Monday, 29 February 2016

The Left-Handed Spanner

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.


Anonymous said...

It is my impression that at least here in Germany, one needs a certain "pedigree" (in German we say "Stallgeruch" - would that be "stable smell"?) to be accepted by the art scene. This starts from the education ("studied with Prof. XXX in YYY, master class with Prof. ZZZ"), but also includes a certain dress code, a specific way of talking etc.. For me (I studied biology), this is foreign territory. I remember when I was a graduate student, I had been invited to the wedding of one of our undergrads. His girlfriend and soon-to-be wife studied design, and he and she brought their respective friends from the university. I can tell you that it was fairly easy to tell apart who had been invited by whom, often on the first glance!

Best, Thomas (non-award-winning, widely unrecognized non-photographer)

Mike C. said...


I'm not sure whether we have an equivalent equestrian expression! I think you may be right -- it does seem to matter more in Germany ("Düsseldorf School" and all that), and although there are institutions here with a certain art-world "cachet" e.g. Goldsmiths College in London, the Courtauld, etc., photography in particular is more of an "outsider" art.

Zouk Delors said...

Left-handed spanner? Ha!Ha! And don't forget to ask for a "long weight" too! The apocryphal tourist was said to have been bemused, on asking how to get to Carnegie Hall, to be told by the passing maestro, "Practice, practice". How would he have reacted to being told, "Across wobbly planks over an infinite abyss of disillusion"? That'd be a photo to take! If it's any encouragement, I'd give wall-space to these two, especially the second.

Mike C. said...


That "practice" scenario has been told about pretty much every jazz notable, from Miles Davis down! I suppose my point would be that another answer would be "connections, baby, connections"... Getting to play with Miles never did anyone's career any harm, though practice is necessary, too...


Zouk Delors said...

Yes, more about that here. Funny to think that if Miles Davis had exploited his family connections, he might have become a dentist (Wow! Your scream makes a perfect 13th with the whine of this drill!).

Andrew Sharp said...


At least you won't be able to fade into obscurity.

Back in London I got on well with a flamboyant neuroscientist Semir Zeki (he was sticking electrodes into the visual cortex of monkeys, exposing them to the works of Pete Mondrian, and drawing conclusions about colour perception) I'd talked to him about an interest in science on the telly and he sent me off to visit his mates at the BBC. As I recall (or as I'm inventing it now in lieu of a proper memory) we spent most of the time at cultural cross purposes. I was mainly trying to explain why the stuff they were doing wasn't really good enough and they were mainly wanting to hear how marvelous I thought they were.

Never did get the hang of working out what people wanted to hear and then saying it. But, even then, I suspect that for fawning praise to work it would have to have been from someone of recognisable social status, one of us or above.

Mike C. said...


I'd need some hard evidence on that "not fading into obscurity" before accepting your fawning praise;) Feels to me like I'm fading fast.

Your TV experience is pretty much what I mean by "idiotic", as used in the name of this blog. I've lost count of the missed opportunities, fluffed introductions, bad interviews, etc., I've had, all because of insisting on behaving like some kind of idiot. I even turned down a writing gig not so long ago, because I thought their politics were not, ah, political enough. The Groucho Club is well named, but people still seem to want to join it...


Kent Wiley said...

"While you're out looking for that spanner, pick me up a spool of pipe thread, would you?"

Mike C. said...


Ah, is that a US version? People are clearly cruel to apprentices in all trades and all countries...


Kent Wiley said...

Indeed. Got that one from a guy who claimed to have been a "skip tracer" (a.k.a. Repo Man), a Daytona Beach bar owner, stair builder (which was how he chewed up the ends of several fingers when a router bit came loose from the tool), and general hack. But it's a good line.