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Obit for Two: A Reflection on Dying, Culture, Lucien Freud and Amy Winehouse

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Obits eulogize. I would like instead to address some broader cultural issues raised by these two coincidentally paired departures -- one whose timing is consistent with humans' four-score shelf life, the other in my estimation, a tragic early waste of a remarkably profound talent.

So, if your grandfather invented or unleashed the "id," by genetics and by public expectation you have two choices for your life and life's work.

Option one: seek refuge from millions of years of yet raging inbred fight-fornicate instinct by creating pristine fictions of Order and Beauty (think Plato, Don Judd, Frank Stella, arguably Richard Serra, a tanned Ralph Lauren aping tidy WASP privilege).

Option two: dive head-long into the messy erogenous, contentious muck of it all, recording the vagaries, obsessions, fears and fissures of life/desire/decay/art.

Both Amy and Lucien went for option 'b,' each in their way, each abetted and/or hampered by us.

2011-08-01-otisbk0565.jpgUntil his death, and depending on who you ask, Freud had been called one of the greatest living painters. I tended to agree. He analogized entropy -- psychic/physical/sexual -- in gorgeous, assaulting, crevassing paint limning bodies torqued by forces inside and outside of them.

It's no secret that Lucien used a fabled name and prodigious talent to join the superstars quite early -- million of dollars a pop at auction, jet setting in London, etc., etc.

Many could not see the work as more than well-timed, well-staged angst at a too comfy and elite remove to be real (what's a boy to do when his name is Freud).

Some artists who knew and worked with the teacher Freud at Slade said he taught them how to see; others described a rock star, enamored with his image, sauntering into his crits for a brief showing, myopically involved with his own practice, his career.

Brits love him as their adopted faux prodigal -- his fabled Jewish granddad was "escorted" oddly unscathed to the UK just as so many other Jews sensed mounting peril (I do not even want to speculate what was behind all that).

Folks who fetishize elegance -- the French -- have tended to hate him; as for Americans, well Freud just plain fascinates and terrifies us in turn.

2011-08-01-otisbk0566.jpgThis mixed legacy may be part fact, part the representation -- a function of the trenchant abstraction called "artist who's arrived": recovered bohemian turned entrepreneur, part snob, part drunk, relying on past laurels and old chops, exploiting fame, bedding all objects of prurient fancy.

I would take this opportunity to restate the obvious: this is a representation, a social code. Like the idea-action map invoked by "big screamy queen," it distills a picture of reality used and re-used, having maybe little, maybe something, maybe nothing to do with lived, inter-subjective experience -- offensive for its short hand, dangerous for its presumptions in all three cases.

Freud was in fact (as opposed to in representation) a gifted, deeply studied painter; there is no way you can pack this sort of unspoken urgency into whipped-cream color without both innate talent and inordinate discipline. He was complex from all accounts, less of a big time player and antisocial snob than he was both oppressed and overly impressed with his elite lineage, a bit burdened by his ability to see the world in the searing way he did.

When bio speculations and cultural mediations obfuscate, I go to the work. What is there in from of us? Foremost, a constantly maturing technical acumen -- in spite of its figurative vehicle, you detect a dedication to the thesis that art's language and mode of speaking is paint -- not narrative. We know nothing of the guy sprawled open legged on a worn couch with those inflamed-looking testicles; he has no story...

What we feel are vague, conflicting demands on our attention, including the lure of gorgeous form hitting the eye, the insistence that we face via the back door of art the sort of trauma that just plain living delivers daily, in mostly manageable morsels, sometimes in large anguishing doses.

2011-08-01-otisbk0759.jpgFreud's legacy was to provide -- whether by intent or accidental proclivity -- a valiant if futile antidote to the avalanche of visual mediation that started just as he came up. If mass media's version of coitus is hard, rich, tweeting bodies "hooking up" with Burberry undergarments spread across a cool Brooklyn loft, then Freud's version is oozy, sweaty flesh, banal to grotesque just plain fucking.

That he stuck to this vision and indeed perfected it over these four decades -- an era when culture and art have entered deeper and deeper into life lived through representation -- cannot be ignored.

Whatever else he was or did, Freud insistently invited us to confront our inevitable and timed embodiment at that point prior to its being re-packaged, deodorized, collectively acted out on global auto pilot as paper thin obscenities (think here of the Kardasians, Hiltons, coked out and canonized Kate Mosses, dissembling Terminators equated with their scripts unfit for public office, filthy rich "socialist" world leaders whose Marxism happens to include women as one of those "shared" social commodities.)

This is all to say, as suggested by Michael Kimmelman's brilliant New York Times tribute, the representation is not the life of Freud -- do not get those confused.

This then brings me to Amy Winehouse and to representations in general, how each generation uses them, the role they play in that abstraction we term "cultural progress," and the impact of the represented in relation to he utter reality of death.

Winehouse is dead; she cannot advance to the next level by using bonus lives. If you saw the media all last week you read: "Dies alone in bed"; "Troubled life," and most telling, "Joins Club 27," referring jauntily to lionized artists who died (mostly at their hand) at that age, like Hendrix, Joplin, Cobain, Morrison, etc. The operative representation here is not "sell-out male superstar," but the related, equally one-dimensional "self-annihilating genius"; being gifted is necessarily concomitant with danger to self and others.

The reasons people suffer, the actions they take to such suffering are far too personal/subtle/complex/profound for such a pathetic package of dribble.

Winehouse was a rare talent with serious life issues; we all have them, hers were demon-sized. Quite independent from that fact and its lived history, Winehouse was a prodigious, rare and remarkable artist who seemed to understand (like Lucien, and Joyce, and Wolffe) that the tool of her voice did not tell a tale, it was the tale... What the heck does "I ain't going to rehab" mean or signify anyway?! Yet not one sentient person listening to that song failed to register the fulcrum balance between anguish and life force cursing through that young woman, whose death saddens me very much.

The piles of liquor bottles, cigarettes and drug stuff being left at altars near her London home indicate the strength/lure of this vapid "crazy genius" code.

Our short hand representations of Freud and Winehouse -- slightly altered permutations of each other -- obscure the person, trivialize the contribution, distance us from lessons of loss, and play themselves out in more wasteful imitative ends through collective culture.

The century-old, die-hard view of gifted people destined to unravel may have begun as the projected id fantasy of a repressed owning class at the turn of the 1900s; as one of the currently accepted imprimaturs of true creativity, of surfeit sensitivity, this fiction comes down unchecked and unchallenged to a generation of 20- to 30-somethings -- famous and just regular -- who suffer real tragedy under its seductive and silly directives.

An admittedly troubled Winehouse, along with too many of her media-suffused peers, confused the trope with real options. Lucien -- perhaps because he was old school, perhaps because he experienced a whiff of culture before it was totally defined by snap shots, perhaps poised by grand pa's rich mind -- was able to live a long and personal arc alongside and in spite of his simulacrum. Winehouse did not fare as well.

The loss of Freud is sad, the loss of Winehouse is a real waste.