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August 12, 2006

Winning Artists

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

* The photographer Robert Mapplethorpe became so much of a political cause that the question of how good an artist he was rarely came up. (FWIW, I was never much of a fan myself.) Serena Davies pans his work, and shares a few unpleasant facts about his personality too.

* The painter Amedeo Modigliani wasn't in the running for a "Best Personality" award either, it seems.



posted by Michael at August 12, 2006


I think Mapplethorpe was a brilliant photographer, I find it hard to deny the aesthetic integrity and formal beauty of his photos. The Davies review you linked to struck me as a nasty little hit job. (The little left-wing PC jibe about "exploiting" his black subjects is an annoyingly constricted way of looking at art, as is the silly gossip about how he supposedly treated his pets when he was a kid). But even she is forced to pay grudging tribute to his enormous talents. I think Mapplethorpe is one of the artists who will last from this century. Not in the sense of being one of the very best, but one of the very good ones in an important field (photography).

I wonder if your sense that Mapplethorpe is admired by left-wing ideologues you don't like has affected your ability to judge his art. FWIW, Mapplethorpe is in no sense politically correct, and is almost as controversial on the left as he is on the right. The contemporary theorist who is closest to him ideologically is probably Camille Paglia, who is a big admirer of his art.

Posted by: MQ on August 12, 2006 4:21 PM

"He later boiled the head of his pet monkey after it died of neglect, and turned it into a musical instrument."

Best thing I've read in weeks!

Posted by: Peter on August 12, 2006 8:30 PM

Yep, I agree with Peter! Thanks, Mr. Blowhard.

This is a subject I've been thinking about: separating the artist from the art, if that is possible. Take a look at "The Artist as Fucker" at if you have a moment.

Posted by: nigress on August 12, 2006 9:20 PM

I admire the beauty of Mapplethorpe's photos, but I'm pretty glad I wasn't there.

More than that, I never know how to handle the problem of liking the art (or at least thinking it's okay) while heartily disliking the artist. One would think that the personality of the artist would show through the work or that the likeability of the person might affect the success in the art world. Most of the time it does, but there are a few people who really exploit those around them. Turf wars in the art world can be vicious because the alternative to major success is not "minor" success -- just flat failure.

This becomes even more complicated when the artist in question is, for instance, American Indian and gets away with dubious practices strictly on that basis. I suppose Mapplethorpe is out there far enough on the fringe to do that as well.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on August 12, 2006 9:35 PM

MQ -- I wish it were true! But I as aware of Mapplethorpe before he became the big freedom-of-expression mascot that he did, and I wasn't a fan then either. But did my annoyance level with his owrk go up during all the trials and debates ... Hmm. I don't think so. What I mainly remember is being sort of amused by the way, with every trial and headline, his "importance" as a "significant artist" went up. I wonder if the rep will hold up. Maybe you and Camille are right about him.

Peter -- Artists, eh?

Nigress, Mary -- The whole "what if I love the art and dislike the artist" question isn't a minor one, is it? Let alone how to handle it. I guess my way of wrangling with it has been to conclude that "the artist" and "his/her talent" are two different things, and come from two different places. That way I get to shrug my shoulders or roll my eyes about the person, but still worship the talent. What's your own way of contending? (BTW, Nigress? In a world where "tar baby" and "niggardly" are no longer usable, you're living a little dangerously, aren't you?)

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 13, 2006 8:16 AM

The reverse -- loving the artist, hating the art -- is also a little tricky. And complicated when one knows that the artists is personally romancing the customer to help sales.

But what's wrong with art being complicated? Is it supposed to be all roses, no thorns or stinkbugs?

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on August 13, 2006 12:44 PM

I always loathed Mapplethorpe's art, while recognising that he was in some sense massively talented. As for his personality - it's hardly news that a lot of artists are real shits.

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on August 13, 2006 7:59 PM


I guess my way of wrangling with it has been to conclude that "the artist" and "his/her talent" are two different things, and come from two different places. That way I get to shrug my shoulders or roll my eyes about the person, but still worship the talent.

I wonder why you keep slamming America's child-o-centric culture and yet are willing to "worship" (your word) the output of one class of spoiled-brat, permanently child-like, narcissistic, amoral individuals: to wit, artists.

Do I accurately detect some profound ambivalence toward the highly indulged here? Or some ambivalence about the general topic of indulgence?

