Flights of fancy
May 24, 2006 3:30 AM   Subscribe

Joseph Cornell was enamored with ballerinas and starlets, the subject of many of his celebrated boxes. "He handed them, personally, to his most loved ballerinas. And they were almost uniformly sent back. He was rejected, laughed at, and, in one unfortunate case, tackled." Anecdotes about Cornell and his muses, via robot wisdom. [more]
posted by madamjujujive (52 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite

I saw one of Cornell's boxes at MOMA in NYC recently and I didn't find it quite as fascinating as Mr. Foer. To each his own, I guess.

I realize that Mr. Foer sees his writing style as a literary analogy to Cornell's boxes. I've read "Everything is Illuminated" and a number of short stories in magazines of Mr. Foer's (one about his family was beautiful).

There are parts of his writing that I love (the sections "written" by the tour guide in Everything is Illuminated" were touching and hilarious) and a lot of other parts that I find infuriating to read because of his insistence on turning a book into a Rube Golderberg contraption (a la Cornell).

Mr. Foer may now be wealthy from his writing, but so is Dan Brown of DaVinci Code fame who can't write worth a damn.

I've always thought that Mr. Foer will be a great day...when he stops all..the..Cornell..baloney.

At this point, I think I'd rather read Jonathan Lethem.
posted by bim at 4:31 AM on May 24, 2006

I love the work of Joseph Cornell, I was drawn to him like many other onanistic original artists of the era. Nothing short of a 600 page tell all gushy biography could do any justice to describing his life and work. I reccomend checking out the book Utopia Parkway. I'm a little non-plussed that he gets web lip service although I'm happy his art does get mentioned but how come Max Ernst doesn't, especially considering he heavily influenced Cornell. Joseph Cornell talked about being into white magic, whereas Ernst was more into black magic. You have to check out Une Semaine De Bonte, the internet wasn't as loving to Ernst and I haven't found a biography or website that does him justice. And you can't even really float Cornell as one of the top 20th century artists without looking like a n00b. His work is very original and he was one of the first "pop culture" junkies: a lot of what Andy Warhol did was pretty much ripped off from Cornell. But for top 20th century artists look at Marcel Duchamp, whom Cornell learned about box constuction from when he helped Duchamp make his reproductions. One thing people often don't know about Cornell is that he also made found footage films, and was obsessed with the old style of movie theatres. He screened some of his films once at a gallery where Salvador Dali was present. Dali became very upset and knocked over the projector because he was in talks with disney to pay him to make a film from found footage, basically the same idea.
posted by psychobum at 5:13 AM on May 24, 2006

Mention of Joseph Cornell always brings to mind (rightly or wrongly) the artist Lee Bontecou who recently had a retrospective at MOMA. Check her out too!
posted by bim at 5:14 AM on May 24, 2006

I get the feeling William Gibson is a big fan of Cornell's work. In the book "Count Zero", there's an entire subplot tied to some mysterious art boxes created by an unknown entity.
posted by cosmicbandito at 6:58 AM on May 24, 2006

Nice post, as always. Thanks.
posted by OmieWise at 7:04 AM on May 24, 2006

Wasn't a fan of Utopia Parkway for the same gushy, tell all reasons psychobum dug it :).

But I am a fan of Cornell (Pay no mind to the pile of tools and scrap wood gathering dust in the corner!), and I am a fan of this post.
Good stuff!!!
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 7:35 AM on May 24, 2006

cosmicbandito, to be thoroughly and annoyingly pedantic, it wasn't "Count Zero", but the next book, "Mona Lisa Overdrive". And yeah, that's the first thing I thought of when I saw those boxes, as well.
posted by Gamblor at 8:25 AM on May 24, 2006

I have deeply mixed feelings about Joseph Cornell as a person. I do love his art. I was introduced to Cornell when I was 11. The person who introduced me had been told by a renowned art collector that "Joseph likes quiche lorraine and little girls". I was taken out to his place, 37-08 Utopia Parkway, Flushing in 1965 with that person, who had also purchased a quiche lorraine for the occasion, in case I wasn't a suitable offering. She wanted his art and I was going to be the bait used to procure it.

