Not ‘Just Kids’: Patti Smith’s important lesson

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Wally Gobetz (Flickr), NYC – Chelsea: Hotel Chelsea
I’ve always loved the music of Patti Smith and it was a pleasure to enjoy her books just as much. Her big hit, “Just Kids”, is a wonderful memoir of her early life. One of my favourite parts of the book is an account of a time that she and Robert Mapplethorpe (her then partner) were sitting around. I’ll let her tell it.

“We were walking toward the fountain, the epicenter of activity, when an older couple stopped and openly observed us. Robert enjoyed being noticed, and he affectionately squeezed my hand.
“Oh, take their picture,” said the woman to her bemused husband, “I think they’re artists.”
“Oh, go on,” he shrugged. “They’re just kids.”

And, of course, they were just kids but that simple classification is deceptive, because what the husband meant was “there’s nothing special about them in terms of being artists.”  And that is both true and false, because there’s nothing more special about them for being just kids and there’s certainly nothing less special about them.

I like this story. The punchline, of course, is that two of New York’s better-known artists from that period were dismissed as not being interesting enough to photograph; they didn’t look artistic enough. But Patti Smith is a clever writer and the message goes beyond this.

It’s not just that she and Robert looked like two kids, it’s that you can’t always pick what an artist looks like, any more than you can tell where an artist will go based on what they’re doing when you meet them.

It’s that reminder that there are many more paths to being an artist than many people realise and that waiting for other people to recognise that won’t always happen.

Look in the mirror. That’s your audience. That’s the person who will help you identify your art. Other people may be able to help but they have to be artists too and they have to be honest, not caught up in the machinery of art or be fixated on gatekeeping. But it starts with you and you have to be prepared to observe things with an artist’s perception, revealing what others may not. It’s your perception that will drive your art.

I’ll leave you with another of my favourite quotes from Patti.

“I’m certain, as we filed down the great staircase, that I appeared the same as ever, a moping twelve years-old, all arms and legs. But secretly I knew I had been transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not.”

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