Diagnosis: Artist


They swagger. They stagger. They cry in their absinthe. They are artists, and we’ve been riveted by their (mis)behavior ever since the Renaissance. But now comes a new image of the Man in the Black Beret. Two major films, Pollock and Before Night Falls, show the artist hatless and helpless except when it comes to his work. He’s a big baby, bad to those who love him and doomed to die.

Ever since the glory days of Paul Muni, who played Emile Zola to the heroic hilt in 1937, bravura acting has been a signature of the artist biopic. Kirk Douglas made himself into an icon of suffering for his famous performance as Vincent Van Gogh in the paint-by-numbers classic Lust for Life. José Ferrer got down on his knees and stayed there for his beauty-and-the-beast rendition of Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge. Charlton Heston gave the artist an imprimatur of righteous masculinity in The Agony and the Ecstasy, playing Michelangelo without a pederastic boner in his body. Now, in Pollock, Ed Harris gives us a riveting re-creation of the man who generated the myth of the modern American artist.

Swooping over supine canvas, rattling the china (literally) in a rage, railing at his codependent wife, Harris represents Jackson Pollock as a lost and loutish drunk who is fully integrated as a personality only in the act of painting. Not to be outdone, Javier Bardem tears your heart out as the gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, whose hold on life crumbles under the weight of political oppression, sexual dysphoria, and finally AIDS. Last week, both Bardem and Harris received Oscar nominations for their work, a well-deserved homage but also a nod to the tradition of honoring actors who play artists in high-toned films.

It’s not just the performances that stand out in these two art pics, but the type they create. Despite the evident differences in their temperaments—Pollock the bastion of butch, Arenas the soul of fragility—both artists are strikingly alike in their introversion, their incompetence at life, and their alienation from intimacy. Both are randy—or, to use the therapeutic description of such behavior, they “act out sexually.” Both lead brief lives of brilliant narcissism. These films, reverent and realistic as they may be, deal with the mystery of creativity the way so many human mysteries are solved these days: by locating the artist on the ever-expanding map of pathology.

How true to life is this image? Only in the broad strokes. Many artists are introspective and obsessive, but they are rarely as helpless as the two men in these films. If they were, they’d be crushed on the cobblestones of SoHo. The art and literary worlds both demand a keen eye for functioning as well as form, and Pollock certainly met that standard. He may have been as wild and crazy as this film contends, but he was hardly an infant. “That seems like an authorial idea of Harris’s,” says Pepe Karmel, associate professor of art history at New York University and a consultant on the film. “Pollock was a lot savvier than most people believe. There’s a romantic notion of him as an idiot savant that this movie, to some extent, supports.”

In life, Pollock was a master of branding. He had himself endlessly photographed, filmed, and interviewed, accommodating journalists like any celebrity. But in Pollock, it’s the people around him who do the image building. To suggest otherwise might challenge the popular idea that artists are incapable of playing the game of life. As for Arenas, he hardly had the chance to promote himself, but he did manage to connect with the right patrons in Havana, Paris, and finally New York. Still, the ability to be famous and seem indifferent to fame fits the profile of a narcissist. So perhaps these films are mythic-ally realistic, after all.

They certainly do capture their subjects. There are moments in Pollock that feel like an electric-train set of the postwar New York art world (though the movie also bears an uncanny resemblance to The Honeymooners). But this passion for verisimilitude isn’t limited to surface and texture. Both films are dedicated to representing the process of making art. Bardem incants Arenas’s writing with an aching intensity that justifies its reputation, and Harris gives an astonishing rendition of Pollock creating his most iconic action paintings. Yet the most memorable thing in both films is not the art but the ache. They are sagas of rise and fall. So the real question is not whether these filmmakers are faithful to their subjects, but why they chose their subjects to begin with. Why these particular artists now?

For the painter Julian Schnabel, who directed Before Night Falls, the question is easier to answer. The gripping similarities between Arenas and Jean-Michel Basquiat, the subject of Schnabel’s previous film, suggest that this director is pursuing a personal vision of the artist as a man on the brink of emotional rupture. It’s a powerful image of the injured child within, but it hardly reflects the reality of Schnabel’s career. This rough-and-ready master of the gallery universe has always made the right gesture at the right time—expressive but not overly eccentric, eclectic but not carelessly so. For Harris, the motivation might have more to do with craft than with cunning. But his investment has paid off handsomely. Winning an Oscar nomination for a film that has legs only among the legions of Evian is a singular sort of recognition. It all goes to show that Ezra Pound was right: “The artist is the antenna of the race.” In this case, however, it’s the biographer who has reached out into the behavioral ether to locate and illuminate a new social type. Harris and Schnabel have closed the loop that Jackson Pollock created, by reconciling the myth of the modern artist with the postmodern age.

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.

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.

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.

“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