Monday, January 24, 2011

The Woodmans

"There’s a famous Diane Arbus photograph in which a pair of elderly, incredulous parents stare up at a son so huge that their apartment can barely contain him. The Woodmans is that picture."
We couldn't stop talking about The Woodmans last night. With the documentary film as my only personal insight into the family dynamics of this "weirdly competitive couple" (as one critic termed it), I found myself bouncing back and forth, during gasps or guffaws from the audience, between thinking "But that's understandable, if you only consider how..." and "Oh, so that's why they think those of us in the art world are freaks."

At the very opening of the film, Betty Woodman (who I have never had the pleasure of meeting, but who I know to be an accomplished artist with a career many other artists would give a body part for), says she couldn't live with anyone who didn’t take art as seriously as she did...that she would "hate" them. In any other context, this wouldn't be such a controversial statement (a bit of hyperbole revealing an intense personal passion, perhaps), but as the film progresses and the audience members who don't know already begin to realize that the Woodmans' talented and remarkably driven daughter, Francesca, took her own life at age 22, the statement seems to take on a wider, even harrowing significance.

In general, the film is a stunningly frank discussion by Francesca's parents, George and Betty, and her brother Charlie (all artists with varying degrees of success in their careers) of what it means to make art the center of not only your own life, but of your family life. As the story began, with the parents' rigorous studio schedules and annual trips to Italy where the kids were allowed to wander unchaperoned through the great museums of Tuscany, I have to admit to being a bit jealous. What a marvelous childhood! And as Francesca developed into an artist (focused on photography, often using herself nude as her subject) who nearly everyone saw as having a sophistication and eye well advanced for her age, I thought, "That's because of the advantage her parents gave her. What a gift."

Then it all goes terribly wrong. The documentary suggests that Francesca's expectations for recognition were as advanced as her eye. She wanted the acclaim that she felt she had earned (remember she died at 22), and when it didn't come fast enough, she grew despondent.

It would be easy to oversimplify the Woodmans' lifestyle as a cautionary tale ("Look at what her unconventional childhood did to Francesca"), but in truth there is nothing to directly connect the parents' disciplined approach to their own art making with their daughter's decision to end her own life. Many other children in a similar situation don't make that choice.

Still, the dynamics of the family do send chills down your spine while you're watching the film. None the least of which is how the death of their daughter (and the fame and acclaim that have come for Francesca's work since then) coincided with changes in Betty and George's own work: Betty shifted from functional clay objects to entirely "useless" fine art objects, and, somewhat unnervingly, George seemed to pick up where Francesca left off in her photography.

As someone who sees it as part of my job to support and help artists as they navigate through the social complications of choosing art over more stable/conventional careers, this film is going to take me quite some time to fully process. Again, I think it's far too oversimple to see it merely as a cautionary tale. It's one family's tragic story, but there is plenty of triumph in their story as well. And in that way, like any other story, it merely reflects the complexity of life itself.

I'd be curious to know what you thought, if you saw it, though:

Labels: artists lifestyle, movies


Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's a very good take on the film Ed. Obviously their son made very different choices than their daughter so it was a combination of things that led Francesca to do what she did.

I wish I had been able to get a better sense of her besides her photography (which was beautiful). She came off rather self-centered and the snippets of her writings showed little empathy for others but that could just be the editing of the film and diary and not at all what she was like. It's a very interesting documentary though.

----ondine nyc

1/24/2011 02:19:00 PM  
Anonymous Terri said...

I haven't seen this documentary, nor do I expect to see it. This story again seems to celebrate the worst of what contemporary culture assumes of artists (who does the average person know more about the personal life of.... Rembrandt or Van Gogh?).

It's time that the art industry cleaned up it's act, and quit feeding fuel to the flame -- haven't enough troubled artists become fodder for this "celebrity of the tragic"?

