... when Bennett Cerf, visiting the James Joyces in Paris, described Joyce as a genius, Mrs. Joyce dryly replied, "That's all very well for you to say - you don't have to live with the bloody man."
Last night friends and I watched The Horse's Mouth, the 1959 film adaptation of the Joyce Cary novel about an irascible painter, apparently a composite of every Portrait Of The Artist As A Complete Jackass story ever told. That Gully Jimson, the painter in question, is played by Alec Guinness in the scruffiest, most gin-voiced role he ever did embody, goes some distance towards making him fascinating. Jimson's bottom-pinching, liquor-guzzling, homewrecking (literally so) personality would make Animal House's Blutarski blush. Even at this late date, there still remains the thrill of watching a free spirit make the stuffed shirts eat their pretense and their money in about equal measure -- even if, maybe especially if, you wouldn't want to live with the bloody man.
Thing is, there is, as far as I can tell, little to no market for stories about workmanlike artists. There is, we tell ourselves, no story to be told about people being craftmanlike -- yes, even if through their very competence and craftsmanship they quietly change the world somehow, show people a new way to see things. I imagine there is a story to be told about people in the vein of the the Drew Struzans or the Syd Meads of the world -- people whose visions were, in their own way, highly transformative, even if they didn't necessarily live lives full of drama to go with them. Society likes it best when its artists are wild and crazy and out-of-control, the easier to flick them aside and replace them with someone else when they outlive their usefulness as producers of a cultural commodity.
Easier to make them as repulsive as need be to serve social ends, too -- something Jimson himself painfully conscious of (and his creators, too, I guess). Throughout the movie he's followed around by Nosey, a doting young man with a stammer who wants very badly to be a cap-A Artist and who thinks of Jimson as the real deal, only to have Jimson sternly remind him at every turn that being an artist is just about the worst career choice a promising young man like him could make. (A terrible career choice, but a rollicking life choice.)
Fun as the movie is, and knowing as it can be about Jimson not being a role model, I feel like new kinds of stories about artists need to be told. No need to throw the bucket down into the well of manufactured romanticism. Think right now of all the semi-anonymous tens of thousands out there with DeviantArt porfolios, blasting their work out on Twitter and Tumblr, churning out commissions so they can make rent or pay for their medications. And you don't even need the person in question to be a funky damage case; the world around them is wretched enough to make up for it! If that material isn't a source of potent drama and social commentary, I don't know what is. And they might even be about someone you would want to live with.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind