I’m currently reading Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, her account of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe and their mutual development as artists. While I have some reservations about the prose, which I find a bit formal and ornate for my taste, I’m finding it fascinating for its description of the artistic milieu they lived in, in New York in the late 60s and early 70s.

One of the things that’s very striking for me is the level of poverty they lived in. I know that the starving artist is such a familiar trope it’s a cliche, but it’s also a cliche that no longer feels true, largely I think because of the easy availability of credit. (Disclaimer: I know not everybody has credit or can get credit. There are many people in Australia who do live in extreme poverty, and they are less visible than they used to be.) But Smith and Mapplethorpe lived a life of quite staggering scarcity – they had hardly any clothes, no furniture, no stuff. The money they scraped together from their part-time jobs went on art supplies or food – they rarely had enough for both when they were starting out. They lived in cheap hotels, and later in sub-let studios, but owned hardly anything. When they needed furniture, they found it in the street. It was a quite different economy from the one that we inhabit now, in which clothes and TVs and furniture can be dizzyingly expensive but also extremely cheap, and of course, most of us now have credit cards that let us acquire stuff. Eventually the credit cards have to be fed, like heroin habits, but the ready availability of credit has, for a lot of people, created a cushion against that kind of poverty. We live a very stuff-stuffed life now. Perhaps I’m wrong, and have been employed too long, but I wonder if there are many artists today who live in that kind of hand-to-mouth poverty?

The other thing that’s striking is their sense of inhabiting an artistic, bohemian culture. When I first moved to Sydney in 1993 I was looking for that kind of culture. (I’m not sure that I really found it, but it seemed exciting at the time.) But I do feel that  there has been a shift that’s taken place over my adult life, which has coincided with that long period of prosperity from the late 90s right through until the GFC in 2008, where it began to seem expected that everyone should be doing well and making money – and spending it too. Even artists, from authors reading stories of million dollar advances and painters reading about Damien Hirst’s million-dollar diamond-studded skull, couldn’t help absorbing this message that art was something you could make money at. Whatever you did, there needed to be a business model attached. Getting rich, even as an artist, was something you could aspire to.

Smith and Mapplethorpe, coming of age in the counter-culture, arrived in an artistic milieu where none of that was true. The counter-culture believed in experimentation for its own sake, artistic, emotional and sexual, with no requirement that the work should be saleable or even good. Being brave and exciting and new was enough to  aim for. Ironically, they lived on the fringes of Warhol’s Factory crowd, who exemplified the idea that being fabulous was a form of art, while at the same time Warhol himself was making art that would help create the modern art market, with its superstar artists and big money.

Patti Smith longs to be an artist, struggles to find her medium, but idolises the poets. Poetry, you’d have to say, was on its very last legs as a sexy and glamorous occupation then, but the glamour of it was still very real to Patti Smith. Today, poetry is one of those art forms that commentators regularly report the death of. Poetry publishing is shrinking, lists are closing down. Maybe the internet will save it, who knows?

I was going to write that it’s one of those art forms for which the audience is disappearing, but I feel a bit like the audience for art itself, in all forms, is disappearing. By art, I mean everything from literature to poetry to painting and sculpture, to the performing arts: opera, dance, classical music, theatre. One of the sad things about the long boom here in Australia, where money flowed so generously into people;s pockets and was translated into stuff, was that there was no corresponding pouring of money into artists pockets, either through funding bodies or through a lift in the money being spent on things like books and theatre and art. There was more money to be spent than ever, but the audience for serious art in any form seemed to recede. Why? I don’t know. The reasons are surely complex, but probably involve

– the slow receding of that counter-cultural energy, which favoured all forms of questioning, including artistic questioning, towards a more conservative frame of mind which was comfortable with and approving of the status quo

– the presence of money in our pockets, which encouraged different kinds of activity in the young (why live in a squat writing poems when you could buy a round the world plane ticket and travel?)

–  the rise of the internet, a technological form which is still evolving but has sucked up a lot of the energy we once had for other art forms

– the rise of global media/entertainment corporations. For publishing houses, being bought up by giant media conglomerates drove a change in their traditional culture, from being modestly successful to a need for a solid ROI, which forced a change in the kinds of projects they supported and the lists they ran. The need to make lots of money drives a shift in emphasis from art to entertainment, driving a blockbuster culture. And blockbusters, as we’ve seen, have a tendency to take up all the space and all the attention.

The effect of all of that – a shift from scarcity and the questioning that comes with it, to abundance, the free flow of money, and a comfort with money, plus an increasing commercialisation of almost every sphere of life, has led us to a place where the culture is far more resistant than it ever was before to the kind of bohemian life that nurtured Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, where the pursuit of artistic questioning and the artistic life, even if it meant living for a long time in poverty, was not frowned upon, and where you could find a large and thriving community of people who lived the same way, and who supported you and your aspirations. (Yes, OK, they did live in New York city, but the kind of life they lived in New York in the 60s and 70s would be completely impossibly for a young artist now.)

The other thing that’s interesting about the memoir is the way the two of them gradually diverge. Patti Smith remains stubbornly bohemian at heart, an outsider, while Mapplethorpe finds an entree to high society and the world of the rich, and enters it gladly, with a social fluidity and upward mobility that Smith doesn’t share and doesn’t want.

I’m not nostalgic about poverty. Poverty isn’t fun. It doesn’t necessarily free you creatively either – in fact, the worries poverty causes can be the very thing that stops you doing the work you want to. I think what I feel is a nostalgia for the clarity of that moment, when you’re young, when it does seem that art is the most exciting thing in the world, and the most important, and that nothing could be better than living for art.

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