Who Got It Right as a Woman: Patti Smith

It might be hard to believe at first glance, given that famous long, stringy hair, androgynous appearance, and her origins as a proto-punk poetess and singer dubbed “The Godmother of Punk.” But Patti Smith is not who she necessarily seems on the surface. She is an incredibly well-read woman, writer, photographer, and a true romantic with a tremendous aesthetic eye and love of beauty. While I cannot confess to being a great fan of her music, I have watched and read many interviews with her, saw in her speak in public, and so an exhibit of her photographs at the Detroit Institute of Arts. There is so much to admire about her!

-She is highly cultured. This is the artist who considered Balzac to be her first love! Smith has made pilgrimages to the homes of various artists and writers around the world. She admires how Red Hot Chili Peppers’ guitarist Flea warms up with Bach runs. And one of her childhood heroes was Maria Callas. She loves going to bookstores and always talks about the book she is reading in interviews. Patti Smith has spoken of how she really considers herself to be a writer first, and that music happened to get put to her words.

-She is romantic and she loves men. People have often mistaken her youthful snarling and androgyny for militant feminism or even lesbianism, but Smith has mentioned she likes it when men hold the doors open for her, loved her husband deeply and was still devoted to her one time lover, Robert Mapplethorpe, even after he came out gay. Smith has always seemed to adore the men she has been with. How one presents oneself to the world does not always equate with one’s sexual orientation.

-She is a true artist who values great craftsmanship, whatever the mode. Despite her usual uniform of black blazers and jeans, she admires the construction of couture ball gowns! She feels deeply about the objects she photographs, and in the exhibit I saw, what was most striking was not the photographs themselves, but the canon she had put together through photography. She has a sensitive aesthetic eye and is moved by great art of any kind.

-She was a committed mother and wife. She followed her husband, the late Fred Smith, to Detroit since his band was based there. During this period, she spent little time on her music, focusing on her family life and also her writing. In interviews, Patti Smith seems to have no regrets for having left New York for going to Detroit for a time, gracefully embracing what each stage in life has held for her. She loves her children and even performs with them.

-She doesn’t follow any-isms. So often she is considered a feminist icon and asked as such; Smith seems to shrug it off and not care to identify with any big labels or movements. Instead, she chooses to be herself, the artist that she is.

-Her tastes are wide. As a child, she poured over European art books, listened to opera, read French literature. She also is a fan of Japanese writers and Roberto Bolaño, Tibetan Buddhism, traveling in Morocco, Little Women, beat poetry, and so much more. She is listed as a poet on the prestigious Poetry Foundation’s website, an honor that is not for dilettantes. Even her albums reference sometimes-obscure cultural phenomena, such as the dog Banga in The Master and Margarita. This is a woman who is clearly well read and a woman of letters who is influenced by other great artists!

-She doesn’t care to dress in a “feminine” mode. The trademark hair is long and unkempt, her face is free of makeup, and even at the Nobel ceremony (where she accepted the award for Bob Dylan) she did not choose to done a dress. Smith was always comfortable dressing as she does (which is still quite an iconic, unique style), though she does love ball gowns and there is a photo shoot one can see online where she is in Dior gowns!

-While she might seem rebellious and certainly was as a young woman, she is actually quite respectful and accepting of religions, general proprieties, etc.

Ultimately, Patti Smith is true to herself. She considers herself an artist above all the categories of gender, ethnicity, etc. She has shown us that it doesn’t matter what kind of background you come from, that even if you are from a working-class background, you can still have an aesthetic soul and live for your artistic dreams. When I saw her give a talk in Ann Arbor in 2010 or so, I had the great fortune to ask her a question: what do you do when you are feeling a lack of inspiration? Her answer was that she is never in this state, because she will constantly draw her inspiration from other great artists and writers, so she will turn to their work, and that she is also inspired by walking by the ocean. I found this to be a satisfying answer, and I am inspired by this true artist.

