Wednesday, February 10, 2010

More on Patti Smith

This is a bit of a follow-up post to the one I wrote about fashion a while back.

I just finished reading Patti Smith's memoir "Just Kids" about her life together with Robert Mapplethorpe; it's very moving, very sad, very inspiring.

One thing that's hard to notice is the emphasis on clothes, interior decoration and other objects. In our culture of course fashion is generally viewed as shallow, while art is "deep." In her book, Smith casts these two in a totally different view; a view which suggests their connection, not the opposition; and in which the depth-paradigm is replaced by what can be seen as a magical or fetishistic paradigm.

Throughout the book, Smith describes clothes that she wore, necklaces Mapplethorpe made, object they arranged, interiors they decorated. But these supposedly "shallow" endeavors radiate with meaning. For example, deciding to be an artist is synonymous with buying a Baudelaire graycoat. Probably the single most important issue she concerns herself with in the book is what she and Robert wore. Art is not autonomous, it's part of their lives: just as clothes and interiors are. They meet through a Persian broch; Mapplethorpe develops as an artist through decorating their apartment and through changes in clothing style:

"I came home and there were cutouts of statues, the torsos and buttocks of the Greeks, the slaves of Michelangelo, images of sailors, tattoos, and stars. To keep up with him, I read Robert passages from Miracle of the Rose, but he was always a step ahead. While I was reading Genet, it was as if he was becoming Genet."

"He discarded his sheepskin vest and beads and found a sailor's uniform. He had no love of the sea. In his sailor dress and cap, he resonated a Cocteau drawing of the world of Genet's Robert Querelle. He had no interest in war, but the relics and rituals of war attracted him. He admired the stoic beauty of the Japanese kamikaze pilots who laid out their clothing - meticulously folded shirt, a white silk scarf - to be donned before battle."

"It is said that children do not distinguish between living and inanimate objects; I believe they do. A child imparts a doll or tin soldier with magical life-breath. The artist animates his work as the child his toys. Robert infused objects, whether for art or life, with his creative impulse, his sacred sexual power. He transformed a ring of keys, a kitchen knife, or a simple wooden frame into art. He loved his work and he loved his things. He once traded a drawing for a pair of riding boots—completely impractical, but almost spiritually beautiful. These he buffed and polished with the devotion of a groom dressing a greyhound.
"This affair with fine footwear reached its summit one evening as we returned from Max’s. Turning the corner off Seventh Avenue we came upon a pair of alligator shoes, aglow on the sidewalk. Robert scooped them up and pressed them to him, declaring the treasure. They were deep brown with silk laces, showing no trace of wear. They tiptoed into a construction, which he often disassembled for the need of them. With a wad of tissue stuffed into the pointed toes, they were not a bad fit, though perhaps incongruous with dungarees and a turtleneck. He exchanged his turtleneck for a black net T, adding a larch cache of keys to his belt loop and discarding his socks. Then he was ready for a night at Max’s, without money for cab fare but his feet resplendent.
"The night of the shoes, as we came to call it, was for Robert a sign that we were on the right path, even as so many paths crossed each other. "

"Our most prized books were on William Blake. I had a very pretty facsimile of Songs of Innocence and of Experience, and I often read it to Robert before we went to sleep. I also had a vellum edition of Blake's collected writings, and he had the Trianon Press edition of Blake's Milton. We both admired the likeness of Blake's brother Robert, who died young, pictured with a star at his foot. We adopted Blake's palette as our own, shades of rose, cadmium, and moss, colors that seemed to generate light."

"When Robert came home, he was surprised by pleased. “What possessed you? He asked. I just shrugged. But when we went to Max’s, my haircut caused quite a stir. I couldn’t believe all the fuss over it. Though I was still the same person, my social status suddenly elevated. My Keith Richards haircut was a real discourse magnet. I thought of the girls I knew back in high school. They dreamed of being singers but wound up hairdressers. I desired neither vocation , but in weeks to come I would be cutting a lot of people’s hair, and singing at La MaMa.
"Someone at Max’s asked me if I was androgynous. I asked what that meant. “You know, like Mick Jagger.” I figured that must be cool. I thought the word meant both beautiful and ugly at the same time. Whatever it meant, with just a haircut, I miraculously turned androgynous overnight.
"Opportunities suddenly arose. […]"

It's of course perfect that Mapplethorpe turned into a photographer. Even more perfect that the political storm that surrounded him in the 1980s shows that supposedly harmless aesteticism is deeply political.


Blogger Nada Gordon: 2 ludic 4 U said...

right on...

when I get around to it, on ululations, pessoa on decorativity...

3:05 AM  

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