We arrived at his derelict looking Queens house. I think it was late winter. As we got out of the taxi I was told we were about to meet a slightly crazy man who "has a thing for little girls" and I was to "behave" [this said with a menacing glare]. I was sick in the pit of my stomach.

Joseph greeted us at the front door. He was so thin, old and wrinkled! He seemed soft and gentle but I was scared of him. In the dark foyer to the left I noticed a large, glass fronted wood cabinet. In it was a life-size porcelain doll, very white, hidden amid branches. It must have been another version of his Bebe Marie box. To me it looked like some kind of open casket with a child's corpse in it. I was terrified.

We walked through an unkempt, dimly lit, dismal front room into his kitchen in back. It was well lit and there was another girl washing dishes. She was about 15 or 16 I think. Joseph said she was from the neighborhood and came to help him with housework. I was relieved not to be the only girl there.

I asked to use the bathroom to get away while the quiche was reheated and the grown-ups talked. the bathroom was upstairs and I explored his house quietly then and didn't see anything weird, no dead bodies, lol. That was a relief. Later that day Joseph took us all on a tour of his house with his basement below, an interesting, creative mess that was well organised in its way, full of box-making gear, hardware, paper, trinkets and all sorts of stuff that he put in his boxes. It felt full of energy in that room compared to the sense of depressing neglect in the rest of the house. He also had a large storage place under the eves. It was packed with his work, hundreds of works, a lot of flat images too.

Anyway, over the years I was used to procure Joseph's art, as was my 6 year old sister and another little girl I knew. The adults using us in this way groomed Joseph to some extent in his 'interests' in little girls, fanning the flames by sending him photographs of us and our classmates, enticing him into the city to see us, getting us to speak on the phone with him. Joseph wrote me love letters in which he couched his sexual interest in metaphors. I was told he used the image of a bird for penis and nest for vagina. His letters were full of birds and nests. He gave me a book by Novalis. "HYMNEN AN DIE NACHT (1800), was dedicated to his first great love Sophie von Kühn, who died in 1797. Novalis had met her in Weissenfels when she was barely 13". Joseph said he felt a kindred spirit with Novalis.

He never touched me once. His interest was only in this artistic expression. But I felt violated as a child, not only by the person who used me but also by Joseph. Strange to feel violated by letters and collages, not the sort of thing most people could understand or that I could tell anyone.

I truly hated being used in this way and even though I felt his interest in me was pedophilic/ephebophilic I grew attached to him over the years, felt sad he was being used as well. I accompanied him to his first exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum walked with him in Central Park, made collages for him and made a small box for a Christmas present for him the year he died, which I asked be put on his grave.

When Deborah Soloman came out with her book in 1997 I phoned her and said that Joseph wasn't such an innocent child fetishist as he seemed and she said she knew that. I asked her why she hadn't written about his pedophilia more explicitly in her book and she said had tried and came as close as possible to detailing what she knew. She said there was an uproar by the art critics and her editors when she tried to be more complete about it. She said the art world wanted to perceive Joseph as an innocent because his images appear that way and bring up that kind of child-like wonder in people. I think it's possible to experience that wonder in Joseph's art and also know his dark side. A more informed wonder.

Anyway, all the art that Joseph made for me was taken away and sold, except one birthday collage of an owl, which I sold in 1976 for $6000. That's the money I used to leave America and go to live in India for a decade. I've always been grateful to Joseph for that.
posted by nickyskye at 8:52 AM on May 24, 2006 [175 favorites]

Wow, what a fabulous comment. Flagged as such.
posted by OmieWise at 8:58 AM on May 24, 2006

NOPE. It was Count Zero

I just finished it and I'm on to MLOverdrive in a bit on nastalgic re-reading.
posted by humboldt32 at 10:09 AM on May 24, 2006

Thanks for the post madamjujujive, and nickyskye, thanks for the wonderfully interesting comment. There has always been something that repulsed me about Cornell's work even as I was drawn to it.
posted by sleepy pete at 10:09 AM on May 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

> He handed them, personally, to his most loved ballerinas. And they were almost
> uniformly sent back.

