It never seems to be the most contemplative person in the room who points out the elephant, so when the young girl, self-identified as an art school student, stood in the auditorium and asked Patti Smith what she thought of the “controversy” surrounding the Hide/Seek exhibit, I felt the most surprising of feelings: slight embarrassment.
Don’t get me wrong, I followed the story with a thirst for blood; I cheered my friend Adrian Parsons when he climbed the telephone pole to project the film against the facade of the National Portrait Gallery, and I even stirred a pot in my head wondering what would happen at this book talk when THEE Patti Smith, of all people in the god damned world, was slated to give a talk about her National Book Award-winning memoir of her relationship with, none other than, the victim of conservative censorship in his own time, Robert Mapplethorpe.
What a perfect storm, I thought. I was even charged up to hear a venomous indictment from the poetess– one about the flagrant hypocrisy in the NPGs vision of queer art. I felt doubly incited in my blood-lust, as I sat in the auditorium, by the images projected against the backdrop of the stage: pictures of Walt Whitman, Arthur Rimbaud, and Allen Ginsberg, the triumvirate of gay-bashed genius poets.
Especially of Whitman, whose collection Leaves of Grass is a fundamental text of queer American poetry, but ALSO whose unwavering patriotism is inspiring to say the least, but also incredibly provocative considering that this same patriotism is so intrinsically bound up with images of man-love and that these images are so fundamental to the DNA of AMERICAN literature in the broadest sense. One can find a love for America in Whitman that feels good, and feels close because it goes against so much that the modern conservative tries to impose as American idealism. In short, Whitman is our ghost of punk-rock-past.
This is not lost on the NPG; as the book talk interlocutor David Ward put it in his introduction, “Whitman is a continual presence in this building.”
Ward also recounts that Whitman was fired from a clerical job at the Department of the Interior for the moral content of Leaves of Grass. It’s this kind of anecdote that stumps us in the audience, and we wonder how this organization can reconcile their sentimentality for Whitman and maintain this ostensibly earnest and ambitious initiative to exhibit queer art at a nationally endowed museum, while also bending to the objections of one conservative Senator. How they can project the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, and invite Patti Smith to discuss her book, when just a week ago there were all-night protests over the pulled film, and a literal mimicry of the protests of the Corcoran in 1989.
For the NPG, is the story of Walt Whitman’s firing so removed from our contemporary conversation that it is easily romanticized and mythologized, where as the Hide/Seek debacle is so fresh that it can only be politicized? Do the two not converge toward the same principle?
We needed an authority on this, somebody close to the jugular of this beast, who could help us locate the pulse and determine some semblance of an answer. Lucky enough, Patti Smith was in-da-house.
So when she takes the stage, we applaud for her career, her National Book Award, and I think we also applaud for the show we though we’re going to get. She’s dressed perfectly in a blazer, a vest, an oxford, and holy jeans, as if she stepped out of the album cover– our purple rose of Horses.
She tells us about being 20 years old, and of arriving to the train station without enough money for the ticket to New York City, where she hoped to find a job. Distraught and hopeless in a phone booth, calling her sister, she finds a white plastic purse with thirty dollars in it (as much as a weeks pay) and for the rest of her life this nameless girl, the owner of the purse, has been Patti Smith’s original benefactor, and she thanks her from time to time for this Genesis of good fortune.
When asked about Robert Mapplethorpe, she recalls memories of being in a diner and having brought honey along, for her tea, since diners did not always have it. She describes the embarrassment Mapplethorpe felt about her producing the honey at the table, and that he thought it was drawing attention to them, and she attributes it to his residual middle class manners, and her total poverty of table manners, and the irony that the whole time he is dressed in a see-through mesh shirt, and gold lamay pants.
She treats us to a poem about Georgie O’Keeffe. She tells us that Rimbaud is better than Baudelaire in her opinion.
She produces a guitar and gives us a song about things she learned from William Blake, and poverty.
When the audience gets the chance to pose questions to her, a person asks about her process in writing this memoir of her time with Mapplethorpe, and she talks about the last days with him, and the moments before he lost consciousness; when she asked him what she could do for him when he was gone, and how he asked her to “tell their story.” She says that it took her nearly 30 years to be able to tell that story of her and Robert, because between his death and the publication of Just Kids, she lost her parents, her husband, and many friends, and her faculties were demanded by the hard times that followed that succession of tragedy.