Since Christmas I've read the memoirs of both Sally Mann, Hold Still, and Patti Smith, Just Kids. I'm lukewarm-to-ambivalent about the work of both women, and actively dislike the work of Smith's photographer soulmate, Robert Mapplethorpe, so may not really have been the ideal reader for either, but did, in fact, enjoy both. I turned 62 this month, and I'm finding that reading the recollected, reconstructed narratives of my slightly older contemporaries helps to give a more satisfying shape to my own, rather less exciting story. They may have been up on the stage, but I was down in the audience, so in a manner of speaking their story is also my story. I was always puzzled by the assertion that a lot of older readers give up on fiction altogether and concentrate on biographies, but I'm beginning to understand why.
One thing struck me forcefully in both books. Despite coming from opposite ends of the American social spectrum – Mann is a child of southern social privilege, wealthy and well-connected, whereas Smith is white working class from Chicago – both their careers are testaments to the importance in the arts (and no doubt in other spheres, too) of having, or cultivating, connections and patronage.
It's inescapable. It seems that, if you desire public approbation, then – no matter how talented or hard-working you are – without those helping hands to pull you up, you'll almost certainly get nowhere. If you're lucky, like Sally Mann, connections just seem to fall into place. Apparently, A-list artist Cy Twombly was a near neighbour and friend of the family. There's handy. If you're coming from nowhere, though, like Patti Smith and Mapplethorpe, then finding and making connections can become an all-consuming mania. It is truly cringe-worthy, to read how nakedly they craved acceptance into the insiders-only back room at Max's Kansas City club in New York, where Warhol's circle used to hang out. It would appear that being prepared to expose the depth of your neediness is the price of a seat at the top table. Now you're one of us!
Down here in the biography-reading audience, I think most of us – despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary – maintain a face-saving fiction that the people we read about have achieved the prominence that we ourselves have conspicuously failed to achieve for meritocratic reasons. Worse, we also like to believe that in the process of becoming eminent, they must at least have acquired a degree of wisdom about whatever field it is they are eminent in. But, like most beliefs, these are wobbly planks placed over an infinite abyss of disillusion. Don't look down!
The biography-worthy (a.k.a. "the lucky, needy, and ruthlessly self-interested") share an equally strong, corroborating faith in their own justification, but have no real idea about how they got where they are. How could they? As Thomas Pynchon once put it, "Life's single lesson: that there is more accident to it than a man can ever admit to in a lifetime and stay sane". Nonetheless, in a modern version of noblesse oblige, many feel an obligation to be generous with advice to less fortunate wannabees. Here's how I done good! But this is rather like lottery winners passing on tips on how to pick winning combinations. Hey, it worked for them.
Once – a long time ago, now – I attended a workshop given by two very prominent gallerists, both women with impressive, almost legendary records in the photographic world. I was flattered afterwards to be invited to send a portfolio of work to one of them; let's call her "Z". So I did. Now, let us be clear: twenty-five years ago I was less than unknown as a photographer, and still looking for my own "voice". To be honest, I wasn't much good, but apparently showed some signs of promise. Z's response was astonishingly encouraging. My work was very good, she said, my sequences were coherent, I had things to say, I was good to go. Had I considered approaching, say, the Tate or the Barbican for an exhibition? The rooms there seemed ideal for the sort of work I had to show, she thought.
Wow! Really? So, like an idiot, I sent proposals to both institutions, mentioning that "Z had sent me". Now, I suppose this may have been the art world equivalent of the humiliating initiation of the apprentice, being sent round the factory on his first day asking for a left-handed spanner. Certainly, the replies I got amounted to a polite packaging-up of "Ha Ha Ha Ha! You idiot!" But, actually, I think Z was simply being kind and encouraging and – perhaps because of her own eminence in the field – truly had not considered that unknowns don't get shows at the Tate or the Barbican. She had long ago forgotten about the sort of hole-in-the-wall places where unknowns do get to show their work, if they're very lucky.
So, as the psalmist says, put not your trust in princes (or princesses). Unless, of course, you really, really want to be a prince, too, in which case you don't have much choice. Lots of luck with that. But it would be a good idea to read some biographies before begging on your knees to be admitted to the places where the In-Crowd go.