The nerds just never get the babes, do they? No matter how talented. There's some inherent quality of nerdishness, separate from any question of talent, that's incurably anti-babe. (Compare Picasso: tons of talent, extremely knotty personality but lacked that essential je-ne-sais-quoi that shouts NERD! And got plenty of babes.)

> Anyway, all the art that Joseph made for me was taken away and sold, except
> one birthday collage of an owl, which I sold in 1976 for $6000.

Sue the bastards!

posted by jfuller at 10:13 AM on May 24, 2006

NOPE. It was Count Zero

Well I'll be damned. You two are absolutely correct. Somewhere along the line I got the two transposed in my head.

In my defense, it was close to twenty years ago that I read them...
posted by Gamblor at 10:52 AM on May 24, 2006

Back in the middle '90s, I did some computer work, some word processing and accounting, for an extremely rich woman. The ex-wife of a major American publishing magnate, she lived in a vast apartment on York Avenue on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

She was also a bit of a nut case, a bit Collyer Brothers. Despite living in a 17 room apartment, there was random junk and newspapers and cosmetics and God knows what else scattered all over the joint. Complete disorganization.

So she set me up in a little unused room with a card table covered by a table cloth, and the computer, and a chair, and gave me the stuff she wanted me to do.

She left the room, and I sat down at my desk to start working. Suddenly, my foot bumped against something on the floor under the table. I reached down, and pulled up what I thought was a small carboard box, around 10" square.

But it wasn't a cardboard box. It was an original Joseph Cornell diorama, signed and dated on the back and everything. It was beautiful, it had a little glass window on the front, and a collage of birds, clouds and clock faces inside.

An original Joseph Cornell. On the floor with some other junk. Under a table.

I was dumbfounded, and fascinated. Of course for a moment I thought about how completely easy it would be to just take it home; she seemed to have no awareness or interest in it at all. But seeing it was worth about $30K, I realized it might be a better idea just to leave it alone (an understatement). So I set it up on my table, and looked at it with pleasure all the way through my assignment there.
posted by Nicholas West at 10:55 AM on May 24, 2006 [3 favorites]

Thank you Nickyskye for your post. I had always mistakenly assumed that Cornell was gay, on the assumption that he had the same sort of camp attachment to Hollywood stars as artist/filmmakers Jack Smith and Andy Warhol did.

However, I think no discussion of Cornell's "muses" could be complete without mentioning his experimental film, Rose Hobart.
posted by jonp72 at 12:05 PM on May 24, 2006 [2 favorites]

nickyskye, thank you so much for that comment. I will never look at Cornell's work the same again.
posted by shoepal at 12:24 PM on May 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

That's a very special story NickySkye.

I'm curious: who were the adults who used you like this. Where were your parents, and why did they not protect you?

But if you don't want to divulge that, that's fine too.
posted by jouke at 2:08 PM on May 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

Anyway, over the years I was used to procure Joseph's art, as was my 6 year old sister and another little girl I knew.

Blimey, whoever it was must've really liked Cornell's stuff to go so far as to pimp little girls as wank fodder for a paedo.

Fascinating story, though nickyskye, thanks.
posted by jack_mo at 3:44 PM on May 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

Excellent comment, nickyskye. It could serve as the foundation for a fictional short story.
posted by soiled cowboy at 4:02 PM on May 24, 2006

(Also discussed here.)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:04 PM on May 24, 2006

Interesting stuff.
posted by Smedleyman at 4:39 PM on May 24, 2006

...felt sad he was being used as well.

That is true grace.

I think it's possible to experience that wonder in Joseph's art and also know his dark side. A more informed wonder.

So very beautifully said. Thanks for your wonderful comment, nickyskye.
posted by melissa may at 6:52 PM on May 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

I loved Cornell's work the minute I saw it, many years ago in D.C. and NYC — and I also started making box art. (The best one I ever did incorporated road maps, a toy car, and parts that had been replaced from the engine of my van. Another one used rock and ash from Mt. St. Helens.) Cornell's work I liked best (pieces like this, this, and this) never had any people in it, though, and it wasn't until I read Stargazing in the Cinema a few years ago that I knew anything about this other, more creepy side to his life.