The Training of an Artist

Biographies are tremendously fascinating, because we get to know about creative people’s lives and the truth about who they really are, rather than the stereotype or caricature or popular image. I watched a documentary on the fabulously prolific and talented Woody Allen, who is best known as the Icon of New York. Not too long ago, I watched a documentary on the legendary Carol Channing (who doesn’t love to mimic that voice? I certainly do!), who is still going strong even over 90 years old. And a few years ago, I had the opportunity to see Patti Smith speak, and once again, it was interesting to see the difference between the stringy-haired, unkempt, androgyne image and the cultured woman who seemed much warmer in person than her forbidding appearance in Mapplethorpe photos would suggest. I suppose I could say that lately, I have had a habit of learning about the biographies of various performers and artists, and it is probably one of the best kinds of training a budding artist can have.

To expand on the above—-Woody Allen is extremely versatile, a multi-talented artist who has mastered film, music (he plays jazz clarinet with a band weekly in Manhattan), screenwriting, fiction writing, and of course, comedy. It is interesting to chart his course as to how he became a filmmaker. He began with writing comedy, and then performing it. Performance was not easy for him, but I believe it gave him an understanding of acting and stage performance that later made him (according to many accounts) the ultimate actor’s director. His influences are varied, from classic literature to New York Jewish culture to music to, nowadays, a very youthful global sensibility. If we look strictly at his artistic work, we see a man who is extremely disciplined, dedicated, and hard working. He seems to put out a feature film almost every year, which is by no means an easy task: there has to be the script, the right cast, the production (sometimes they are on location in a variety of places overseas), the funding, et cetera. It is amazing how Allen always manages to synthesize a wide variety of influences and yet always keep the story focused on his unique and complex characters. He has his own voice; there’s really nobody else quite like him. He’s an artist who really trained himself, not having come from a formally educated background. His most recent films, in my opinion, have a certain freshness to them that some of the earlier ones lack; set in exotic locations or cities with younger and more numerous casts, they are less neurotic and repetitive than previous films. I happen to call it the Soon-Yi effect, but who knows.

Carol Channing is an extremely educated and cultured woman. She grew up in the liberal, diverse city of San Francisco (she herself had some African-American ancestry through her father’s side). She was trained in ballet as a girl. In her documentary, she talks of some Russian music that she liked. She studied at Bennington College (I believe French was her major) before embarking on her professional career. Her husbands were of different ethnic backgrounds. And despite being the object of much mimicry, she herself is an excellent mimic! She has performed everywhere, so her sense of peoples and audiences is vast. What we see on stage is a Broadway star, but the real woman reveals herself as an artist with a tremendous work ethic and great knowledge of culture beyond Broadway.

Patti Smith is another “surprise,” if I dare to use the word. The “Godmother of Punk” with a rather wild, bohemian past is also an autodidact who imbibed as much culture as possible when young. She would read French poets like Rimbaud and peruse books on great European painters. She lived in New York City, the world’s great cultural mecca, with a budding young photographer named Robert Mapplethorpe. She mingled with other artists and musicians, spent time in Paris, and played in bands. She is known primarily as a musician, but she is also a writer. When I heard her speak a few years ago upon the release of her award-winning memoir Just Kids, she talked about her discipline in writing. Smith also said she never feels a lack of inspiration, because she is always reading the work of other writers or seeing the work of other artists. She mentioned, with admiration, how bassist Flea (of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) warms up with Bach runs. Last year, I saw her exhibit, Camera Solo, which was a collection of photographs of places and objects she loved. The photographs themselves were not so extraordinary were striking; however, what was most fascinating was Patti’s canon—-her choice of subjects that she photographed that meant something to her. I must be clear, I am not so familiar with her music, but I find her extremely fascinating as an artist with such a vast knowledge of culture in all its facets. Apparently the French agree: they awarded her the prestigious Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2005.

These are just 3 examples of artists whose paths and training I found inspiring and fascinating. There are so many more artists’ paths out there waiting to be discovered by young or new artists. It is my feeling that, ultimately, an artist must educate her/himself.