I remember a review of a theatrical performance of "Cabaret" which concluded that the outrageous characters in the play (at least in this particular version) seemed almost yearning for some stern authority figure to set them straight--if not Hitler, exactly, then perhaps Oliver Cromwell. It seems as if the monstrously indulged (or the indulged monsters) and the puritan are flip sides of a coin, no?

To take my own perpetual view here, I suspect that puritanical and licentious (narcissistic) behavior are inevitable when there is a lack of commonly accepted, socially inclusive narratives about the meaning and purpose of life and death. Historically, at least, these narratives have taken the form of a religion. And this gets back to the same point I'm always hammering on, which is that today's cultural/artistic crisis--the sense that the dominant artistic and career strategy of the pomo era is "whatever it takes to get noticed"--is at root a religious crisis.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 14, 2006 12:18 AM

P. Mary -- That can be a really awkward one, can't it? Though it seems to me more a social-etiquette problem than a metaphysical one ... Not that that's insignificant!

IP - Was he that talented? I always took him to be doing not a lot more than fusing Irving Penn–style frozen-glamor classicism with a lot of gay-punk attitude. So I have to give him kudos for audacity ... And maybe audacity can be a kind of talent ... But just in raw image-making terms, whether technical or conceptual, it seems to me that there are scads of photographers in his league or beyond ... But I'm apparently a tiny minority on this ...

FvB -- I worship the art-creations of art-talent, some of which (alas) emanate from none-too-admirable people. I'm not sure how that has much to do with also noticing that a lot of American parents are letting their kids run the show these days (while pushing them too hard at the same time). But I'm probably missing your point where that goes. I agree with your hunch that there's a religious crisis in the air, though I'd venture that even at times of official crisis there's still a kind of unofficial religion that people adhere to. Official-type religions may not do a lot for a lot of people any longer. But a lot of Americans still seem to buy into the idea that material success equals happiness equals deliverance ... Although, come to think of it, more and more Americans seem to think of "success" (and thus religious deliverance) as fame and/or celebrity, or maybe just having a hit videoblog on YouTube ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 14, 2006 12:35 AM


Is my comparison of indulged artists to indulged children so outlandish? And if you agree that these two groups are, in fact, fairly similar, then I think the question of why you think artists should be indulged (if only professionally) while children should, presumably, be seen but not heard is a fairly reasonable one.

I also think that in the absence of more traditional religion, making a religion out of either aestheticism (worshipping Mapplethorpe or other artists) or child-rearing (Modern breeder America) are highly similar 'solutions.'

Between the two, I would suggest that the latter is perhaps more reasonable, if only for biological reasons, than the former, but that may reflect my own "breeder" status.

And in any case, in a "God is dead" world, it's very hard to ask the practitioners of either aestheticism or reproductiveism to exercise moderation.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 14, 2006 12:48 AM

FvB -- I suspect that you're looking for more in the way of depth and systematic thinking than I'm capable of. I'm just browsing and grazing around the "culture" thing and registering impressions and volunteering observations. If only there were something behind all this! I'm flattered, though.

I wonder if I haven't been clear enough about my atittudes towards the rotter-artist question. Well, I don't know if I have an attitude towards it, actually. I mean, there it is: the existence of jerks who create beautiful and moving work. Or beautiful and moving (or funny or whatever) work that has been created by people who turn out to have been or be jerks. What to make of this?

I guess I think we all contend with these basic facts of culture-life in our own ways. I'm not about to try to dictate anyone's reactions; mainly I find it interesting how people do get by. As for myself, I find it useful to make a distinction between the talented work and the artist. That way I don't have to read the talent into the artist. Instead I get to take it as god-given, which leaves me not having too much trouble with the idea that the vehicle may be unworthy of its payload.

As to what we, or anyone, should make of the dilemma itself: well, sure beats me. I'm not exactly sure if there's anything that can be done about it, aside from adjusting to the facts of the matter somehow. These people, and their talent, seem to come along whether we want 'em to or not. I suppose a person could say, Oh, the hell with it all, and just turn off on culture entirely. I certainly wouldn't find fault with such a move. The culture-thing can certainly break hearts, and who wants that?

What's your own fave way to contend with it?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 14, 2006 1:41 AM

I've never known what to do about the art/artist problem myself. Neither does Aaron Haspel, it seems:

"Elisabeth Schwarzkopf died. She was a Nazi. Her favorite conductor was a Nazi. Her version of "Winterweihe," by Richard Strauss, a Nazi, has run through my head at least once a week for the last twenty years."