Terrific post all around. We expect (and get) nothing but the best from madamjjj, and I think that in 5+ years of hanging around this neighborhood, I haven't read anything here more fascinating than nickyskye's comment.
posted by LeLiLo at 8:53 PM on May 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

Madamjujujive, I always enjoy your posts, appreciate your links. You are one of my favorite MeFites.

OmieWise, melissa may, lelilo and shoepal, Thanks.

sleepy pete, I'm interested in your ambivalence about Joseph's art.
The pleasure I get looking at his art is something like rummaging in an antique shop, savoring things that have a surprising, mysterious charm, like old thimbles and small stemmed glasses. In just those antique shops I might also walk away feeling suffocated and queasy. Joseph's art sometimes seems necrophilic.

jfuller, It was decades ago. Isn't there a statute of limitation on pimping a child to get art? My sister is suing for other but similar reasons.

jonp72, To the best of my knowledge Joseph died a virgin. It seems his sexual preference was fetishising little girls, their clothes and shoes. I don't know what kind of sexuality that is exactly, I think it's called a paraphilia and not necessarily homosexual or heterosexual. He spent most of his austere life isolated, living in poverty with his mother and ill brother. Deborah Soloman documents in her book that the woman Nicholas West worked for says she sexually satisfied Joseph orally on one occasion but Joseph wasn't interested in sexual intercourse. Pedestalising an object of sexual yearning to one extent or another seems to be something that can be done by heterosexuals, homosexuals or pedophiles.

Nicholas West, I presume that was a duplex with red walls on the ground floor, a view of the East River, millions of dollars worth of art on the walls, including a Balthus (another artist with a visual taste for pre-pubescent or barely adolescent females). If you worked for her in the mid-1990's she would have been married five years to the now recently deceased publishing magnate, although she had 4 exes by then. I think your assessment of her, from what you experienced in that brief time, was on the mark.

jouke, Thanks for asking. My kind but naive geologist father was away in the Philippines, no substantial work for him in NYC. He travelled often and didn't know. In those days I had no voice to tell him what was going on. It was my mother who pimped me and my younger sister to Joseph and her friend who pimped her daughter.

Over the years, we three who were once proffered to Joseph, had remarkably different responses to what we experienced. My sister, the youngest, was so deeply repulsed by Joseph that she, who is truly talented artistically and who I hoped would become an artist, never felt comfortable painting and eventually put her love of art into becoming an archeologist. The other little girl, who was -and still is- the most beautiful looking of us three, a gazelle-delicate, fairy of a child, spent much of her adulthood making collages, dioramas, lightboxes and assemblages in homage of Joseph. She told me she thinks of Joseph as "sweet", harmless. I think she has split off her feelings of betrayal, what really happened to us as children and rewritten history so it is manageable, palatable. I was the eldest of us three and consciously knew what was going in a visceral, upsetting way. At 15 I ran away from home, returning five years in a row for an annual two week Christmas-torture out of guilt and malignant optimism. India became my safe haven from 21 on. I couldn't get far enough away.

I am dismayed by the public's unawareness of Joseph's pedophilia, pedestalising him and his obsessive adoration of unattainable females. I see the magic in his art nonetheless, a disquieting appreciation.

jack_mo, the people who offered their daughters to Joseph were not well. They were greedy and disturbed. There was money to be made selling his art and the social cachet of knowing Joseph, dining out on anecdotes about how eccentric he was, how "dear" he was in his hermit waif ways with a smug frisson about his fetish for little girls. Typical for some of the Social Register crowd on the Upper East Side in the 1960's and 1970's.

soiled cowboy, It's a non-fiction short story.
posted by nickyskye at 9:29 PM on May 24, 2006 [7 favorites]

nickyskye, I'm sorry if I came off as ambivalent towards Cornell's art. I'm not. I would say that he's one of my favorite artists, but that there is something underlying in most of his pieces--longing and isolation being outside of a world that has been created, but within the world it is fantastic and beautiful, where anything is possible, but what is possible is usually fraught with the longing and isolation that exists in this new sphere. And as I read that, it's a horrible way to describe it. It just seemed that the fascination with the childlike was a little more than fascination. That's why I'm enticed and repulsed at the same time, and also why I always return to his work.
posted by sleepy pete at 9:54 PM on May 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

sleepy pete, "Enticed and repulsed" sounds ambivalent to me: "simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action".

