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"Two artists I interviewed acknowledged the transformative influence of LSD; a third hailed psilocybin mushrooms as a creative catalyst."

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When the questions get tough, the artists get cold feet.


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What artists say off the record is usually a lot more telling than what they say on the record. There's something about a reporter's notepad or tape recorder that can tighten the lips of even the loosest creative cannon, a phenomenon that never ceases to surprise and disappoint me. I ought to be used to this reticence by now, and yet I cling to the image of the artist as freewheeling, free-thinking iconoclast, living as an open book, gleefully airing dirty laundry and opening skeleton-filled closets to the world through their art.

Alas, this conception may have held sway in the days of the Abstract Expressionists, who lived out loud, channeling pure emotion onto canvas and mining personal demons for aesthetic epiphany--but it's lamentably outdated today. This, after all, is the age of what Jerry Saltz and Jeff Jahn respectively call "termite art" produced by "hug-me's": precious, pseudo-conceptual fluff timidly advanced by neurotic Gen-Xers who scour their childhood for inspiration, only to come up with a VH1 montage of Lucky Charms, Schoolhouse Rock, Nerf balls and Downtown Julie Brown. Impotent, devoid of constitutional gravitas, these slouching Harrell Fletchers and Red Switchboard Braceleteers are portraits of the artist as Derrida's bitch. Half a century removed from the paint-dripping, guts-spewing Pollocks and de Koonings, today's obsessive-compulsive artists try to micromanage how their art is received by the press and public, rather than just letting the work speak for itself and the chips fall where they may.

One artist recently asked me to email her a list of questions I intended to ask during our interview, so she could carefully prepare her answers, spontaneity be damned. That's nothing compared with Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who demanded they be allowed to read and approve all interview texts before publication when they jetted into town last September for their show at the Portland Art Museum. WW refused to dignify this brand of pre-censorship and declined the opportunity to interview the pair.

An artist type I did interview last year complimented a well-known local artist by exclaiming, "She's the balls!" Two days later, there was an email in my in-box: "Could you please not print the part where I said, 'She's the balls!'? It's probably not appropriate. Also, would you please not mention that I smoked during the interview? I'm trying to quit. I detest smoking and wouldn't want to set a bad example for people." Perish the thought that creative people might actually smoke!

One young artist who'd recently been picked up by a gallery confessed to me that he felt conflicted about "selling out" his indie roots. I found this an honest and valid nuance of a growing artist's life and wanted to include it in the interview, but he feared the admission might harm him in gallery politics.

Far more disturbing than any of these instances is the artistic inspiration that dare not speak its name: psychedelic drugs. "LSD really opened up my whole world as an artist," one painter recently gushed, quickly adding, "but don't print that." Confessed another: "A peyote trip when I was in my late teens started my career in art. I would not have become an artist if I hadn't had that experience. It changed the way I saw--and still see--the world."

Two other artists I've interviewed have acknowledged the transformative influence of LSD, while a third hailed psilocybin mushrooms as a creative catalyst. Although it's been more than a decade since any of them touched the stuff, they're still afraid for people to know the truth. They hide it more zealously than if they had a past as a porn star, child molester or Republican. Why the skittishness? Mostly, they explain, it's that they don't want the fashionable postmodern art establishment to pigeonhole them as hippy-dippy romantics. But since when do real artists give a damn how the establishment perceives them? Don't we look to artists to express and embody the avant-garde, the anti-establishment?

Here is my wish for the New Year: that artists will be artists--in all their expansive, uninhibited glory; that they'll concentrate on their art, not on dictating how others view it; that they'll defeat their insecurities, put an end to the Nixonian obfuscations, and be as candid in conversation as they are on canvas. Let's all go on the record in 2005, shall we?

Originally published on WEDNESDAY, 1/5/2005

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