David McAdam Freud waged a war of reconciliation at his father’s bedside last July. As one of a score of illegitimate children of the famed British portraitist and grandson of Sigmund, Lucian Freud, the neglected brood struggled to make some type of connection – a last rites relationship with their estranged father as time trickled to a stop.
David’s results were poignant death-bed portraits, ironically a type of art his father was renowned for. But as a substitute for a loving father, paintings are small consolation.
At his death, the glamorous canvas of Freud’s life lifted a moment, and the public caught a brief glimpse of domestic carnage: seductions of students, desertion of wives and lovers and unsupported children. In fact David first met several half-siblings either at these vigils where he was finally admitted to his father’s life or at Freud’s funeral.
All of which makes you wonder: How difficult is it to be a great (fill in the blanks) and a decent human being?
History students know this is no isolated effect; hundreds of “great” men and women of all professions race to fame and fortune, leaving homes, families and friends as footnotes in the margins of their lives.
Artists and other “creatives” easily fall prey to the seductive image of the artist/iconoclast/rebel as if this were a prerequisite to producing anything of true value. This happened in the past with most pressure coming from the art community itself. But with the advent of TV, Internet and instant lip wagging, fierce wars are waged over who is currently lodging on electronic real-estate. Virtually any behavior seems acceptable as long as it occupies bandwidth somewhere in the known universe. This is a problem, especially if you are one of the neglected children of Lucian Freud.
Philandering, slutty, pornographic and ultra-selfish behavior really does seems to work better for those without children and who wisely avoid marriage. Artists and others trying to reconcile Bohemian stereotypes with domestic bliss, face reality: It rarely happens.
Beyond that, the virtual worship accorded to genius since the Renaissance emits a powerful gravitational pull toward mania in any field – that is why our very own president is able to say with a perfectly straight face, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for” to a sea of people who won’t even snicker.
Contemporary celebrity machines fuel this trend 24/7 with self-appointed prophets of pop, concerned with ratings but not ethics. Add the highly praised image of “The Artist” sacrificing virtually everything for his/her vision: health, sleep, time and family … but usually not fame and personal honors, I observe.
For example, Lucian Freud’s models were all required to make “large and uncertain commitment of their time” (up to years), which included practically everyone in his life. To know him was to work for him.
“The subject matter is autobiographical,” Freud explained of his work, which is actually very good in spite of his personal life.
The career of Louise Nevelson is another case in point. The famed U.S. sculptor (who died in 1988) lived a long, exotic and ultimately successful life as an artist. Nevelson toiled at her craft over decades and undoubtedly deserves her accolades.
She felt a need to sacrifice her husband and only child, however, in order to get there and made no bones about it. Abandoning her nine year-old son, Nevelson also dumped her husband when his money began to look measly. She sprung for a European tour to expand her art education wherever it led her.
I personally know a relative of Nevelson’s mother who claims her family was horrified by her behavior. They considered her a terrible mother and someone who engaged in relationships with men only to calculatingly further her art career. I don’t know if this is true, but it is their perception.
According to Nevelson’s feminist doctrine, the means to self-fulfillment weren’t significant enough to outweigh the ends. One end in her case was estrangement and years of awkward relationship with her son, Myron.
Still Nevelson defended herself saying, “What I am doing is the right thing for me – that is what I am and this is living. It reflects me and I reflect it.”
Living, big-name artists are almost expected to behave badly one way or another. I can’t make myself designate them all as “great,” but the art world already has, due to vast sums of money, the modern yardstick of genius.
Damien Hirst has stuck with his common-law wife and supported his children (which is easy when you have an estimated worth of £215million). But he admittedly spent a decade addicted to alcohol and drugs, and there were his “little tricks,” such as placing a cigarette in the end of his penis at a press conference. I wonder if he would have gotten so far (world’s highest earning living artist) over dead fish alone. And seriously, isn’t his entire shtick out-shocking the next guy anyway?
That is until Britain’s Chapman Brothers came along, combining shock art with the additional splash of blasphemy and a little dish of gratuitous gore thrown in. They’ve been immensely successful in the gallery scene in London especially.
American artists may rank a little lower on the “all shock and no awe” meter. Jeff Koons is respectably married to second wife Justine Wheeler. But the first Mrs. Koons, Italian pornography star Ilona Staller, provided Koons with plenty of “interesting” themes for his work. Staller filed suit against him in 2008 for failure to pay child support in spite of record auction sales of $117.2 million for his work that year.
So many contemporary artists are homosexual, with no standard or expectation of monogamy in their personal life, which gets little criticism. For instance, Richard Prince, the professional plagiarizer who photographs preexisting photographs and cleverly reclassifies them “rephotographs,” is homosexual and doing quite well. In other times this would have been considered a tad unethical, but not now. At least not until a judge forces him to change directions as U.S. District Judge Deborah A. Batts did in 2011. Now Prince knows to pay attention to those pesky copyright laws.
There have always been exceptions even for contemporary artists, but they usually have to work much harder. Rather than attracting a feeding frenzy of sheer notoriety (Lady Gaga?), they must offer something of value, an excellent product or serious concepts.
British artist Tracy Emin stood out as strangely normal when she expressed a touching desire to have a “really beautiful house by the sea, near a cliff and have a lovely swimming pool and just have a really nice solid, sensible, good quiet life.”
Edward Ruscha, American pop artist and hyper-realist has led a relatively normal married life, and so do many other artists. Still the image of artist that seems to fire the modern imagination often involves drugs and perversion rather than cottages with vegetable gardens.
Ai Wei Wei is probably the closest thing to a superstar in the Asian art world. He has a serious gambling addiction and a propensity to provoke outrage with lots of public nudity. Yet Wei Wei remains married to his wife, Lu Qing – if they haven’t hauled her off to jail somewhere. At least his outrageous and deliberate provocation of Chinese authorities is not self serving but refers to human rights offenses. Western artists could learn something from him in that regard.
“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some hire public relations officers.” – Daniel J. Boorstin