"I didn't ask to be drawn here," a teenager whines in one of my favorite Gary Larson cartoons. Whenever I see this cartoon, I choke back tears while I laugh. Why do I get so emotional over a comic strip panel? Partly, because though well past my teenage years, I still identify with this angst-filled adolescent, furious at being drawn against his will by an insensitive dofus (i.e. adult). Of course, I giggle at this whiney kid who's so pissed off. Don't you realize how lucky you are??? You're in The Far Side? I think. The poet, the creative artist part of me wants the teen to grow up and be reasonable. Doesn't he understand that it's the prerogative of artists to use whatever subject they like for their art?
Lately, I've been thinking more seriously about the boundaries between we who are creative artists (painters, photographers, novelists, poets, etc.) and the subjects of our art. When are the portraits that we paint....the characters that we create...the acceptable creations of free expression? When does "art" become exploitation of its subjects....a kind of character conscription?
Last month, I read in "The New York Times," about a controversy around the archive of the proto-pop artist Larry Rivers, who died in 2002. The Times reported that New York University is purchasing Rivers' archive. NYU told the Larry Rivers Foundation that it did not want films which Rivers had taken of his two daughters. Rivers took the films, which he called "Growing," from 1976-1981 when his daughters were adolescents. In "Growing," the young girls are naked. NYU said it wouldn't accept the films because one of Rivers daughters Emma Tamburlini, now middle-aged, wanted "Growing" removed from the archive. "I kind of think that a lot of people would be very uptight, or at least a little bit concerned, wondering whether they have in their archives child pornography," Tamburlini told The Times.
Kind of concerned? You think? Just writing about "Growing" makes me feel slimy.
There's no doubt that Rivers was a highly talented artist. He hung out with the late Frank O'Hara, one of the poetry gods, John Ashbery (a living, if inscrutable poetry god) along with painters such as William de Kooning and Andy Warhol. They made some fabulous art and there's no question that Rivers' papers will provide some lively vistas into their literary and artistic circles.
But, I'm so glad NYU rejected "Growing." I'm all for free expression for the creative artist. But, I'm off the bus when it comes to coercing people into being subjects of art without their consent. As the old truism goes, you can tell the difference between art and pornography when you see it, and in my book, photographing your eleven year-old daughters naked, without their consent, is porn.
If only it were that simple!
You don't have to worry. I'm not suddenly going to start writing pornographic poetry or prose about strangers, let alone my friends or family. I'm so square (who besides me says "square?"), that I'm excited that "Leave It To Beaver" has been digitally remastered and released on DVD.
But I'm no different than any other writer who I've read about or know (or from any other creative artist). If you're my relative, friend, co-worker, neighbor, mail carrier or dog, you're bound to end up at some point in one of my poems or essays. Well, maybe not directly. I may or may not use your name. I might use just a component of your story. But you'll be there.
Once I wrote, in an essay that appeared in an obscure (or so I thought) magazine, about my brother David. Nothing really bad. Just that when I was seven, I'd taught him, aged four, how to drink out of our dog Sparky's dish. (David and I no longer do this now, and Sparky, despite our imbibing from her water bowl, lived a long and happy life.) Guess what happened? David, camping out in the woods with his wife, saw the article. He took it well. "You never know what to expect when you have a sister who writes," he told me, laughing, over the phone.
My late partner Anne, a private person, would go nuts when I'd write about her. Once, I wrote what I thought was an innocuous piece about the time that Anne got ticked off with me when I mistakenly bought celery hearts when she'd wanted me to buy celery stalks. "I didn't know celery had a heart," I'd told her. "How could you write publicly about something that happened just between us?" Anne had asked me angrily.
Sometimes, we creative artists can't win. After I'd take myself in hand and not write about Anne for a few months, Anne would still get mad. "Why aren't you putting in anything about me?" she'd ask, "it isn't just your life..it's our life!"
There are always (and will be always) times when friends, lovers, spouses and family members will be hurt by the art that we creative artists make. Because try as we might to respect boundaries, we go where our muses take us.
Responsible artists of all stripes try to draw the line between free expression and exploiting our characters–the subjects of our art.
I'm working on a sequence of poems based loosely on my (deceased) parents and my childhood. I hope my parents, may they be reading this in peace, won't feel exploited. I'm betting Sparky will be OK.