Posted by: Derek Lowe on August 14, 2006 6:13 AM

I think that there is a more serious issue to be dealt with here.

Why is the mythology of the artist so filled with the romance of living like a pig?

My years in Woodstock (35 and counting) have exposed me to a treasure trove of this nonsense. The music biz abounds with people who live scurrilous lives, ignore their children, exploit every person who crosses their path and view the world as little more than material for the next show. The pigs are usually proud of their piggery.

I don't get it. Well, in a way I do. Outrage is one of the easiest aesthetic impulses to invoke. It's kind of childish, but it works. Fart jokes, well everybody can understand that.

Oddly, one of my favorite writers is Henry Miller, who lived like an absolute swine for the first 50 years of his life. In his later years, he was acutely aware of his own piggery and ruthlessly exposed said piggery in his writing.

The left, in Woodstock and elsewhere, cannot drag itself out of its admiration for this swinish behavior. It seems that the majority of art exhibits and music performances that I see and hear about are attempts to shock the supposedly bourgeois sensibilities of the audience with some sort of revolting display of outrageous behavior. And, the funny thing is, the purveyors of these outrageous don't seem to ever understand how boring and worn out that act has become.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on August 14, 2006 7:23 AM

Friedrich is singing my kind of song: the common origins of "high" art and serious religion, both of which address how to "be" in the world. Science has made us see everything so differently than before (well, MOST of us) that it's hard to process the boundaries between living and dead, "us" and "them," safe and dangerous, or even "real" vs. imaginary. Lines have shifted so drastically that it's hard to process both intellectually and emotionally. Consider the discussion of stem cells -- are they babies or not? Consider the current exhibit of plasticized dead people, dissected but posing as though they were alive.

Incidentally, this weekend I had a guest who is a professor of photography. He said it is generally accepted that much of the quality of Mapplethorpe's output is due to the diligence and talent of his brother, whom he treated badly though the brother did almost all the high quality technical stuff. Maybe the interesting question is why this group of people around Mapplethorpe stuck with him -- was it the honor of it all once he was famous? Was there another side of M. that no one else knew?

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on August 14, 2006 8:31 AM

Derek -- That's a good and bang-on Aaron quote, tks.

ST -- Hey, I like fart jokes! But that's a really good set of points. We should hold a gun to FvB's head and force him to write the history of how this state of affairs came to be. In the midst of it all, I also find myself marveling at the weird polarization that's happened. On the lefty/artyt side: tons of childish, self-righteous acting-out. But -- and let's not kid ourselves -- on the right, there's barely an arty side at all, though it's fun to see a little something start to emerge. Righties can be awfully stuffy and cautious. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but not a lot of art comes out of it, at least not so far. Anyway, what a weird state of affairs: neither one's very appealing, at least from a "Where's my art?" point of view. Because of my own peculiar tastes and drives, I find myself in the midst of it mainly wondering: "Where's the fun? Where's the sexiness? Where's the irreverence? Where's the bouyancy?" Remember "Candy"? "Lolita"? I could put on a straight face and argue that irreverence and sexiness have a lot to do with why many people are interested in the arts in the first place, and that cutting ourselves off from such energies and interests and pleasures is cutting ourselves off from a lot that's fun and rewarding about art generally. And both left and right seem not to be just missing that particular target but to be pretending it doesn't exist. But this thread may not be the place to do that ...

P. Mary -- That's really well put, as well as interesting about Mapplethorpe and bro. The Wife and I once knew a guy who had done some of the actual painting for Damien Hirst (whose shows often have some visual design and painting in addition to the sharks and balloons). Super-skillful, super-talented, and of course getting no credit in the reviews. What we heard was that Hirst spends most of his time getting drunk, then occasionally having whacky avant-garde installation-art concepts, and telling people to go execute 'em.

