Diagnosis: Artist

In Two New Films, the Creative Personality Becomes a Pathological Type

To understand how today's image of the creative personality differs from the traditional one, let's go to the videotape. Rent a few of those hoary biopics. It isn't hard to pick up a pattern here. The artists who attract filmmakers, or at least American directors, are those whose lives fit the model inherited from the Romantics. They suffer beautifully—or at least in the service of beauty.

Vincente Minnelli's Lust for Life (1956) is the epitome of this ideal, featuring a Christlike painter who reveres the poor and sees the holiness in haystacks. Of course, Van Gogh is mocked by the people and betrayed by his friend Gauguin. Only his faithful brother hears his final words: "I'd like to go home." Then the film fades to a montage of paintings so familiar as to decorate the walls of dentists' waiting rooms. The moral is that artists sacrifice their lives for the sake of a beauty that uplifts us all.

Films like this reflect the long-standing image of the artist possessed by a spirit—"a daemon," Karmel notes, "but it's a melancholy spirit." Yet even madness had its purpose in the postwar age of positive thinking. It was the artist's task to turn his torment into enlightenment by harrowing, humble work.

Javier Bardem as Reinaldo Arenas: the artist as fragile freak
photo: Demmie Todd/ Sony Pictures Classics
Javier Bardem as Reinaldo Arenas: the artist as fragile freak

As quaint as this image might seem today, it adroitly reflected the values of a nation just beginning to grapple with the agony and ecstasy of world domination. As a sign of our fitness to rule, America was ready to embrace (not to mention engorge) the European canon. Art pics were one way to abet this process, educating the public while giving them a good show. But the real purpose of these films was to convey how essentially American the European masters were. The life of Van Gogh makes a handy template for the old-rugged-cross virtues of self-effacement and hard labor. This inspirational image of the artist persisted well into the 1960s, culminating in the most bombastic biopic of them all: The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965).

In the Hollywood version, Michelangelo is a classic workaholic. When he drops from exhaustion, nursed by a doting daughter of the Medici, his patron the pope remarks, "The cure for Michelangelo's illness is not love but work," adding that what runs in his veins "is not blood but paint." Here the creative genius is presented as a dedicated worker who must contend with the boss from hell. It's the perfect homage to the dignity of labor, at a time when union membership was beginning to decline. But this film also offers a thematic two-fer in the conflict between individual vision and institutional power. Charlton Heston plays a representing Moses to a pontifical pharaoh, fusing the myth of the artist with an even more central American romance: that of the rugged individual.

It was Ernest Hemingway who perfected the image of the creative personality as an emblem of the Man. This was a bitch-slap in the face of our traditional ideas about artists. Up until the postwar era, they were typically regarded as either effete aesthetes in rags or crypto-scientists in smocks. Hemingway took the stoical stance of cowboy heroes and merged it with the existential sense of man as Sisyphus rolling the stone of his vision up an impossibly steep hill. In John Sturges's The Old Man and the Sea (1958), a leathery Spencer Tracy plays Hemingway's hero, in futile pursuit of the Big Fish. Jaws it ain't, but sit through this film—or the book, if you must—and you'll get a pretty good idea of what was once pushed as the American ideal. The Old Man is an artist—and the artist is the Platonic form of masculinity.

While there have been several impressive films about women who paint, art pics are usually adventures in masculinity. This may be why many movies about female artists turn on lesbianism (as in the 1998 meller High Art) or invulnerability to men. Greta Garbo comes home to roost in several Robert Altman films featuring remote and mysterious art chicks who vant to be alone.

So it makes sense that the two most recent additions to the art-pic genre would represent poles on the s/m continuum of contemporary male identity. Pollock conjures up the hellacious het while Before Night Falls gives us the suffering homo. Taken together, these characters comprise an image of manhood as pathology. They show us both the wages of macho and the ordeal of a "failed" masculinity. But even as they present a critique of sorts, they also offer the fantasy of alternative male identities. These two films retain the image of the artist as rebel while adding a patina of dysfunction, almost as a disclaimer, so that no one will be tempted to try this at home.

Smashing the Hollywood image of the artist as a continent (if not celibate) toiler in the fields of genius was Jackson Pollock's most enduring creation. "He proposed that a life of great excess could result in great art," says Karmel, who co-curated last year's massive Pollock retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. In crafting his image, Pollock created the postwar myth of the artist as a wild man. Back then, cartoons mocked the Beatnik chutzpah of painters swinging from vines with brushes held between their toes. But the image was too attractive to remain confined to parody. Films began to feature artists as an antidote to what had been termed "the organization man." The creative personality was an unrepentant individual, down to the crud on his hands and the blaze in his eye; a man who couldn't be bothered by manners and routine; a hard-drinking stud whose work was a distillation of his will—and whose will was an emblem of freedom.

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