Does an artist's talent justify the damage done to lovers?

I first met Dan at Bluestockings Bookshop in New York, almost exactly a year ago. I was reading there from my own book, Between the Sheets, but as Dan and I were due to appear together in a couple of weeks' time at Shakespeare and Company in Paris, he'd very kindly come along to show me some support. In Paris, we had a sell-out gig, and I'd been hugely impressed by his book, The Love Lives of the Artists.

 We were both fascinated by writers' relationships. Dan's exploration extended to artists as well - his book look at Rainer Maria Rilke and Lou-Andreas-Salome, Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keefe, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Henry Miller and Anais Nin. This month, I reviewed the paperback for the Independent on Sunday here:

This piece he's written specially for my blog poses the question he's often asked - does an artist's talent justify the damage done to lovers? Here's what he has to say about it:

"Sartre and Beauvoir are famous for the wreckage they left in their wake—Bianca Bienenfeld’s memoir, A Disgraceful Affair, was hardly the only evidence used against them.  Likewise is Diego Rivera reviled as a terror and a catastrophe in the lives of many women beside Frida Kahlo.  Whenever I have read from The Love Lives of the Artists—which tells these stories, among others—this is the question that generates the passion. 

I do everything I can not to answer it because the question itself is offensive.  Not just for the salacious details it focuses on, which warps the artists’ lives beyond recognition, but for the presumption that we can judge, by a narrow criterion, something that happened with all the vibrant chaos of lived experience in other people’s lives.  But are artists the only people who’ve ever hurt lovers?  What justification are non-artists asked to offer?

The only way that this question is not offensive is when you ask it of yourself: Is my behavior justified.  Can I insist on what I want, in spite of the pain I know it will cause?  These are valid questions—but when you put it this way, the room goes very quiet, because who wants to expose their questionable decisions to scrutiny.

This is what the artists are guilty of, if they have indeed committed crimes: they treated their lives themselves lightly.  They experimented with their experiences, and they didn’t mind who they injured because they felt that life had injured them in advance.  But they had survived, why shouldn’t their lovers.  Some suffering brought them to art—where they even prospered by it.  For Sartre and Beauvoir, the experience of being raised in upper-middle class French families, full of repression and hypocrisy, created such a dissonance, and inspired such a lack of confidence, that they could only recover by creating an entirely new philosophy.  Not just theorizing one: they had to live out the freedoms and the mutual understandings that distinguished them from their parents’ obsolete morality. 

So who am I to judge, if they thought that they would gain something by being open and honest about the same kinds affairs all the men in their families had always had.  They were not, after all, the first couple to ever take lovers—they only refused to be ashamed.  They were testifying to life: they didn’t care if it was vile, and they themselves were vile as they lived it—they were just going to be honest—they were consistent with their families, after all.  They were experimenting in living, with all the uncertainties attendant upon scientific experiments, where the outcomes are only half-anticipated, but the result is full-spectrum new experiences, which have to be examined in books—books that sometimes repudiate the experiences, as in Beauvoir’s L’Invitée.

In their lives, the artists turn the question around on the reader:  Are you willing to examine yourself in detail, and to empathize with their freedoms? Will you know yourself through the discipline of an art?  Can you explain their experiences by reference to the details of their lives?  Can you find the origins of your desires and your ethics, in the details of your own? 

The artists’ lives are a test—they offered them as a test.  If you’re not reading your life into theirs, it’s merely voyeurism, in which case the artists’ lives ask you: why aren’t you living your life?  Why are you sitting aside, in judgment of people whose courage you can’t even find in your heart? 

This is where the art itself is important.  Not because it counterbalances the affairs and the tears etc, but because it shows that the artists were paying attention, and revealing their own psychology.  They were making things that composed their internal experiences, they put things in place, with poems, with paintings. Sometimes a hard experience in love, or a sense of guilt really was assuaged—or consoled, or absolved—by the act of creativity.  You can see, for instance, Georgia O’Keeffe’s frustrations with Stieglitz in her paintings of the New Mexico landscape: she was putting her love where it thrived, instead of keeping it where it would be battered.  She returned to the attempt again and again, trying to get that blue in the sky, seen through a cow pelvis hip socket hole, to give her something, or redeem something—to balance something she wasn’t getting from her husband. 

Of course those paintings were hardly the only things that allowed O’Keeffe to stay married to Stieglitz.  There was his support for her.  Their past, the tenderness they’d shared when she moved to New York in ’18, his intimate portraits.  She remained married alright, but her paintings show us what she had to study the world in order to figure out how to tell the story of how to keep him in the picture of her life.

You are not Georgia O’Keeffe, though.  I am not Georgia O’Keeffe either—but aren’t our lives as vibrant and pressing and full and rich and overflowing with visions as hers was, to her?  Aren’t we men and women, capable of the same close attention to things, the same raptures she felt, before works of art, before works of nature?  The same patience, to look and look at things, till we see the life in them, and make them part of our own lives’ compositions?  Don’t we, too, want contradictory things from the world?

This is where the artists’ lives become really interesting, and not only interesting, but important: they make you pay attention to your own life.  Their stories give you a glimpse into your possible futures.  This glimpse might chasten you, it might encourage you, but either way, in the end, you’re going to do what you’re going to do, and to hell with the artists.  You think that your story will be different, but what details can you offer against their psychology, which is inevitably consistent with your own?  Even if you keep faithfully to one partner all your life, there are the artists’ lives, asking you whether you’ve made the best choice.  If you are alive to the life of your instincts, and if you allow yourself the luxury of your crises and your emotions, your life will keep asking you that question, and you will have to make some kind of work that answers. 

The artists’ lives may well be cautionary tales, that warn you away from the chaos they created, but by the time your life has asked you the question in turn, the question of compensation or justification is absurd. The artists’ made their decisions, as you will make yours.  You  will find that you have to answer in the artists’ own terms: by expressing your temperament.  Why aren’t you repeating their decisions?  Or: why are you repeating other people’s decisions, instead of theirs?  Why isn’t your life entirely your own?  You see?  You have to make art that explains.  The meaning of a work of art, they say, is another work of art.  The meaning of a life another life.  If lives themselves are going to have meaning, apart from the art they make, and whatever else they leave behind."


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