Your description of Joseph's imaginary world rings true to me: "fantastic and beautiful, where anything is possible, but what is possible is usually fraught with ...longing and isolation..."
posted by nickyskye at 10:38 PM on May 24, 2006

What an amazing thread this turned out to be - from nickyskye's engrossing personal experiences (thank you so much for sharing) to Nicholas West's colorful vignette, and all the other comments, links, and observations throughout.

Thanks to all for your kind words about the post, but it's just a simple post, and the noteworthy thing here is not the post or the poster, but the community - you never really know what trajectory a simple link might take or where it might lead. It's always fun and occasionally awesome to see how a topic can blossom. When we are good as a community, we are really very very good.
posted by madamjujujive at 4:24 AM on May 25, 2006

Thanks mjjj and thank you nickyskye. Definitely very creepy. I don't think I want one of these in my house.
posted by adamvasco at 5:29 AM on May 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

nickyskye, you're right. i realized it about 5 minutes after i wrote the comment.
posted by sleepy pete at 5:53 AM on May 25, 2006

Interesting post nickyskye, I have a friend who tells very similiar stories from her meetings with Cornell.
(it seems like Cornell comes up a lot on MF, maybe we should make it an annual event)
posted by milovoo at 7:57 AM on May 25, 2006

Where does this infantile idea come from these days that geniuses have to be mentally healthy and wholesome individuals for their work to be appreciated? Has everyone turned into grade-school kids, that anyone operating outside of the psychology of the cast of "Friends" is weird and disgusting?

The great artists of history have more often than not been individuals of torturously clear visions of reality, human misery, sensitivity; they were by definition not superficial people and could not by definition fit into any societal mold. Any great artist is by definition a unique and isolated universe.

Picasso said "Great art is never chaste." and believe me, he knew what he was talking about.

Van Gogh, Picasso, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Michaelangelo, Da Vinci, Pollock, Freud, Einstein, Rembrandt...the list goes on and on - all of them people who in today's fascistic atmosphere of squeaky clean "political correctness" and wholesale rejection of individuality would be considered unwholesome and frightening. But they gave us immortal work far beyond anything known before. I wish people would kind of grow up. Geniuses generate heat, and people who can't stand the heat should...
posted by Nicholas West at 7:49 PM on May 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

what's unwholesome and frightening about einstein?
posted by sergeant sandwich at 12:05 AM on May 26, 2006

Nicholas West, I didn't see anyone in this thread referring to or expressing the "infantile" idea that Cornell -or anyone- should have been behaving like a charater on "Friends", except you.

I said that I believe it is alright to know about Joseph's pedophilia, that the public could still perceive the wonder in his art but have a more informed wonder. That doesn't sound infantile or grade-school to me.

I believe that it alright to know about flaws in others and myself and still appreciate the good. To me that is part of being a mature adult. Some flaws are not workable however and require legal or social intervention, not looking the other way because a person is a genius. That doesn't mean the genius' work isn't valid or worthy of appreciation, just that they too, like the not-geniuses, are required to work within the social code because they live within society. It's the not-geniuses who pay for the geniuses' art, whose taxpayer dollars fund their research, who build the houses the geniuses live in, who do their paperwork.

Freud was a cocaine addict who wanted his patients to also take cocaine, committed scientific fraud and incestuously analyzed his own daughter, Anna, which doesn't mean all his ideas are wrong. Jackson Pollock was a drunk driver, killing himself and the person in the car with him, that doesn't mean his art is awful. Einstein wrote a contract for his wife to behave more like a slave than a companion, cheated on her with his cousin and may have used her work to claim the Nobel prize but that doesn't mean E=MC2 is a bad idea.

Being informed of the truth doesn't invalidate the work these geniuses did. It may, however, take them off a false pedestal of being perfect or perfectly innocent beings.