1/24/2011 02:48:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I'm not so sure the film celebrates anything, though Terri. It seems the filmmakers were extremely careful to remain objective, but there's no way you leave the film feeling you've witnessed any kind of celebration.

As for the art industry's need to clean up its act, you might actually want to watch the film before concluding it's any kind of an indictment of the "industry," per se.

1/24/2011 03:34:00 PM  
Anonymous Terri said...

Blogger Edward_ said...

"As for the art industry's need to clean up its act, you might actually want to watch the film before concluding it's any kind of an indictment of the "industry," per se."

I never said that the film itself was any kind of indictment of the industry; how could I since I admittedly haven't seen it? : )

My remark about celebrating the worst of what contemporary culture assumes about artists -- this has very much to do with the subject matter chosen for this documentary and quite a few others. (A definition of "Celebrate" which you may not be considering is "lionize, assign great social importance to".)

I can understand that you may consider this film a worthwhile insight into the "artist's mind" (but only if you were never an artist yourself, or else you would know better -- lol).

Consider that not all artists are quite this dysfunctional, in fact most are as normal as your tax accountant or your kid's teacher -- they are just encouraged to portray whackos by a culture and an industry who both "lionize and assign great social importance to" the "celebrity" artist.

Ask any person on the street when the price of an artist's work goes up most, and they will say "when they are dead". If that's what a culture asks of an artist, then maybe Francesca had it right -- if she is not lionized in life, then at least her tragic death can give her the twisted myth of success (to inspire a new generation of artists?).

How do you think this plays out to the new generation of talented artists -- all other things being equal?

1/24/2011 04:41:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

What evidence do you have any artists are encouraged to play whackos by the industry? I spend all my time trying to encourage artists to behave more like everyone else! :-pp

1/24/2011 04:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Terri said...


By the time they get to you, they've been indoctrinated (you know that, right? I mean, weren't we just discussing the merits of an MFA a few blogs ago?... ).

As an artist, I know that playing whacko *is* encouraged from undergraduate onward -- it's one of the undercurrents that has always irritated me (along with other undercurrents such as being rewarded for the "story" of the work more than the work itself -- lol -- it's as if artists are being trained to be lawyers, to be able to verbally sway their audience to believe NOT what is in front of them, but what *should be perceived* to be in front of them.

Where being a whacko artist is concerned, it is usually a case of "the chicken or the egg" -- is the person an artist hence they should act whacko (this is what is encouraged in college and society), or did the person begin as a whacko and then experiment with becoming an artist for acceptance? (It *is* considered a carte blanche for being weird, this artist-thing.... )

I think it's soooo funny that you are trying to UNDO what your artists have worked so hard to achieve and internalize in time and money and effort. (You realize how much graduate school costs?! And all of the affectations that have to be nurtured in order to appear "artistic"?!)

Of course if they *did* act normally, they wouldn't be nearly so interesting to talk about (and talking apparently sells art) -- encouraged to be whacko by the industry? I think so.... : )

1/24/2011 06:36:00 PM  
Anonymous jerome said...

1/25/2011 07:59:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I don't know, Terri. It's hard to follow your argument. You start off saying "It's time that the art industry cleaned up it's act."

I assume most people mean the commercial art gallery system when they say "the art industry."

But then you suggest the artists are already indoctrinated by the time they get to the gallery stage.

It doesn't follow then that the industry is responsible for this indoctrination.

It seems parallel to arguing that the NBA is responsible for encouraging young men to grow to be 7-feet tall.

1/25/2011 08:18:00 AM  
Anonymous Terri said...

Blogger Edward_ said...

"It seems parallel to arguing that the NBA is responsible for encouraging young men to grow to be 7-feet tall."

Hmmm... no, though I appreciate your attempt at lateral thinking.

You *could* say that the NBA (as an organization for competitive basketball) encourages teams to hire taller experienced basketball players -- because the taller a player is, the longer his stride and reach are, and in fact his height allows him to expend less effort on the court, allowing for greater stamina. And then there is blocking, where height is a plus.... ("According to a survey given to all NBA teams, the average height of all NBA players is just under 6 feet 7 inches (2.01 m)" ).

