During Diane Arbus’s funeral, the photographer Richard Avedon turned to a friend and whispered, ”Oh, I wish I could be an artist like Diane.” The friend, Frederick Eberstadt, answered, ”Oh, no, you don’t.” Their brief exchange – as recounted in Patricia Bosworth’s biography of Arbus – raises the charged questions surrounding the tormented, even self-destructive, creative artist. Chief among them is where reality ends and mythology begins.
Arbus personified the artist whose inner turmoil – depression, dislocation and a taste for risk bordering on a death wish – fueled her creations, those moving and disturbing photographs of drag queens and hermaphrodites, celebrities and Siamese twins. But Arbus was also a woman defeated by depressions so debilitating she often could not work and, ultimately, chose not to live. Finally, Arbus represented an artist who gained more fame, who was indeed romanticized, more for living on the edge than for the artistry she brought back from that emotional frontier.
It is no wonder, then, that Arbus – that the entire issue of the ”mad artist,” as the awful cliche has it -should both attract and repel, as it has for literally thousands of years. Aristotle spoke of ”divine madness,” Renaissance scholar Marsilio Ficino of the ”Saturnine temperament.” The playwright August Strindberg declared that few people were ”lucky enough to be capable of madness,” and the poet John Berryman opined, ”The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not nearly kill him.”
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