Patti Smith. She’s the mother of punk in all her messy glory: her ratty black hair, her throaty performance of “Because the Night” cowritten with Bruce Springsteen and her controversial (yet quintessential) song lyrics like “Jesus died for somebody’s sins / but not mine.” But how does this relate to “fine arts”? You might not expect her name to pop up in a fine arts column, but suspend judgment for a moment.

I’d like to play connect-the-dots with Patti Smith’s life and show you how she connects with this so-called beast dubbed “fine arts.” People are often apprehensive of such an expansive topic, usually conjuring up images of tuxedos, velvet robes and well-mannered people. But fine arts isn’t limited to the “genteel” or “high cultured”; it’s connected to everything we see in the world around us. And if you thought for a second that Patti Smith was not in any way connected to the “fine” or the “artsy,” I’d like to turn your perspective around. You’ve been viewing things from the wrong end of the telescope.

Smith’s first album, Horses, was released in 1975. If you’re not familiar with the album’s cover art, you might have caught a glance of it somewhere unknowingly. The cover showcases a single black-and-white picture of a lanky, androgynous-looking Smith wearing an un-ironed men’s white dress shirt rolled to the elbow and a set of loose, black suspenders meeting at the belt-line of her black, rumpled jeans. She carries a black dress coat, hung jauntily over her right shoulder. Her hands are placed over her chest. She’s looking down at the camera almost condescendingly. Her face seems unthreatened and arrogant.

We may remember the album itself for songs like “Horses” and “Redondo Beach” (a song much loved and later covered by Morrissey), but it’s also the cover art itself that sears the album into the history of punk and rock‘n’roll.

The photographer was a certain Robert Mapplethorpe, whom you may know as a master of contemporary photography, or, if we may draw him into Smith’s 1970s world, as a gay contemporary artist who was into taking pictures of both pretty flowers and leather clad men performing S&M. He lived in Greenwich Village, did a shitload of drugs and, most importantly, loved and lived with the eccentric Smith in a tiny loft in the Chelsea Hotel (which you may know about from Nico of the Velvet Underground’s album Chelsea Girl.)

Before Smith was on her feet as a rock icon, she was a poet and an artist in Greenwich Village. She paid the rent with Mapplethorpe by giving pieces of her artwork to the hotel’s landlord, which included disturbing sketches of children and poems. She was first and foremost a beat poet with a very peculiar personality. She was known for being so naturally out of it that she didn’t need to take LSD or the other hard drugs Mapplethorpe was using (on a daily basis) to get into that “creative space.” On an average day, Smith would practice blood-curdling screaming exercises (to exorcise bad vibes) in her loft while Mapplethorpe took erotic Polaroid pictures of men he’d met and made odd-looking altars from found objects like barbed wire and porn magazines.

Mapplethorpe’s beginnings with Smith were modest; the two of them were emotionally inseparable, despite their sexualities (she is straight; he was gay). They relied on one another for creative inspiration and artistic encouragement in their chilly loft in Chelsea. Their paths would eventually diverge: Smith later became a rock icon, and Mapplethorpe went on to take famous portraits of artists like Andy Warhol. He also dated/was the boy toy of men like Sam Wagstaff, an art curator for various fine arts museums.

Mapplethorpe is now widely respected in contemporary art circles, known for his raw, honest portrayal of sex and gay sexuality. Collections of his photographs are on permanent exhibition at the prestigious Guggenheim museum in New York City, and his photographs are now under high demand, selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

All art is art, from music to photography. What’s in a museum shouldn’t be regarded any differently from what’s being played out on the streets or in venues like The Blind Pig. Even though Smith’s rock‘n’roll could be affectionately regarded as “low” art and Mapplethorpe’s Guggenheim photographs deemed “high” art, they both crawled out of the same art-scene beginnings in a cramped, tiny loft in New York City. Fine arts isn’t always “fine” — it’s gritty, unpredictable and everywhere.

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