So by trickle-down influence, the professional teams influence the college teams, who in turn influence the high school teams, which influence the junior high teams, etc.. So the actual lateral comparison would be that the NBA encourages tall basketball-playing young men to consider themselves as having access to the possibility of being on a team, while the short basketball player will be excluded (all other things being equal).

Now back to the art industry. It might be said, in context with the argument above, that the art industry (gallerists, museum directors, and collectors) has every right to encourage a whacko personality or attributes in their artists -- the story helps to sell the art, and it is a business, after all.

I know that my problem with it is twofold: 1) it encourages artists to alter their realities artificially in order to please the demand, and 2) it encourages artists to look at their art as an afterthought.

"It's time that the art industry cleaned up it's act, and quit feeding fuel to the flame" -- yes, in irritation I wrote this, and as much as I might desire it, it just isn't commercially viable for the system.

Tragic lives are interesting to people. Tragedy sells, anger sells, sex sells, fear sells, shock sells -- sensationalism sells because people love drama. I can't change the world, but I don't have to like how artists can and will exploit themselves in order to get an audience, encouraged by the societal hunger for sensationalism.

If you want, I can absolve the art industry, because they are only following the will of their consumers. It's a world without moral concern for the psyche of the artist -- instead of being a link to the visually sublime, the artist is now a sideshow geek.

1/25/2011 01:41:00 PM  
Blogger markcreegan said...

I think one can differentiate between the "whacko" qualities of a personality and the complexity, intensity, and uniqueness of the work itself. I would hope that the later is certainly encouraged (in school and in the artworld in general). As for the former, I find arbitrary eccentricity to be discouraged or at least grudgingly tolerated. Perhaps some schools encourage affectation more than others, but I find school to have the opposite effect- usually the freshmen have a wilder, artsy quality and the seniors and grad students have a mellower, normal demeanor. And sometimes that fact is in inverse position with the work itself (the freshman work more conventional, grad student more edgy). That can only happen when there is this understanding of the difference between the persona and the work itself.

1/25/2011 03:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The 'industry' does play a role in destroying some artists. Did Mary Boone ever warn Basquiat to either get off drugs or be dropped? No. Granted he only had one exhibit with her that I'm aware of. Did Deitchy Boy ever call Dash Snow out on his destructive behavior. No. Nor did Boone or others who had direct contact with him. They cashed in knowing he was killing himself slowly.

You can say that an artists personal life does not matter outside of the business partnership. But in other industries it does. Look at the music industry and how often labels will drop a musician or an entire band if they are constantly lit to the point it harms expansion of their career.

People chuckled around about Dash's behavior for years and very few had enough compassion to make the obvious clear. He needed help and the attention he received in the art world no doubt fueled his addictive behaviors. The fact that he was clean after stepping away from the world of galleries briefly shows the influence that world had on him.

The artist/art dealer relationship is the only business partnership that is OK if one partner is drugged out. In any other business people would look down at both parties. In any other New York business the vice would be exposed in the New York Times. And you know as much as I what some after parties turn into. Gallery owners know what goes on and some partake in it.

I've been told that there is a video artist documenting some of the things that go on in the night life of New York's art world elite and at art fair after parties with hidden spy cams. I'm sure it will ruffle some feathers if it hits Youtube. LOL

1/25/2011 03:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Francesca's photography was not groundbreaking for the time. She is just another example of an artist who had the red carpet rolled out for her because of family connections.

I know of at least a dozen artists in Chelsea who are related to a famous artist or come from a wealthy family background. They are talented but I doubt they would be where they are at if it were not for those connections.

