Diagnosis: Artist

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

What has happened to this heroic figure? His individuality is a menace to himself and those around him. His rebellion springs from an inability to cope. And his status is somewhere between antihero and fragile freak. The postmodern artist is either insane, as in Benny and Joon (1993); inept, as in "Life Lessons," Martin Scorsese's segment of New York Stories (1989); or downright vicious, as in Pollock. The myth Action Jackson created has been turned on its head. Where once there was a titan standing apart from society, now there is a type within society. Where once there was a creature of productive excess, now there is an addictive personality. Where once there was a daemon, now there is a diagnosis.

Yet the mystique of creativity remains. Pollock and Arenas still stir the fantasy of life off the social grid. We are fascinated by such people because they are devoted to their impulses and resistant to any order not of their own devise. Arenas cannot cope with the didactic brutality of Cuba, and he's none too happy in New York (which differs from his homeland, he tells a friend, only because "when they step on you, you can scream"). Pollock is no dissident, but like Sinatra in his dotage, he has to do it My Way. Artists like these two are tragic throwbacks to a time when it was possible to imagine a life at the locus of eros, inspiration, and individuality. As that romance recedes from reality, it is preserved in the amber of alterity that we call celebrity.

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

"We live in an age when conventions and restrictions are set aside for exceptional individuals," says Karmel. "Fifty years ago, it didn't matter how great you were; if you were rude, you weren't allowed in the club. Now we have a society that says, if you're great at what you do you can be a baby. And the question is: How do I get into that club?"

Of course, this entitlement comes with anger that artists can get away with what the rest of us cannot. So the myth has to include a downfall: a moment when the same Basquiat who rails at his patrons overdoses on smack; a scene where Pollock, estranged from his wife, smashes up his car, killing himself and his mistress's female companion; a climactic suicide by Arenas, who has alienated himself from everyone except a single friend. Not that these things didn't actually happen, but they fit the mythic bill. The artist must be doomed because we need to see freedom as a cautionary tale.

So the image of the rebel collapses into an argument for going along with the program. Better to pursue a life of health and wealth than to burn out in the name of an ideal that cannot be sustained (except in product). Sure, there will always be those who are impelled to express what Karmel calls "the problematic of genius"—and they will always be riveting to watch. We worship artists because we don't dare become them. And we honor films that allow us to dream the impossible dream.

Research: Michael Corwin

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