Lives of the artists

For those of us who write history, there’s a lot to think about in the classic misunderstood-artist story, of the Cézanne/van Gogh/Modigliani variety. You’ve got someone seeing the world in a new way, and their contemporaries are totally baffled; the artists can’t sell their art, and they wind up trading it away to cover their bar tabs. Then decades later, the same pictures are worth millions, because the vision they embody has become basic to a whole era– probably there are ten prints of “Starry Night” in every college dorm in America (not to mention Don McClean on the oldies stations, warbling about how misunderstood van Gogh was in his own times). It’s a classic example of a basic historian idea, that different eras see the world in different ways. The artists just get there first.

Of course it’s not just the vision thing that gives the artist story such oomph, there’s also the lifestyle aspects– all those wild bohemian hi-jinks, showing these people just didn’t fit into the same boxes as their contemporaries, plus the disconnect between their brilliant artistic achievements and their impoverished outsider-dom. The underlying idea is, if you see the world differently from the people around you, there’s going to be some serious friction in your real life too. You’re going to do unconventional things and perhaps suffer for it; you’ll have trouble earning a living, and feel constantly out of touch with the people around you. As so many eighth-graders know, it’s tough not fitting in.

My favorite example of that story-line is the novel The Truth about Lorin Jones, by the wonderful American writer Alison Lurie. It’s from back in the late 1980s, so some elements may seem dated (the Manhattan it depicts is still the grunge Manhattan of that era, not the millionaires’ playground of today), but a lot of it holds up amazingly well, partly because Lurie has such smart things to say about the multiple milieux her heroine wanders into. Adding to the appeal for a historian, the story centers on a form of historical research: the heroine is writing a biography of a bohemian painter who died twenty years earlier, unknown at the time of her death but famous in the novel’s present.

I first read the novel years ago, but it was only this spring that I realized the painter in question strongly resembles the American abstract expressionist painter Helen Frankenthaler (1926-2011). Like the real Helen Frankenthaler, the fictional Lorin Jones grew up rich in NYC, went to Bennington College, hooked up with an older, big shot art critic who taught at Bennington and helped her career, and after him had a long relationship with another artist (in the novel, he’s a poet). Even the Lorin Jones pictures that Lurie describes sound a lot like Frankenthaler’s.

But there’s one dramatic difference between the real-life and the novelistic versions of the story: the fictional Jones dies poor and obscure, a bohemian right to the end, whereas Frankenthaler stayed rich– according to Wikipedia, her last husband was “an investment banker who served (sic– not “served in”…) the Ford administration,” which is about as far from Bohemia as you could possibly get.   Her studio was in Darien, Connecticut, one of America’s most respectable suburbs.

So which is the more typical pattern among the real-life cultural revolutionary artists, and what does that tell us about the cultural revolutions they pull off? My guess is, there are more Helen Frankenthalers than Lorin Joneses– at least, an awful lot of the big-ticket artists have stayed very close to the money and power sources around them.

Of course that was standard back in the Renaissance and through most of the seventeenth century, when artists depended on patrons to give them work, but it’s surprisingly common among the moderns too. Consider the American painter Cy Twombly (1928-2011), who’s been on my mind since I saw the blockbuster exhibition of his work in Paris, back in February. Twombly was a genuine aesthetic revolutionary, whose pictues still have a troubling, off-putting impact. There are occasional words and lots of word-like squiggles, so you know messages are being transmitted but usually you don’t quite know what’s being said; and unlike much 1950s abstract art, you wouldn’t think of these as attractive decor for your living room. Plus Twombly made at least some impressively bohemian lifestyle choices, like a serious affair with the artist Robert Rauschenberg, at a time when homosexuality entailed real dangers. (France being what it is– namely, fanatically squeamish about outside-the-lines personal details– you only learn about the relationship from Wikipedia; it wasn’t mentioned in the exhibit itself or the 300-page catalogue that accompanied with it.) But Twombly also married an Italian baroness, and together they purchased a Roman villa; the Paris exhibit included a 1966 Vogue photo spread of the couple, looking just as elegant as their home, with Twombly himself in a fabulous white suit. Again, we’re awfully far away from bohemian anguish.

How are supposed to think about this disconnect between cultural revolution on the one side, comfy living on the other? Does it raise questions about the radicalism of culture products like art? For us historians, what does it say about the nature of historical change? Then there are the ethical overtones– for instance, are you really a radical if you’re not suffering and/or impoverished?

These are old questions, and there are some long-established, smart answers to them. You could say, the world changes at multiple levels, and there’s no reason ideas in one domain have to flow over into others, or that novel thinking requires unconventional ways of living. Or maybe it’s just that social systems like capitalism have such massive absorptive powers. Artists may think they’re moving against the system, but it pulls them in just like it does everything else, and their pictures become just one more set of commodities. Or more simply, maybe art is just its own world, not a commentary about the contemporary condition. Frankenthaler, Twombly, and the others were contesting artistic traditions, not trying to remake society; why shouldn’t they hook up with bankers or buy fancy real estate?

A lot of the best historical research over the last generation has tended in these directions, showing the complexities and autonomies that run through historical processes.

So there’s a big element of myth-making in the bohemian artist stories– apparently real life doesn’t usually follow that script. Yet the Bohemia myth survives, I think because (like other myths) it also captures an important reality:  disruption can’t always be contained to one domain of life, and radicalism in one zone spreads out into others. Frankenthaler and Twombly– and the fictional Lorin Jones– actually created more upset than most of us ever will. That they managed to live well while doing so is cause for praise, not criticism.