Friday, February 10, 2012

Nonfiction | Starving Artists in the City

Patti Smith's National Book Award-winning memoir Just Kids is a book that's been on my periphery for quite a while. For a period there it was one of the books you'd most frequently see on the subway and on the 'featured' shelves of bookstores. In fact, I think I'd checked it out from the library no less than three times before I ever got around to actually reading it.

Before reading this book, I had no idea who Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe were. I got the impression that maybe these were people that are well-known to a certain crowd, a certain New York City artsy crowd, but it wasn't their story that drew me to the book in the first place; it was that the book (supposedly) captured a particular moment and lifestyle in New York City history, and as a resident, that's always exciting to read about.

So, if you also have no idea who these people are, don't worry. In a nutshell, they're sort of vagabond artists of the Dylan, Morrison, Warhol generation. They lived paycheck to paycheck, worked whatever job would pay, moved wherever was cheaper, saved pennies and occasionally splurged on treats. They did what they had to do to get by, but art was always at the forefront of their minds—creation of, painting, drawing, sculpting, writing, composing...didn't matter what. The late 60s and 70s are not often reflected upon fondly in New York City. It's an era defined by the city's decline—uptick in crime, heavy drug use, neighborhoods falling apart—but it produced some of the twentieth century's most lasting artists. Intentional or not, Smith's memoir describes the connection between art and environment, how having nothing inspires creating of something, how surroundings influence what an artist wants to say.

Patti Smith encountered a lot of famous people in her youth, people with much bigger names than hers. She never describes these people to name drop. Her own described insecurities keep her placed her on a rung below the most famous, but she did share their world. She recalls encounters with Hendrix and Joplin and describes them as the gods they have become, leaving me wondering if she remembers them with the status they have attained in the past forty years or if they really were so far above in their own time.

Smith paints a full picture of the era, complete with secondary characters and locations, but the focus of the story is always on her relationship with Mapplethorpe. Ultimately, she tells the story of two people who support each other endlessly as they each try to achieve their goals and reach their dreams.


Jenny said...

I'm glad I read your review, because I don't know who they are either and was wondering what about this was so wonderful and how it won an award. I'll keep it in mind now!

Kari said...

Oh good! I know you like NYC books, and this one does kind of paint a portrait of the city in this particular moment. You can always skim the artsy talk, too, if you really wanted!