In the age of the Twitter trending topic, nothing exalts the artist quite like death. When Dennis Hopper, Hollywood maverick and counterculture icon, died a few months ago, this happened in a more interesting way than usual: not only was Hopper remembered for his work in cinema, but a resurgence of curiosity in his photography was sparked. Lauded for half a century as an actor, director and screenwriter, his work with still film – although widely published – came as news to many.
Hopper taught himself photography at 25, and expertly chronicled Americana and the art(ists) of that generation. His subjects included his friends – Paul Newman, Andy Warhol, Tuesday Weld, Ed Rushcha – but mostly, a certain milieu and moment. A self-described “compulsive creator”, Hopper was not unlike many artists, who visibly succeed in one field, but whose body of work runs along several parallel tracks.
What the audience receives is distillation; in the artist’s life, these tracks converge. Back when I first began to develop an Internet presence, I perhaps injudiciously let my bios tip over in their exuberance, listing the various things I did: dance, painting, photography, theatre and (oh yeah) writing. This was meant without conceit, for truly, I was passionate about all of those things, and had yet to understand the benefits of streamlining. Writing was not the first love, only the most extant.
In the same way, it took years for me to think of myself as a poet (instead of as a fiction writer who sometimes wrote poems). When I stumbled into journalism at 16, I did so thinking it a lesser form, with not a shred of the admiration I have for non-fiction now! But now I’m a manquée novelist, a dabbler in many things, but mostly a writer of poetry and non-fiction. Art must necessarily be incidental in a life fully lived (the ash of a life that burns well, as Cohen – who himself was a bard turned balladeer – put it). Recognition is even more secondary, and what one becomes recognized for is almost arbitrary.
Then there’s the question of money. The starving artist is increasingly something of an anachronism: art requires money, be it to buy time, materials, or enough to eat so that the spiritual hunger supersedes the visceral one. So, knowing that both terms of recognition and market value are vagaries, at what point does one become a sellout? At the point of commercial success, or at the point of intention?
Still, the life of a piece of art cannot be charted at the outset. Even sincere intentions can be diverted. Tamra Davis, director of a new film about the legendary Jean-Michel Basquiat, says that toward the end of his life Basquiat was saddened when friends would sell his gifts, if they contained his artwork. They valued it less than their buyers, or their giver.
In some ways nearly everything I do, creatively, is a vanity project. But some things are more likely to succeed than others (and what does success mean? Ah, perhaps another time…). I find the best way to balance ambition with humility is to go back to the naïveté with which I proclaimed all my many passions: to do all of it, love all of it, and then let it go, allowing it to become what it will.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.