Art is having a strange moment right now. The market today is a business, pure and simple — a depraved scramble for big money; it’s as much about the businessmen, financiers, and lawyers as it is about the artists and their work. I’m not the only one who’s noticed that. There seem to be a lot of young people in New York today making “art,” simply because being an artist is cool, and because of the title’s apparent link to money, power, and, well, … sex. But just because you have blue hair and an experimental Instagram doesn’t mean I want to fuck you — quite the opposite, in fact, especially if it means getting on the J train to deep Bushwick.
The artist has always been a sex symbol of sorts — but of late, it’s become so mythologized as to have reached new, ridiculous heights. From Picasso’s long string of affairs with women to Lucien Freud’s multitude of mistresses to Julian Schnabel’s ability to date (and knock up) megababes, they just seem to have something. But what makes artists so seductive, despite their tendency to be, ya know, selfish egomaniacs who suffer from mental illness and addiction? And often, to be quite honest, not terribly good looking? Well, creativity is hot; art openings are glamorous and have free drinks; artists represent freedom, and are rebellious, sensitive, and “psychotic in a good way,” as an art groupie friend of mine once put it. But this is an idealized, and perhaps glamorized, portrait of the artist, but it’s not the whole story.
It takes a certain amount of arrogance to create something that is, ultimately, nonessential, and then put said thing into the world and demand that people pay attention to it. That’s not an easy task, and the confidence it requires can be incredibly hot — if the artist is good. If the artist is bad, then it all just becomes very cringe-y. Have you ever dated a poet before reading his poems? Bad idea.
But there are two very primary, elemental reasons why, I think, an artist is an attractive bedfellow for us citizens—us non-artists. For one, who doesn’t want to be the muse?
I haven’t dated an artist in the purist, “fine art” sense. (That’s not to say I haven’t tried. I can recall one Miami Basel in particular when I really thought I was making headway with a certain bad-boy painter, only to be quickly swept aside in favor of an eager Victoria’s Secret model.) I have, however, dated musicians, filmmakers, photographers, and writers — that is to say, people who create personal work for public consumption, all of whom inevitably share similar traits and sensibilities. It was in my early 20s when I first experienced the very particular dynamic of being romantically linked to a creator, as I began dating the singer in an indie band. It felt special to know that I was the first person to hear the new songs he was writing and to read over his lyrics. I could tell he really valued my opinions, and they changed the work he produced. Admittedly, I felt extremely cool the few times he wrote songs about me (and even cooler when Florence and the Machine covered one of them).
In a Vanity Fair piece about Lucian Freud, David Kamp wrote, “Freud’s women sitters were often lovers, or women who became his lovers, and, in some cases, lovers who became the mothers of his children.” Since Picasso’s death, galleries have often chosen to curate shows of his work based on which lover he was painting at the time. And, my personal favorite: La Cicciolina was all over Jeff Koons’s recent Whitney show. From a certain romantic perspective, the muse shares a very private and particular relationship with a creative person, which is then expressed to the world in a very elevated and public way. Being immortalized in an artwork is the ultimate love letter, and it’s seductive even when you’re not fucking the artist in question, as I’ve experienced first hand.
Along with being in Richard Prince’s recent Instagram show at Gagosian, I was — in 2008 — part of Prince’s installation at London’s Frieze Art Fair. For five straight days, I waxed Prince’s 1970 tangerine-colored Dodge Challenger, dressed in a hot pink bikini top and denim short-shorts. It was a surreal experience — for one, because waxing a car for five days is exhausting, but also because, in order to “become art,” you inevitably forfeit your identity (at least temporarily), and become an extension of the creative mind of the artist. And while I happily took on that role, and loved the experience — uh, hello, James Franco asked to take a photo with me — there were a large number of fairgoers who were appalled that I would willingly participate in such “objectification.” Multiple people attempted to “save me” by pulling me away from the car. One woman tried to give me a sweater. And while I can see where they were coming from, I didn’t see those same people trying to convince Lucien Freud’s nude subjects to walk out of his paintings … or put on a sweater.
Maybe this is very un-feminist of me to say, but growing up I was far more drawn to the idea of being the muse than the artist. I wanted to be Anna Karina to Godard, Edie Sedgwick to Warhol, and Rose to Jack. Perhaps that’s because I didn’t have a powerful image of a female artist to aspire toward, and therefore, like many women, I was trained to want to be the object. But being the muse is a very passive role, and inevitably short-lived. For all the children that Freud had with his mistresses (the count is now up to 14 acknowledged children with six women), he didn’t feel obliged to actually raise most of them. And Picasso is known to have been a dick. As he told one muse, Françoise Gilot, “For me, there are only two kinds of women — goddesses and doormats.” The muse is the bridesmaid, and that’s not always fun.
So this pervasive “muse complex” isn’t the only reason why artists are attractive to us. Last winter, Bret Easton Ellis had Kanye West as a guest on his podcast, and part of their conversation centered around the reality of being someone who creates things. Kanye mentioned that he felt particularly self-aware of the artist’s tendency to oscillate between periods of inflated ego and periods of self-loathing. It’s an intense life — there’s the pain of creation, padded by periods of downtime where one feels compelled to escape reality. And stereotypically, sex and drugs have been sedatives for that intensity. But that oscillation can make for a charged romantic relationship. One minute the artist appears so amazing and confident that you can’t help but open your legs, and the next minute they suddenly plummet and become vulnerable and insecure, and need you to open your arms to comfort them. In my experience, despite the fact that artists think they want to be with someone smart and critical, who challenges them — deep down most really just want to be babied. And this is why the artist is appealing not only to those seduced by rebellion and celebrity. It’s also attractive to the nurturing type. Some people love a fixer-upper.
Art, at its best, aims to be a transcendent experience. As does sex. And maybe this is naive to say, given that art is now largely a business, but I’ve always found it attractive to think that artists might be more in touch with generating transcendence than the average person, and therefore must be better in bed. (I might have to sleep with more artists in order to prove that theory.) There’s just something sexy and fascinating about someone whose daily routine deals with the sublime, and who aims to create something out of this world. It’s like wanting to fuck God, kinda. Also, objectively, artists are good with their hands, so …
Of course, I am writing from a predominantly straight female perspective. And while it does seem that, perhaps unfortunately, the mythology of artist-as-sex-symbol is centered around straight men, I think the same reasoning applies across the board. But let’s be real: While many artists are idolized and sexualized, the majority of people in the world probably don’t want to date one. It’s not easy to be with someone in the spotlight, someone who constantly craves recognition. You’re always going to be competing with the love they’re getting from the rest of the world. Sure, when someone has the admiration of the world, and their eyes are on you — it’s a very powerful thing. But in reality, most people just want to be with someone who earns enough money, who’s healthy, good-looking, good enough in bed, and not too insane. They see no appeal in a bipolar, insomniac painter.