I didn’t feel for Warhol the way Robert did. His work reflected a culture I wanted to avoid. I hated the soup and felt little for the can. I preferred an artist who transformed his time, not mirrored it. – Patti Smith, Just Kids
My brain’s been chewing on this for the last few days. Should an artist be a mirror, something even Shakespeare claimed to do, or a transformer? Should art itself stop at reflecting life, or attempt to change it?
Patti Smith agitates me. Always. I’ve experienced her in three media now: her music, her documentary Dream of Life and her first book in prose Just Kids. Each time, I feel compelled to get up from my chair and do something. You would too, if you heard her sing:
Do you like this world around you? Are you ready to behave?
And I love her for it. I love her for waking me from my slumber, a delirium of quiet desperation, where art has become less of a revolution and more of a checklist. A resolution to fulfill, instead of a resolution to change.
I was rather surprised reading some of the top reviews on Goodreads for Just Kids. It won the National Book Award when it came out, so I suppose many who were not familiar with Smith’s music (as albums, instead of just the hit single “Because The Night”) picked it up, and didn’t quite get what she was about, or didn’t like it when they did. I admit, it’s not for everybody.
If I had to sum up the ethos of twentieth century art, I’d use the phrase “disrupt and disturb”. Breakdown, fragments, the world is not what it aspires to be. Which is what Smith’s work looks from the outside, right from her androgynous appeal, to her provocative music, to her incantatory style of delivering poetry. But, her work is wonderfully cohesive, earthy in a non-hippie way, and life-affirming. Most of all, she never seems to run after inspiration, or have a troublesome relationship with the Muses. It’s like they are always around for dinner, and Smith flits her attention from them to the gritty side of life with mature ease.
Speaking of dinner, hunger pervades much of this story, as does love, and it is a combination of the two that brings her and the actual subject of her book, artist Robert Mapplethorpe, together. It is much more than an origin story, much more than a first biography detailing ‘Before They Were Famous’ snippets of life. It is the formation of a co-dependent artistic life, in a city full of similar artistic dreamers. She frequently refers to her relationship with Mapplethorpe as that of twins, rather than partners or lovers. Each supports the other, loves the other, inspires the other, witnesses the other, and even when they are apart from each other, they blend into an entity where there is no ‘other’.
Some incidents might seem too neat to the cynical reader, but if there is anything that can be derived from this book about Patti Smith, it is her unswerving belief in destiny, in the greater significance of the littlest of things, how meaning can be derived from everything we do. I might be presumptuous in this, but it might explain her excellent work ethic. If we, as readers, are to descend from these aerial ideas, and look at the grittier side of being an artist, then Smith proves that accepting the drudgery of the real world while holding on with unshakeable faith to the one you build on your own, is a better attitude than fighting the former and chasing the latter. She works all day at a 9-to-5 job even after establishing herself as a poet, works on her art all night, and never lives with the certainty that either will provide for her and Mapplethorpe for the most basic necessities like food, rent, books, art supplies etc.
The writing style might be difficult to get into for some. It would be called poetic prose, but it is so unabashedly affective throughout, you either snigger or reach for your handkerchief. I kept the book down frequently, let the emotions wash over, and began again. But, then Smith does have a tendency to make me fight all my defenses. To be authentic in everything I do, for she is so unapologetically authentic in everything she does. In everything she is.
More reviews to come, though my ‘Of’ essays will also continue…
Read my last review on Paul Beatty’s The Sellout by clicking here.
Read my last post Of Blogging and Money by clicking here.
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