technical change, besides continuing to teach Greek and Roman art, as well as Bronze Age Egypt and Near and Middle East.  And the Mapplethorpe photographs were not, per se, very puzzling: technically brilliant, tending to the iconic, formally timid, often sadomasochistic, occasionally better than that per se but, even before the famous terminal series of self-portraits, narcissistic.*  I didn't know that his upbringing had been Roman Catholic.  When he used Classical sculpture it was for what it stood for in his own terms, not considering (so far as I could see) either what Greek art meant or choosing the best examples.  He lacked Irving Penn's joy in the medium.  And, without objecting to sadomasochism on principle, I found his oddly academic in style; it takes a lot of joy in the medium to compensate for the plain physical pain of viewing sadomasochistic images empathetically.  I forget his name, but one of the New Orleans photographers of his generation did understand that to make art of frank sadomasochism demands, somehow, preserving their sexual humanity; iconic freezing is not the essence, usually, of art.  That portrait of Louise Bourgeois, on the other hand, is enlivened by the subject herself,.
Therefore, I had not been drawn to Patti Smith's book, knowing nothing of either her visual or performing work.  But, for once, even the Comments on the interview (on Jan 13) are relevant and fairly adequate.  I was astonished that at about 65 she sings wonderfully and her guitar, though without pretentious virtuosity, is well worth listening to for its own sake, no emphasis without meaning.  Alas, I always have trouble following all the words, and I don't know which CD to go to for the song she sang.  Her performance seemed to me to be just what she is, and I'd be grateful if someone can identify the song and tell me which album it's in.
The book really is a masterpiece.  She says what others don't.  She states everyone's problems and failings without cringing, without excusing, without blaming.  Her self-knowledge is just plain humbling.
Nothing is reduced to a formula or an 'explanation'.  She actually understands that sexuality is not a matter of labels.  No one and nothing is pigeonholed.  Well, go read it for yourselves.
But why do I like it so much?  She and Mapplethorpe, after all, are half a generation younger than me.  We saw things not only in our early 20s in a different decade but came from opposite sides of a huge continent.  That only makes the shared life of the young in love more believable and poignant.  A passing remark about the film Les Enfants terribles (based on Cocteau but not directed by him) about the fantasy life they share in it, its depiction, obviously entranced Patti Smith just as it had me, though I saw it much earlier (I think in 1953) and picked up in a secondhand store the 78rpm recording of the Bach Concerto for 4 Pianos, three sides, the fourth being the original Vivaldi for 4 Violins.  I shall always think of that film (1950) as fairly new, when she was a toddler, but Nicole Stephane's Elisabeth remained memorable for us both.  Never mind that it's as old as shellac 78rpm records.  The film stayed with me because it depicted more than I yet knew.
Spending one's youth really in urban bohemia, meaning the intensity and exhilaration of being wholly on one's own in a world one as yet hardly knows, and having the sanity to remember honestly and to make it art really is as universal as it is rare.
* I found an image, a Bronzino St. Sebastian, to support my impression that Mapplethorpe's work is fundamentally akin to some of the most egregious Florentine Mannerists.  Bravo, ArtProject!