Monday, March 24, 2014

L’Wren Scott and the Refuge of Art: A Response

One of the reasons I appreciate Acculturated is that its contributors are allowed to express differing opinions. Just earlier this week Ashley E. McGuire argued against fellow contributor Kate Bryan’s take on the “bossy” controversy. And now Mark Judge has taken exception to my commentary on the suicide of fashion designer L’Wren Scott, which leaves me no choice but to challenge him to pistols at twenty paces.

In all seriousness, Judge and I do not seem to be embroiled so much in a disagreement as in a misunderstanding. Here was the core of my brief commentary about Ms. Scott: “Her tragedy is a reminder that we all have our demons, and celebrity and luxury are illusions that cannot protect us. It takes an armor welded from elements much stronger than ourselves – family, friends, and faith, for example – to keep those demons at bay.”

Judge seemed to get both much more and much less out of that than I intended. He described it as “a lazy dismissal of a gifted person” who “was, above all else, an artist.” He wrote that I “admitted” I knew “nothing about her and the reasons for her suicide” (which is only half-right – I did know about L’Wren Scott and her work). He seems to think I was using her “as yet another pinata in the culture wars” – I’m not sure where that comes from, since my piece was not about the culture wars. And he felt that I failed to seriously assess her art.

But my short article was not about her art. It was about what people on the outside saw of her life. Judge believes my piece lacks an understanding of pop culture, but the tug-of-war between our fragile humanity and the seductive illusion of luxury and celebrity is one of the most serious issues with pop culture.

Judge wrote that “conservatives often dismiss artistic endeavor, ignoring that it can be brutally hard work and take a lot of courage.” There is truth to that, but I’m not sure why he assumes from my article that I fall into that camp. I was a musician for many years, I tried my hand at acting, and now I’m a screenwriter and a pop culture critic, so I know from personal experience what art demands.

However, we have common ground. In response to my point about people often needing something larger than themselves to keep it together, Judge wrote that “the foundational things in life are the things that can keep us out of trouble and even save our lives. But so can art.” I couldn’t agree more. When I listed “family, friends, and faith, for example,” I wasn’t excluding art or anything else that might work for someone, although in retrospect I should have elaborated on that point to avoid just this kind of misunderstanding. Judge rightly points out that family, friends, and faith can sometimes fail us too – they have failed me on occasion, as I have them – and that art can be there for us in ways that nothing and no one else can.

I fully agree. As just one example, last week I posted a piece about actor John Lithgow and the power of story to bring his ailing father back from the brink of depression and surrender – “back to life,” as Lithgow put it. “Sometimes a song, a play, or, yes, a dress, can make the difference,” Judge asserts, “pointing someone to a life that is missing at home.” Absolutely. “And to assume that celebrity and luxury precludes the possibility of these things reveals a kind of misunderstanding about popular culture and art.”

I think the misunderstanding is his. I never wrote that celebrity and luxury preclude that possibility, nor did I say that they were even the cause of L’Wren Scott’s death. I’m not sure how anyone can think I was lecturing or dismissing her or ignoring the life-saving power of art; nor did I judge her for killing herself. My point was that fame and fortune seem larger than life, but they are paper-thin, and we all need something stronger to anchor us, whatever that may be. I didn’t claim that this is an original or even profound observation – only that it is something we need reminders of nearly constantly in our culture, and Ms. Scott’s suicide is a poignant one.

“Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life,” L’Wren Scott recently wrote, a statement that would seem to bolster Mark Judge’s point about art being a refuge. And perhaps that did sustain her throughout her life. But in the end not even that was enough. And she’s far from alone; legion is the number of artists, both famous and unknown, who have taken their own lives. For whatever reasons, in their final moments there was nothing to keep them from going under – not even their art.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/20/14)