Patti Smith, Where's Your Critical Distance?

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Feb. 11 2010 11:34 AM

Patti Smith, Where's Your Critical Distance?

Julia  Felsenthal Julia Felsenthal

Julia Felsenthal is an assistant at Slate.

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In his piece for the New York Times Book review on Just Kids , Patti Smith’s new memoir about her long-term relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, Tom Carson writes:

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Peculiarly or not, the one limitation of "Just Kids" is that Mapplethorpe himself, despite Smith’s valiant efforts, doesn’t come off as appealingly as she hopes he will. When he isn’t candidly on the make - "Hustler-hustler-hustler. I guess that’s what I’m about," he tells her - his pretension and self-romanticizing can be tiresome.

Carson’s criticism is well-deserved. At first read, Smith’s memoir tells a pretty romantic story: Two 20-year-old dreamers arrive penniless in New York, find in each other kindred spirits, and build a life together in pursuit of art. The messy little details-like that Mapplethorpe turns out to be gay, or that he eventually dies of AIDS, or that their pennilessness forces them to steal, hustle, and compromise themselves in manifold ways-don’t really get in the way of Smith’s message: that this is a love affair for the ages. Smith is a seductive storyteller. She has at her disposal an enviable range of allusions and references. But her greatest asset as a writer is the clarity with which she sees herself and the people around her-a clarity that is compromised only by a gigantic, Robert Mapplethorpe-shaped blind spot.

Even 20 years after his death, Smith finds herself apologizing for his behavior. When they meet and shack up, Smith is all too willing to support Mapplethorpe financially, claiming: "I had no regrets taking on the job as breadwinner. My temperament was sturdier." When Mapplethorpe’s pride finally forces him to help out with the bills, he turns to hustling despite Smith’s tearful protestations; the way she tells this story makes it hard to believe his motivation was actually monetary. Mapplethorpe contracts gonorrhea from one of his gay lovers, has sex with Smith anyway, and passes the disease along to her-yet she swallows her recriminations: "My first concern was for Robert’s well-being and he was far too ill for any emotional tirade." Robert even enters into a serious relationship with David Croland without telling Smith or severing their physical relationship. Smith’s own career only really takes off once Mapplethorpe has broken off their domestic and physical partnership-until then her focus seems to be on his success. She writes, "I felt, as always, a rising pleasure when he used a reference to me in a work, as if through him I would be remembered."

I don’t doubt that real love and devotion existed between Smith and Mapplethorpe, nor is it my intention to begrudge them their unusual relationship. They lived in an age of experimentation, and both reveled in unconventional lifestyles and rejected attempts to define their relationship in any available terms. Nor do I doubt that Mapplethorpe was, in his way, incredibly supportive of Smith; his striking photographs of Smith for her album covers surely contributed in no small part to her success. But given Mapplethorpe’s reputation as a narcissist-and remembering that his photographs have been called exploitative-it should come as no surprise that Mapplethorpe’s relationship with his first model might also be somewhat abusive. As Smith’s stories perhaps unintentionally reveal, even in trying to create a relationship that transcended conventionality, Smith and Mapplethorpe perpetuated a power dynamic that is all too familiar and traditional.

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