Artist as Exhibitionist

2008-06-13-nytimescover.jpg Much has been made of the recent Memorial Day Weekend Issue of the New York Times Magazine displaying, not a war veteran, but former Gawker editor Emily Gould languishing on a bed sporting a wife-beater and tattoo. It is not about the blog culture so much as an 8,000 word autobiographical tale about her experience in it. She paints a portrait of herself as a compulsive over-sharer where she describes, in great detail, how she blogged about her every thought, told amusing stories of boyfriends, skewered media insiders and experienced total humiliation by Jimmy Kimmel on live television before being ousted from New York’s subculture and media world. Aside from babes on beds selling more magazines, the repentant pose begs us to pity the entire generation of bloggers who expose too much of themselves online. “Poor, poor generation…“, say the editors “See how naughty you’ve been? Just like the tattoo, you’re gonna regret it!” Meanwhile, there she is, the “recovering exhibitionist” lying half naked on the bed. The joke’s on us and especially the NY Times. In fact, I think this picture I found of Emily is far more apt:

2008-06-13-emily2.jpg Emily Gould
As an artist, I was captivated by the piece on several levels. The narrative details Emily Gould’s journey piercing through the event horizon of celebrity culture and going from being the observer to the observed. What fascinated me most, however, was the x-ray view inside the mind of someone who craves the attention of strangers. As the entire spectacle of her feature betrays, Emily Gould is a masterful exhibitionist. In a sense, the second picture summarizes the ideal attitude you need to have to be an artist– act like you don’t care, but do it half-naked and look hot (i.e: express/expose yourself and make great art).

For fine artists, often solo creatures, it’s easy to get lost in the monastery of the studio (except for those artists with factories of people who paint for them, such as Damien Hirst, Takashi Murakami or Kehinde Whiley) and frankly shocking to suddenly then have to lift one’s head above the walls and care what other people think. I suspect there are more artists of talent and skill uncomfortable exposing themselves than artists with less talent that are and the latter always gets more action.

I am not an exhibitionist by nature. Yet writing here has taught me a great deal about getting over the fear of vulnerability. I started writing this column on an intellectual dare from Arianna Huffington, a friend and collector, who always told me “Dahling, I love the way you think, you have to write it down, you should blog about it!” “But I’m not a writer, I’m a painter,” I would protest. Writing is hard for me. Unlike painting — which I can get lost in — I don’t get lost in writing. I squeeze out every sentence. If I do get lost, it might be for a paragraph, but then I have to bludgeon it into spontaneity until my arms ache.

Although I certainly don’t write about my shampoo or my dog, writing online gets easier each time I do it and I start to understand the compulsion. I think of it like this: if I could take all the pages and pages of confessional material on the web and plaster it on the interior of a gigantic dome, I can envision this universal mind, and I start, by putting something out there weekly, to feel my place in it — as if I represent a couple of neurons or glands and if I stop I might make the mind lose the abliity to see the color red or find its keys.

2008-06-13-firstpainting.jpg Kimberly Brooks. “The Conversation.” First picture at an exhibition.
I painted for years in silence before showing my work. The first time I hung a painting at a group exhibition, I was as nervous as if it were a first date. I arrived late and saw people standing around and talking about it. I blushed and laughed behind them. I assumed that they would know it was me who did it, like they could tell. The Internet was far more terrifying. The first time I uploaded my art work, I created a password-protected website. I then handed out postcards with the password on it and attempted to control who viewed the work. The thought that anyone could look at it anytime was akin to someone watching me take a shower. I finally took it off for the world to see.

I keep relearning the concept of the artist’s impulse and the need to share; that the desire to express and loving the Zen of process are separate from seeking and desiring the admiration of strangers. Now I’ve come to see acquiring an ease with attention itself as just another tool of the trade, like turpentine or a good studio space. As an artist I remain an exhibitionist-in-training. As for Emily Gould, in that regard, anyway, I tip my hat.

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