Jun 30 2009

On Being an Artist

Sheila Heti


Cover of Dalí's Diary of a Genius
(Doubleday, 1965)


There are certain books that all young artists read. For example, the other night I met a young woman at a bar. She said she was a cartoonist, so I asked to see her studio. Going over the next night, I noticed on her shelves a book I cherished when I was eighteen: Salvador Dalí’s Diary of a Genius. It was interesting that she had glommed onto Dalí—just as I once had. But what lessons was it teaching her about the artist’s life? Likely the ones I, too, had absorbed, studying certain books so thoroughly that now it gives me a headache just to see their spines.

My Friends by Emmanuel Bove, translated by Janet Louth

In this slim, dismal, hilarious French novel from the 1920s, a man named Victor Bâton moves through a world of acquaintances, believing that each person he meets is an important friend. In fact, they barely even like him. Bâton exaggerates each encounter in his mind, reading great emotion into the most banal gestures. It is perhaps a portrait of an undisciplined, frustrated artist: Having nothing concrete to give one’s mind to, the imagination uselessly expends itself on the social world.

Investigating Sex: Surrealist Research 1928–1932 edited by José Pierre, translated by Malcolm Imrie

André Breton, Paul Éluard, Yves Tanguy, and the other Surrealist boys interrogate one another: “Do you see any difference between masturbating and making love?” “Does Breton enjoy licking a woman’s eyeball?” Their dialogues are hilarious, pompous, boring, and oddly innocent about women, sex, and love. Best is a cameo midway through the sessions by Antonin Artaud, who starts off the conversation by sounding a cold, dissenting note: “In investigations like this one, for most people a degree of ostentation inevitably intrudes.” Breton ostentatiously replies, “I have never so to speak experienced sexual ‘pleasure.’” Artaud grows frustrated and argues, then a few pages later we find the eloquent stage direction: “Exit Artaud.” At the time I first read the book, the imagination of the Surrealists seemed the best thing about it, but in retrospect, Artaud is the hero. Pursuing a deeper honesty than the rest, his insights are the most enduring.

Diary of a Genius by Salvador Dalí, translated by Richard Howard

“I am painting the upper part of Christ’s chest. I hardly eat during this work. I ingurgitate only a little rice.” Dalí’s diary is two hundred pages of obsessive attention to every detail of his being and his artistic process. He is nonetheless enchanting: “I have always felt that a grape held very close to the ear should make some kind of music.” The book’s message is crystal clear. The artist’s prerogative—perhaps even duty—is to permit himself every excess, every indulgence, because that’s where the banal meets the funny.

Under the Roofs of Paris by Henry Miller

Of all the great and lauded Henry Miller books my friends and I could have passed around, we chose this one, his most artless. Almost pure smut, the book was commissioned by a California bookseller for one dollar per page. There is no philosophising, just women pouncing on dongs, pausing only to down quarts of whiskey before starting again. We believed him and took his lessons to heart: sexual energy not as a corollary to the creative, but as an end in itself. We would have kept going in that direction, too, if his exuberant example had not split up our unhappy gang.

I Love Dick by Chris Kraus

A married woman falls in love with a famous theorist named Dick, who is kind of into her, but he quickly grows less impressed. Sensing his fading interest, she hurriedly attempts to sublimate her desire into art by involving him with her and her husband in a literary creation, which will document the threesome’s relationship—or at least lure him back into bed! Dick is revolted by her presumption and disappears from her life. It’s a semi-happy ending, though: He got away, but she wrote a book. Perhaps an artist is grateful for any life as long as it gives rise to art.

Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World by Claudia Roth Pierpont

In this book of biographical essays on Mae West, Gertrude Stein, Anaïs Nin, Marina Tsvetaeva, and eight others—all originally published in the New Yorker—each tale is more depressing than the last. As Pierpont notes in the introduction, “These are lives in which success is hard won, retreat and even breakdown are common, love is difficult, and children are nearly impossible, lives in which all that is ever certain is that books and plays and poems are being written.” This is probably the most realistic of all these books; it is certainly the most despairing.

Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees and True to Life: Twenty-Five Years of Conversations with David Hockney by Lawrence Weschler

This year, Weschler republished and expanded his 1982 book, Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, a mesmerizing inquisition into the mind of artist Robert Irwin, along with a new book, True to Life: Twenty-Five Years of Conversations with David Hockney. In each, we watch the artist proceed, day by day, decade by decade. What’s needed to make art, these volumes suggest, is no less than a complete faith in the value of one’s questions and the commitment to work through these questions until they are transformed by craft. The artist’s process has never been better charted. Only one thing is missing: The ever-pressing needs of the people around the artist, and how these needs interrupt, complicate, and enrich what one has wilfully set out to do.

The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) by Andy Warhol

Warhol on Love, Beauty, Fame, Work, Time, Death, Economics, Success, etc. A typical entry reads: “A friend really hit it when he said, ‘Frigid people really make it.’ Frigid people don’t have the standard emotional problems that hold so many people back and keep them from making it. When I was in my early twenties and had just gotten out of school, I could see that I wasn’t frigid enough to not let problems keep me from working.” It’s standard (captivating) Warhol: the creation and deification of a post-Romantic artist, one whose lack of affect and emotion fuels productivity. Sentiment and desire (for anything but money) is an obstacle. I wish I had read this one earlier.

Sheila Heti is the author of the novel Ticknor (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006) and the story collection The Middle Stories (McSweeney’s, 2002). She recently appeared as Lenore Doolan in Leanne Shapton’s fake-auction-catalogue novel, Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009), and can be visited online at www.sheilaheti.net.

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