Because somebody is a genius doesn't entitle them these days to behave in a criminal or morally reprehensible way. Apparently you think otherwise. You said " Any great artist is by definition a unique and isolated universe." So what exactly, in your estimation, are geniuses supposed to be entitled legally or morally to that ordinary folk are not? Should special laws be written for geniuses so that they can commit a variety of social abuses that would usually be considered criminal or immoral? Should geniuses be allowed to take advantage of children, drive recklessly, steal, commit fraud or murder? Hurting other people, just not you? How far does this double standard work for you?
posted by nickyskye at 6:21 AM on May 26, 2006 [5 favorites]

nickyskye (and all on this thread) - I apologize to you for my rather overheated late-night post, and in no way to I condone injurious behavior by anyone.

There was something running through this thread, I'm not sure what and maybe it's just me, a kind of attitude, like "Oh, now that I know that Cornell was a weird person, his art disgusts me." And I was trying to make the point that many geniuses throughout history have been, when you get up close to them, pretty "weird" people, and sometimes scary.

I'm not sure if Cornell could be described as a pedophile if he never acted on it or physically harmed anyone. And that is no disrespect to you and your experiences, I assure you. I'm just trying to make the point that that seemed to be more the mechanism of his muse, and that's the way he was. The id of most artists is closer to the surface than the average person.

nickyskye, your rundown above of the various people I mentioned is exactly the point I was trying to make about them. But they were who they were, and gave society what they gave, and it was also up to those who chose to be near to be near them if they found them repellent. Nobody held a gun to anybody's head to hang out with Jackson Pollock. Of course, as a child, you did not have any choice in the matter, and I'm sorry for that.

You write "He never touched me once. His interest was only in this artistic expression. But I felt violated as a child, not only by the person who used me but also by Joseph. Strange to feel violated by letters and collages, not the sort of thing most people could understand or that I could tell anyone."

I think the sickness lay more in your mother who exposed you to a strange and, to a child, scary old man - a child who could not possibly understand what he was about or what he was doing. She was not protective of your health.

I am in no way trying to demean your feelings or experience. However, now, as an adult, knowing that you came through those times physcially unharmed, do you not feel at least a little pride at having inspired some of the work of a considerably great artist? I am asking that honestly.
posted by Nicholas West at 6:54 AM on May 26, 2006

The id of most artists is closer to the surface than the average person.

*spurts coffee out nose*

Jesus, are you serious? Is that meant to be an excuse or something? What a hoot.

When Deborah Soloman came out with her book in 1997 I phoned her and said that Joseph wasn't such an innocent child fetishist as he seemed and she said she knew that...She said there was an uproar by the art critics and her editors when she tried to be more complete about it.

Now *that's* disgusting.
posted by mediareport at 7:19 AM on May 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

No, it's not an excuse, but it seems to be a fact as far as I can see.

None of what I have said is an attempt at excusing anything. Just an attempt at illustrating the hard reality of some of the people who yet have given the world great art. But criminal behavior is criminal behavior whereever it is found.
posted by Nicholas West at 7:25 AM on May 26, 2006

Sorry, Nicholas, but the idea that "the id of most artists is closer to the surface than the average person" is about as far from "hard reality" as you can possibly get (it also is couched in deceptively simplistic terms, but we'll leave that aside). Do you really think an artist who takes the contents of the subconscious and subjects them to a process that turns them into art has an id "closer to the surface" than, say, the average single-minded businessperson?

posted by mediareport at 7:37 AM on May 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

Oh, OK, I say what you're saying. No, you're right, the artist is expressing it one way and the businessperson another way. And certainly many businesspeople have done a great deal of harm with expressions of their "ids" (I can think of one in Washington right now.)

I guess what I meant is that artists seem more involved with expressing the desires of the id (if there is such a thing) directly, in literal pictorial terms, than sublimating them through apparently "normal" and "socially acceptable" activities. But everyone is expressing it, all the time.
posted by Nicholas West at 7:44 AM on May 26, 2006

You're just spinning your wheels at a dead end, Nicholas. Turn around and go back.
posted by mediareport at 8:09 AM on May 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

Well it makes just as great a longer story as it does a short story:
Write A Really Short Story In 50 Words Or Less:

In the taxi she said, “We're going out to Utopia Parkway, Queens to meet a famous artist, his name is Joseph. He likes quiche Lorraine and little girls. So behave.” We walked into the gloomy house and I glanced over at a glass case with a life-sized porcelain doll.
posted by dgaicun at 8:53 AM on May 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure if Cornell could be described as a pedophile if he never acted on it or physically harmed anyone.