That said, I wonder sometimes if we don't make a bit of a mistake when we ask our artists to be thinkers and Deep People in addition to being craftsmen and entertainers. I have no way of knowing if this is true (or even how to measure such a hunch), but my guess is that a lot of the depth and intellectual/moral content that we sometimes see in art is stuff that we (ie., the audience, not the artist) project into it. I've met 'way too many prize-winning straight-faced, NY Review of Book-type high-artists who in person turned out to be sillies, or nuts, or not very sharp ... Their art may or may not be great, and they may tackle important "issues" in a profound way. But the contrast between the person (often silly) and the art (grave, dignified) was often as great among the Serious High Art crowd as it is among the funky crowd, where the contrast is usually between the fun (the work) and the awful (the person). So maybe we're ... just plain mistaken or something to want our artists to live up to what we see -- or think we see -- in their art. I mean, a few artists *will* be responsible thinkers and Deep People (Frederick Turner is one such, for example, and god bless him for it). But it seems so extraordinary and hyper-rare as to be self-defeating to spend a lot of energy hoping and hoping for more such.

But I'm superficial: I'll take pleasure where I can get it, a few exceptions allowed for. No need to cut bad behavior any slack, but if the meal's delicious it seems a sin to throw it out just because the chef's a dick.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 14, 2006 10:21 AM

Well, there is one artistic arena that is very conservative, and that is country music... which is also the most successful popular music form. Country music is patriotic, encourages values like hard work and family life, etc.

I don't generally buy into the notion that artists are lefties out of choice. They've got a gun to their heads. Artistic careers are generally formed in late adolescence or early adulthood, in the midst of academia and the natural tendency of the young toward liberalism.

I started performing in the Red Herring Coffee House at the Unitarian Church in Champaign, Illinois. (So did Dan Fogelberg and Steve Goodman.) It wasn't just assumed that you were a socialist and peacenik... you had better be or you weren't going to have a stage to perform on.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on August 14, 2006 12:26 PM

MB, I think there are plenty of politically conservative artists. But they are not conspicuous because either 1) they don't want to make trouble for themselves with the leftist majority, 2) they concentrate on art and don't think politics (or political posturing) are required (this certainly applies to many lefties too) and 3) the leftist arts establishment ignores them.

For example, a buddy of mine is a sculptor and a conservative. He lives in an artsy area and has a day job in a sculptors' foundry. He spends a lot of time around leftists, and generally keeps his politics to himself except among friends. I think there are many like him.

Posted by: Jonathan on August 14, 2006 10:58 PM

Oh yeah, Mapplethorpe.

The controversy about Mapplethorpe and govt arts funding occurred before the Internet. Back then I wasn't sufficiently interested to track down his books, so I assumed that the critics were right and his photos were unusually shocking. But now it's easy to find examples of his photos on the Net, and I see that their pornographic qualities are not a big deal (whip handle up the butt, whatever), but that I dislike the photos for other reasons. In particular they strike me as extremely bleak and self-obsessed.

The reviewer's mention of Henri Cartier-Bresson is apt. HCB was out in the world for decades, photographing all kinds of people and all kinds of behaviors and events: war, sex, ordinary life, disaster, love, tragedy, comedy, portraits, etc. He had a sympathetic eye and a sense of humor, and obviously a good sense of beauty as well. A lot of his photos are technically imperfect yet still pleasing to look at. He was curious, outward-looking, anything but self-obsessed.

Contrast him with Mapplethorpe, whose pictures tend to be technically elegant, emotionally cold, inward looking set-pieces. It's as if, while HCB was out traveling the world in the sun and rain, meeting interesting new people, that Mapplethorpe had locked himself into a musty room in the basement with a few other tormented souls and had no interest in anything outside. While HCB didn't make self-portraits and was loathe to allow himself to be photographed, many of Mapplethorpe's images are literal or metaphorical self-portraits.

I think it can be valuable and even enjoyable to study the obsessively self-referential works of troubled artists -- but not all of the time. The world is full of beautiful and interesting things to see and life is short. For me, looking at Mapplethorpe's images for more than a brief period makes me want to run outside into the sun, both metaphorically and literally.

Posted by: Jonathan on August 14, 2006 11:57 PM

I can't believe these comparisons between artists and children. Do you guys like art or not? Of course there is a profound linkage between art and childhood -- namely the relation of play to art -- but good art lifts and transforms play through the admixture of profound, deep discipline. The chaotic, amoral nature of art (which has been commented on since Plato, who also couldn't stand artists) comes from its kinship to childhood and probably does have some relationship to the "immature" personal qualities that artists sometimes exhibit. But the focus, will, drive and discipline it takes to be truly successful in an artistic or creative field is very adult, it takes a lot of personal power, whether the person is an asshole or not. Now, bad artists may use the label "artist" as nothing but an excuse to be nothing other than spoiled, unproductive children, but that is because they are bad artists, not because they are artists.

