Issue Number: 91
A cult artist
Modigliani was the quintessential cult artist. Here cultural commentator Peter York looks at what it means to be a cult artist
It wouldn’t have worked without the cheek-bones. Modigliani, from his photographs, looked a lot like Jim Morrison and was clearly a corduroy abuser. This physical configuration is basic cult-artist potential, necessary though not sufficient, but a deal-breaker if it goes, when the artist turns to blob. Which is why it’s always better to have croaked it as young as possible, before belly and jowls, before the nose swells up from the drink and the eyes hollow from the drugs.
Dying early also means a small sharply etched body of work, as instantly recognisable as Modigliani’s nudes from 1917to 1920 and a constant persona, like Modigliani’s again – passionate, ill, ‘crazy’, the lot. A long and comfortable life doesn’t just play hell with the waistline but also with the brand – too much stuff, too many ‘periods’, the terrible possibility of mainstream recognition, even a long marriage, a mellowing output and a nice suburban house with a garden.
The eighteenth-century teen-writer Thomas Chatterton was the first Neurotic Boy Outsider. Chatterton started a respectable two-hundred-year plus tradition of conspicuously not belonging. In this sense he’s central to the whole idea of individualistic cult artists who appeal intensely to small groups of people – groups who see themselves as an Elect. Chatterton was arty and sensitive and topped himself at an early age. Victorians felt he was almost a member of the nineteenth-century Romantic poet posse of ready-made cults, gloriously un-classical. So the pot-boiling Victorian oil painting, The Death of Chatterton (1856) by Henry Wallis, is the crucial myth-maker (as in ‘die young and leave a beautiful corpse’).
Cult artists are primarily the province of thoughtful, confused adolescents (meaning, now, anything up to 40). They really are role models for imaginative and impressionable people who want to live intensely. Because they’re sought out and discovered, decade after decade, cult artists blow more minds than mainstream heroes who sell a lot of, say, football kits or CDs.
The key test is whether Johnny Depp could play your man (there are, let’s get this on the table clearly, many more male than female cult artists because men are better at epic self-destruction than women). And if not Johnny Depp, then Jonny Lee Miller, or someone else thin, young and neurotic. Cult artists need cultists, articulate fans who like to document their terrible lives and their marvellous ambiguities and relate them to their work – who see the life in the work and value it more for that.
Sex is central to cult-artist status. Having a lot of it, ideally as troubled and ambiguous as possible. Tortured or, as middlebrow journalists love to say, dark. Cult artists’ sex lives should be as dark and edgy as possible. Ambiguity helps hugely: girl cultists like it and lots of boy cultists can identify with it. The appeal of James Dean – cheekbones, troubled, died very young – was hugely heightened by his palpable homoeroticism, easy to recognise but impossible to articulate in 1950s America.
Neurotic Boy Outsiders, the key business model in artistic cultdom, all suffered a glorious expressive inarticulacy. There were things they just couldn’t say except in their work – that was why they had to write, act or paint. And so the work itself was hugely coded and personal – except to the cultists, who feel they can read it, because it has a message intended for them (and several hundred thousand similarly placed young people).
Mass media, sophisticated PR and the international consolidation of cults meant that Outsiderdom – at its dizzy peak in the 1960s and ‘70s – became a huge market segment, a vast lonely crowd of youngish people, a Salon des Refusés larger than the mainstream. The twentieth century’s biggest cult artist used to be David Bowie. He ticked every box going – thin, handsome, bisexual, nearly dead from drugs, writing awash with ideas, a working method borrowed from William S. Burroughs and every fine arts allusion possible.
But he is un-dead. Bowie’s been re-constructed as an entrepreneur who earns millions from selling songs as advertising music tracks to the likes of Microsoft. He’s mellow, happily married and he’s even had his teeth fixed. He’s clearly blown it.
Cult artists are wonderful and terrible. The cult isn’t a reflection of quality but a measure of the artist’s ability to provoke intense interest and identification long after death. Byron and Rupert Brooke – very different poets – are heaven for biographers and their war deaths are completely on-brand. Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain had their audiences sussed too – artistic suicide is the link here between doomy Manchester and sunny California. Rimbaud lived as an intense outsider during the Verlaine years and then good-as-died by stopping writing and being another person in another place (North Africa). Meaning he’s still there to rediscover.
Now, interestingly, the two-hundred-year tradition of the cult artist has been telescoped by media. Marketing work on ‘the story’ – will he, won’t he, is he, isn’t he? – operates on an instant feedback basis so a life of torment can be a 24-hour webcast. Watch Pete Doherty play it out day by day. Ask yourself about Robbie Williams, who is both a huge, mainstream entertainer and a professional outsider. They haven’t exactly staged their own Kurt Cobain farewells yet – but I’ve met people who thought that was stage-managed anyway.
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