You might want to check a dictionary for the definition of pædophile, then.
posted by jack_mo at 8:55 AM on May 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

Where does this infantile idea come from these days that geniuses have to be mentally healthy and wholesome individuals for their work to be appreciated?

A theme running all through Chuck Palahniuk's novel Diary [Flash] is that creative geniuses are often physical wrecks, which makes them mental. Paul Klee: scleroderma. Watteau: tuberculosis. Flannery O'Connor: lupus. Mozart: uremia. Goya: lead poisoning from the paint. Jonathan Swift: Meniere's syndrome. Matisse: appendicitis. Beethoven went deaf; Schumann's hand became paralyzed.

"Maybe people have to really suffer before they can risk doing what they love," one character says, then he quotes Thomas Mann: "Great artists are great invalids."
posted by LeLiLo at 10:43 AM on May 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

dgaicun, You had to bring up my awful 50 word attempt to purge this story out of my system, lol. Drat. It means a lot to me to express both my love of Joseph's art here as well as the truth of what happened, including feelings of horror, disgust and sadness.

lelilo, interesting post and link. I had no idea those artists also suffered different chronic illnesses. Just saw the wonderful Goya exhibit at the Frick. "Francisco Goya was considered skilled but unremarkable until he contracted lead poisoning in his late forties and painted a series of disturbing paintings called 'the Caprices.' "

Nicholas West, When a person who has been placed on a pedestal as being perfect is taken off the pedestal there may be a lot of feelings that come up. Disgust may be one of them. I don't see anything wrong with disgust when it is deserved, nor does it mean that the entire person -or their work- needs to be or should be demolished. Sometimes the truth brings up uncomfortable feelings and that may add a more complete, better informed depth of understanding.

Having an id doesn't entitle anyone to being either above the law or beyond ethics.

Adam Gopnik says in his article about Joseph for the New Yorker: "He called these girls his "fées," his filles, his faeries. He could come across them even in Flushing: 'just now; 'le retour de la fée,' just now the teener—a long moving picture portrait—seen crossing Roosevelt & Main—autumn sunlight—went into Woolworth—wandered all over store daydream shopping without buying—hair (chestnut) worn down back—light blue sweater—high cheek bones—boney frame—emaciated—wan—but real fée.' There is something rapt and winsome in his appreciation of his fées; and something just a little creepy about his following them into Woolworth's."

And "(His obsessive infatuations were not quite as 'innocent' as is sometimes claimed. His friends recall that he would, with any encouragement, send lurid erotic fantasies to his fées; according to Caws, he even sent one a tracing of a string he had put around his penis to show its size.) "

Pedophilia is "the paraphilia of being sexually attracted primarily or exclusively to pre-pubescent children. Persons with this attraction are called pedophiles."

Joseph's pedophilia was well known to the numerous adults who talked about it at Park Avenue parties over their Boeuf Bourguignon and chocolate mousse and to those who used us in order to obtain his art.

Deborah Soloman's book and, for example, Adam Gopnik's article, show that Joseph's sexual interest in little girls was well known. It has just not been well accepted or the truth allowed to be fully told. Perhaps others who were also used like I was will eventually come forward. All I can do is tell the truth of what I experienced.

Knowing that Joseph used a bird, as others have done, as a symbol for penis may add another dimension to understanding his many art works which used the bird theme, particularly those in which little girls are depicted.

I was fully aware as a child that Joseph's intentions towards me were sexual in nature, so was my sister, especially once we were explicitly informed that Joseph was attracted to us in this way. Quite possibly the other little girls also knew or intuited his attraction to them, his "fees" (French for fairies) who were once used as Joseph's 'muses'. Making a muse of a child, many of whom were teens paid to keep him company in his house, was Joseph's euphemism, his rationalizing his sexual fetish.