One of the sadnesses of adulthood is the extent to which we need to abandon freedom and play in order to be productive and creative. Not all of us, and not all the time, but enough. Artists at their best manage to avoid this, which is why we are fascinated by them and so often envy them.

Posted by: MQ on August 15, 2006 2:18 AM

Jonathan – Comparisons between Henri Cartier-Bresson and Mapplethorpe are strained at best. HCB was (at least supposedly) all about the "found image." His aesthetic was one of being in the world with a camera and, when he saw a moment, an image, he would capture it; the "journalist' mode of photography. Mapplethorpe was a "studio" photographer. His images were entirely controlled with a posed model, carefully lit and carefully shot; the "artist" mode of photography. these are very different disciplines.

Back in the day, I always knew when Jesse Helms was in high gear fund raising for a reelection campaign because there was bound to be a big controversy about some artist like Mapplethorpe getting NEA funds. Inevitably, if you actually tracked the details, some tiny amount of a more general grant (say $500 from a $15,000 grant for curatorial services or what-have-you) could, by a stretch of bookkeeping logic, be said to have gone toward a Mapplethorpe exhibition. "Stop spending our tax dollars on porn!!!" makes a great funding slogan.

I tend to like Mapplethorpe's floral images and "straight" portraits far better than his sexually charged material. However, like a lot of artists, he had a clientele and wanted to keep making sales; there was/is a solid market for his more provocative material and he sometimes catered to that market.

As for the connection between an artist's personality or politics and their art, I for one think it is beside the point unless you're interested in being a friend of the artist. Caravaggio was a reputed murderer but he was a hell of a great painter and the world would be the worse for it should we destroy all his art because he was an evil thug. Also, most artists work primarily alone and often through years of disappointment and negativity. To keep going almost requires an oversized ego that doesn't make for "nice guy" status.

And, as to Shouting Thomas' comments about Woodstock's "swinish" arty/leftist musicians, all I can say is; "Huh???" I've known a lot of musicians over the years and even have a number of musician friends who live in the Woodstock area. One or two have been a#*holes and piggish, most have been lovely, decent, family oriented folks. They might tend to be a bit more liberal than average, but not by much. Most are proud of their children and more engaged with their families than most of the stock brokers and business executives I've known.

Posted by: Chris White on August 15, 2006 3:57 PM

S.T. -- That's a good point about c&w. I wonder what the other art-forms or art-genres are that tend in a rightish direction ...

Jonathan -- I've often wondered the same thing: how many people, in fields like the arts where everyone's simply expected to be NPRish, are simply playing along for the sake of seeming to play along, meanwhile feeling comletely different about things.

MQ -- That's nicely put, and you've got me thinking about another posting that deserves to be done: how much trouble some conventional people have with arty bohemian-types. You'd think people leading conventional lives would get a kick out of the fact that there are other people out there walking down different paths, and god knows many of them do. But some of them seem really offended, or threatened, or alarmed, or indignant, or maybe jealous. What could possibly be that upsetting to them? That said, I think what many people who like the arts do find appalling isn't that artists are often a little difficult -- the art life is often a rough one to lead, and (as you say) staying in touch with the playful side while at the same time focusing and acting like an adult is a strange psychological game to play. I think that's OK with many people. (Unless I'm wrong about this!) I think what a lot of people are appalled by is the way that a lot of artists are encouraged (and encourage each other) to be difficult. They seem to cultivate the being-an-artist thing less than the being-an-asshole thing.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 15, 2006 5:19 PM

MB wrote:
You'd think people leading conventional lives would get a kick out of the fact that there are other people out there walking down different paths, and god knows many of them do. But some of them seem really offended, or threatened, or alarmed, or indignant, or maybe jealous. What could possibly be that upsetting to them?

That's easy. They resent the attitude of entitlement projected by subsidized artists, and by the fans of such artists who insist that the rest of us are philistines because we don't want to underwrite their hobbies. The problem with Mapplethorpe was that he was producing works revolving around a squalid and self-destructive subculture that most Americans were not terribly interested in. That's fine as far as it goes. Many of us wouldn't have minded, under other circumstances, checking out his works. But to be told by the subsidized-arts enthusiasts and bureaucrats that this is the kind of work that deserves your attention, and that you should be forced to pay for it even if you dislike it, and that you are a lout if you resent having your face rubbed in it, was too much.

Posted by: Jonathan on August 16, 2006 7:01 AM

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