There is nothing wrong with using connections BUT, BUT, BUT what is hot in New York defines a part of our culture. It is kind of sad that our culture is pre-defined by social status. The son of a factory worker who smears feces on the breasts of a Playboy picture with Sarah Palin's face glued over the models face is called a lunatic. The son of a New York businessman, famous actor, famous artist, or wealth art patron who does the same is called brilliant.

1/25/2011 03:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Terri, most college kids in general are weird. Spend some time in a college math department and you will be surrounded by all kinds of strange!

I do think that the majority of artists are more emotive than others. Most have been made fun of because of their love of art at one point or the other. Because of that they often have low self-esteem. So there is probably some truth in your average artist seeking attention by acting out.

I use it to my advantage. Call me a jerk if you want but most female artists are an easy lay. Praise their art and you will be just hours or days away from making the big score. You can say that is because artists are more open with themselves and their sexuality if you want. I just call it being easy. I love artists!

1/25/2011 04:06:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I am not actually sure about your argument Terri.

Let's look at it from the other direction.

Say the art industry encouraged, as every other industry does, conformity among artists. What impact would that have on the art we have as a result? You can argue that there is a middle ground between the two, but I'm not sure I've ever seen what it looks like.

In fact, your argument seems to suggest that a laissez faire approach to nonconformist behavior is the cause of "whacko" behavior rather than more simply the (unfortunate at times perhaps, but certainly not always) prerequisite to giving artists freedom to express what they REALLY feel or think.

Essentially, it's a catch 22. Discourage what you see as "bad" behavior and you can squelch an artist's creativity. Don't discourage it and you can become complicit in their self-destruction. Individualists would argue it's better to let them make their own choices.

1/25/2011 06:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Terri said...

Blogger markcreegan said...
"Terri,I think one can differentiate between the "whacko" qualities of a personality and the complexity, intensity, and uniqueness of the work itself."

Hi Mark -- I will refrain from saying "duh", out of respect for you. (Of *course* a personality is distinct from his/her artwork!)

Obviously you had a *completely* different experience than I did -- mine was in Fine Arts at a very well-known University. (Is it possible that you were at a location which focused on commercial arts?)

Anonymous Anonymous said...
"Terri, most college kids in general are weird. Spend some time in a college math department and you will be surrounded by all kinds of strange!"

Yes Anonymous, that was the point -- the general population is a generous spectrum, but an Artist is expected to follow the artist crowd and be Whacko to the point of self-exploitation. It's sad, really -- and the desire for any kind of acceptance made the females an easy target for a predator such as yourself.

Blogger Edward_ said...
"Say the art industry encouraged, as every other industry does, conformity among artists."

It does, just not in the way you are thinking -- I see the art industry encouraging conformity in whacko personalities and behavior, allowing a relatively tight spectrum of "controllable chaos" on the part of their stable. (It makes them more story-worthy that way.)

Blogger Edward_ said...
"...rather than more simply the (unfortunate at times perhaps, but certainly not always) prerequisite to giving artists freedom to express what they REALLY feel or think."

Wow.... no -- that's an entirely different concept. There would be *even MORE* bad artwork out there if an artist was not guided as to what to feel and think by their instructors (and sometimes their gallerists) -- LOL! In a perfect world, *every* artist would exhibit the freedom to express what they really feel and think (some do) -- but in this world, they are guided, and the more they are guided (MFA program anyone? How about a financially lucrative gallery?), the more they learn to "do business" by promoting a sensational personality, many times to their own misfortune.

Blogger Edward_ said...
"Individualists would argue it's better to let them make their own choices."

Yes. But the artists' personal lifestyle choices would be far more congruent with the general population if they were not encouraged from a relatively young age to be "eccentric" -- which is where I wish society would show a little responsibility (I had an Aikido Instructor who *assured* me that I was a drug addict since I was an artist -- nice, huh?! NOT SO! Where did he get this idea -- well all of those news articles, movies, and television shows always talked about those artists and their problems... )

Oh how fun to be a stereotype...

1/26/2011 04:31:00 PM  

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