Not touching a child when the intent is pedophilic/ephebophilic may or may not be criminal depending on the law of the time and place. These days an adult making a sexually provocative or lewd phone call or email to a child is usually criminal, as is inappropriately exposing one's genitals. It may not be physical contact by touch but when sexual behavior is covertly or overtly directed towards a child with pedophilic intent, it is not considered ethical or psychologically healthy for that child by most of society.

There are a lot of ways for pedophiles to get around the no touching limit, like drawing a tracing of a string put around their penis and sending it to that child. It's just that artistic love letters, string tracing or collages with birds and nests symbolizing genitals isn't the usual way of expressing pedophilic interest in a child. That doesn't mean it isn't pedophilic or that expressing sexual interest to a child in this way doesn't cause harm to that child.

The sickness sadly lay more in my mother. For many years I used that reason to exempt Joseph of any accountability. But he played an active role. He was accountable. He was also not the only person or artist my sister and I were pimped to but that's another story. This thread is about Joseph.

At 11 I didn't have a choice in the matter of being used by immoral adults and when I could I ran away. At least by 15 I made the choice, after a childhood being exploited in a similar manner, not to be further manipulated to milk a pedophile of his art. I never wanted to be a part of conniving Joseph out of his art works and I deeply regret the part I played in Joseph being used. No, I do not feel proud of being used by Joseph in the way he did although his art still moves me. No physical scars. Not all scars are tangible. There is one collage he made for/of me that summed up his interest. It was of a young girl with long blond hair. Her face had been cut out and just the hair and her body left, I was deleted as a person, used as a prop by him in something that felt unwholesome.
posted by nickyskye at 11:40 AM on May 26, 2006 [6 favorites]

PS, an afterthought. Madamjujujive's thread title, "Flights of fancy" is meaningful in more ways than one when applied to Joseph, his bird symbolism (although sleepy pete astutely noted that his birds didn't have outstretched wings) and his amorous inclinations.
posted by nickyskye at 12:35 PM on May 26, 2006

posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:16 AM on May 28, 2006

Wow indeed. What a sad, mesmerizing story. Thanks.
posted by graventy at 10:21 AM on May 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

Child (sexual) abuse comes in many forms, not necessarily always overt or recognizable to everyone. That well-written account is remarkable and horrifying. I hope you have made peace with the past. Thanks.
posted by Marnie at 4:14 PM on May 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

wonderful thread. thanks, nickyskye, for being so open with us. i've always considered Cornell a favorite artist, and read the Solomon book when it came out. It's interesting to me that there are so many obvious parallels here to H.L. Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and his strange relationships with the young girls who inspired him.
posted by ab3 at 12:45 PM on May 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

Thank you Ethereal Bligh, graventy, Marnie and ab3 for your kind words. You are right ab3, there are a number of parallels. I went to an exhibit of Carroll's photographic work, correspondance and ephemera at the Whitney Annex a number of years ago and was interested to see how many of the mothers participated in offering their daughters to be photographed in bed, in their nightclothes, naked or partly dressed by Carroll.

In 1976, when I decided to sell the birthday collage that Joseph made for me, I went to the art dealer who was (and still is) known to sell Joseph's work, Richard Feigen. He had his office then on East 79th Street and I think it was Park Avenue.

I told Mr. Feigen that I wanted to sell the art work in order return to India and that prompted him to tell me an interesting anecdote. When India became a democracy in 1949, the royalty had to hand over much of their vast wealth to the Indian government. Many of the former kings and queens tried to sell their estates as quickly and discreetly as possible before their treasure were confiscated.

Mr. Feigen said that he too had been in India, to meet with the Maharaja of Indore who owned several sculptures by Brancusi, including the elegantly simple, bronze one called Bird in Space. The Indian government would not allow the Maharaja to export this valuable piece of art, so Mr. Feigen took a risk and decided to package the sculpture as a brass lampstand so it could exit India, which it did. He said that it was his first major art deal and that the sculpture sold for one million dollars.
posted by nickyskye at 2:08 AM on June 2, 2006

I just wrote "wow", but there was high praise implied in there somewhere. Yours is one of my favorite comments on MeFi of all time.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:03 PM on June 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

(Which, to be sure, had much impact just because of subject matter. But it, and others of yours here, have been extremely well-written, eloquent, and insightful.)
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:04 PM on June 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

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