Being an artist is famously difficult. One can cite all of the vicissitudes, even if they aren’t yours: the manic insecurity, the financial quandary, the outsider status, the petty jealousy, the fear and frustration, those moments when you meet those in the straight world and they literally have no idea what you are talking about, etc. It’s hard. Nobody lies about that—well, ok, some people do, but for the reasons they do it refer once again to the above list. It can be a lonely life.
I remember as a grad student going to see John Waters’ film Pecker, mostly because another composer whose trust was undeniable told me it was the best and clearest statement on what it meant to be an artist. (Of course, with other films like Broken Embraces, Wonder Boys, 8 ½, Amadeus and books like A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Hour, Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavelier and Klay, and Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam adding to this pantheon, it is almost a genre unto itself.) So I went, loved it (attendant gross-out moments aside) and have admired the man—the same hysterical soul who made the unflinching Cecil B. Demented—ever since.
So when his new book Role Models became available, I ran, devouring it all on the plane to San Francisco, where I now type this. Not only is he an outstanding maker of weirdo films, he’s also a nuanced and sensitive writer. It is not just due to the masterly handling of certain charged topics (homosexual pornography or the Manson family, to name just two) but more due to his amazing ability to handle himself. The book stands as a kind of ouvre-list-free catalogue raisonne of his own failings, his own inability to handle things (or the ease, say, with which he writes about having a bit of money without shame or needing to remind you in the same breath just how hard he struggled to get it). Even his name-dropping seems duly integrated into his story, and that story is that of a focused, dedicated and passionate lover of films, art, books (alas little mention of music) who is also prolific, productive, fiercely smart, and who’s turned what some might view as a perverse disposition into a genre unto itself. He’s scanned his own landscape, figured himself out, and made it somehow beautiful—and is not that the real work of an artist?
When I began blogging I swore to myself to avoid certain topics: left-wing politics (there are enough people doing that who are far more educated than I), thumbs-up-thumbs-down film reviews (same reason, plus it’s a kind of lingua franca and literally nobody cares what I, a composer of operas, has to say on the topic), and non-music-related book reviews (I read pathologically, but there are more literate than I in this here blogosphere). But on this one I felt compelled to chime in because this is not just a book, it’s a small, ironic set of credos devoted to being an artist, and to me that’s important.
Read it, just read it. Get past the sex and the fashion and get down to what it’s really saying: one needs to be slavish in one’s work habits, aware of one’s own limitations, sensitive to people as people, and be just a little bit circumspect and mad at the same time.
Daniel Felsenfeld is a composer living in Brooklyn.