2018 BIO Conference Panel – Biography and the Arts

Heath Lee moderated this panel, which featured four writers who have written biographies about figures from four distinct artistic fields: classical music, the visual arts, popular music, and dance.

Cathy Curtis, who has written books about two painters and is working on a third, discussed some of the topics biographers should keep in mind before tackling a book about a visual artist. Consider the audience, she said, realizing that many readers may not be steeped in artistic terminology. She avoids it, saying, “I think it’s alienating.” She also said she does not place much emphasis on analyzing individual pieces of art, preferring to make the subject’s life her focus.

Images of art, though, are necessary for a biography of a visual artist, and here Curtis had some bad news. Getting the rights to publish a single image can cost hundreds of dollars—money that comes out of the writer’s advance, not from the publisher. In her contracts, Curtis asks for money beyond the advance to help pay for images. Tracking down images can also be time consuming, and at times frustrating, if a biographer is dealing with the private owner of a work, rather than an institution. The private owners might not understand the need for a high-quality image, not a picture of the piece they take with their own camera.

Another piece of advice Curtis had for those authors thinking about writing a biography of an artist: pick someone famous. That increases the odds of making money on the book.

Anthony Tommasini, the chief classical music critic at the New York Times, wrote a biography of composer Virgil Thomson just over 20 years ago and is currently working on a book meant to be his personal “guide” to the music of major composers. The latter will have some biographical elements. In general, he said, classical musicians are not often popular subjects for biographies. But with his Thomson book, Tommasini was convinced that he had a fascinating life to explore, given the composer’s interaction with other artists, movements, and a gay culture then still largely closeted.

Looking at practical matters, Tommasini agreed with Curtis on avoiding terms particular to the art. Even the most basic musical terms may confuse general readers. But as a critic first, he said he thought analyzing the work of the subject is important. He advised trying to say something about a composer or musician that both scholars and a general audience will find interesting. To help that, he explained, choose a subject who crafted a particularly captivating persona.

For rock critic Anthony DeCurtis, the subject of his latest book certainly fit that criteria. Lou Reed created a persona that he sometimes referred to in the third person, and that changed over time during his long career as one of rock’s most influential writers. “Unpacking that [persona] was the key to the book,” DeCurtis said. He tried to explain how Reed created his public image, how he used it, and what was true to who he really was.

For DeCurtis, who has a PhD in literature, his Reed biography was a mixture of reporting and criticism. And because Reed wrote about his life in his songs, his music and his biography are intertwined. DeCurtis knew Reed and they got along well, despite the musician’s disdain for critics. But DeCurtis was sure that had Reed not died in 2013, he would not have wanted DeCurtis or anyone else to write his biography, and he would have discouraged friends from cooperating.

Offering tips to biographers who want to write successful books about pop culture figures, DeCurtis said it’s easier to get a good advance “if you’re writing about a famous rock star who just died.” He suggested that writers have a trusted reader give feedback on the manuscript, and to use biographies that “work the way you want yours to work” as models. (DeCurtis used James Atlas’s biography of Delmore Schwartz—Reed’s literary mentor—as his model.) DeCurtis said it helps to deeply believe in your subject’s artistic output; it helps a biographer grapple with more challenging aspects of the subject’s life.

Elizabeth Kendall has focused on dance in her biographical works, having written one biography of George Balanchine and is working on another. She began her writing career as a dance critic, and her knowledge of Russian gave her access to information about the choreographer in Russian archives. Unlike writing about other art forms, she said, dance is “especially mysterious” for many people, in part because it’s largely not taught in schools and “people don’t understand it.” Writing about dance can be challenging, since there is nothing that can be reproduced in a book that represents “the dance” as audiences experience it.

Kendall said biographers of artists should choose a subject they deeply care about, and should feel a strong connection with both that person and his or her art form. When writing, biographers need to figure out “how much of the work do you put into the life . . . [and] how much does the description of the work further the plot.”

Perhaps even more important, Kendall said, biographers need to take the pieces of their subject’s life, “the scenes,” and create the story, which is guided by the writer’s own sensibilities.