I finished Patti Smith's Just Kids over the weekend. It wasn't quite what I expected. My experience of Smith up to this point has been 3 songs: Land: Horses, Rock 'N' Roll Nigga and Because the Night. And my experience of Robert Mapplethorpe would lead me to believe that Just Kids would be a loud homage to the beginnings of punk in both art and music. But it isn't. I was surprised at how quiet the book is. Quiet and musing and calm.
All I know about Robert Mapplethorpe is a handful of his photographs from, I assume, his "shy pornographer" days. I've always felt some affinity to him: Smith writes of a show at a gallery in which flowers and porn and drawings and whatnot appeared next to each other, as though there isn't ever in question that they go naturally together - which I agree with and which is why this blog is what it is. Regardless of the disapproval of others.
But just as much as Just Kids is a portrait - mostly of Mapplethorpe (Smith doesn't really seem to focus in on herself until the last 30 or so pages) - it is just as much a landscape: of New York, Max's Kansas City, the Chelsea Hotel, CBGB's, and a moment that was both a beginning and an ending. Smith comments on being pregnant with her second child, "Within that moment was trust, compassion, and our mutual sense of irony. He was carrying death within him and I was carrying life."
Below find some moments that spoke directly to me.
Sometimes I would awaken and find him working in the dim light of votive candles. Adding touches to a drawing, turning the work this way and that, he would examine it from every angle. Pensive, preoccupied, he'd look up and see me watching him and he'd smile. That smile broke through anything else he was feeling or experiencing - even later, when he was dying, in mortal pain.
In the war of magic and religion, is magic ultimately the victor? Perhaps priest and magician were once one, but the priest, learning humility in he face of God, discarded the spell for prayer.
Robert trusted in the law of empathy, by which he could, by his will, transfer himself into an object or a work of art, and thus influence the outer world. He did not feel redeemed by the work he did. He did not seek redemption. He sought to see what others did not, the projection of his imagination. (61)
In my low periods, I wondered what was the point of creating art. For whom? Are we animating God? Are we talking to ourselves? And what was the ultimate goal? To have one's work caged in art's great zoos - the Modern, the Met, the Louvre?
I craved honestly, yet found dishonesty in myself. Why commit to art? For self-realization, or for itself? It seemed indulgent to add to the glut unless one offered illumination.
Often I'd sit and try to write or draw, but all of the manic activity in the streets, coupled with the Vietnam War, made my efforts seem meaningless. I could not identify with political movements. In trying to join them I felt overwhelmed by yet another form of bureaucracy. I wondered if anything I did mattered.
Robert had little patience with these introspective bouts of mine. He never seemed to question his artistic drives, and by his example, I understood that what matters is the work: the string of words propelled by God becoming a poem, the weave of color and graphite scrawled upon the sheet that magnifies His motion. To achieve within the work a perfect balance of faith and execution. From this state of mind comes a light, life-charged.
Picasso didn't crawl in a shell when his beloved Basque country was bombed. He reacted by creating a masterpiece in Guernica to remind us of the injustices committed against his people. When I had extra money I'd go to the Museum of Modern Art and sit before Guernica, spending long hours considering the fallen horse and the eye of the bulb shining over the sad spoils of war. Then I'd get back to work. (65)