When a publisher or a writer offers me a book, I always say yes. Sometimes I end up with a text that is borderline unreadable, sometimes I end up with a text rich with promise but ultimately flawed, but sometimes I get lucky and end up with a book by a writer and on a topic that I would never have, otherwise, gone anywhere near. This book – Mentors: The Making of an Art Historian by the art historian Francis M. Naumann – falls into that final category, thankfully. This is an odd but consistently engaging text about academic mentorship, about art, about art history, about writing, about ageing, about illness, about artists and about being successful and self-confident in New York in the second half of the twentieth century. It’s an unexpected pleasure.
To put it bluntly, Francis M. Naumann is a charming, articulate, oldish man (70ish) writing about the even older and more charming men and women who influenced his intellectual, creative, professional and – in some cases – personal lives. Though there’s a bit too much “locker room talk” related to fifty-something, sixty-something and older(!) rich men comparing, pursuing, dating and marrying much younger “girls” for the text to feel fresh and modern, aside from an understated response to one of his mentors kinda admitting to producing child pornography (!), there isn’t anything in here that would shock anyone who’s ever met a rich old white man before.
It’s casual, old-school everyday sexism rather than unbridled misogyny, as Naumann writes with great warmth and respect about his wife and countless women he has professional relationships with, but anyone who he or his older male mentors casually shags tends to recede to a body.
With my politics, I didn’t want to ignore this aspect of the text, but I don’t think there’s much to be gained from focusing on Naumann’s bawdy asides, as this is a text with much more going for it than a judgemental focus on that would imply. This is a memoir by a successful seventy-year-old heterosexual man. What else would you expect???
In fact, drawing attention to this is kinda unfair, for the way a contemporary progressive may react to these sections is not in keeping with Naumann’s politics more generally, or the way in which he seems to conduct himself, particularly once married (unless he’s a lot less honest about his own indiscretions than he is about those of his buddies!). This is a warm, engaging text that is full of human connections, human emotions and of caring deeply for other people. There is praise heaped, by name, on assistants and friends and secretaries, as well as on professors and artists, but it is where the text focuses on significant mentors that it really shines.
Naumann writes praise non-hagiographically: the chapters (most of which could function as individual essays) are neither “warts ‘n’ all” picaresques but nor are they empty platitudes. In Mentors we learn not only that these people matter to the writer, but why and how they do. Naumann learnt different things from different people, and in his reflective epilogue he explores how maybe being adopted (and becoming a parent by adoption himself) he was freed and cursed to always seek models of himself outside of the family home. Did he want or need mentors because he didn’t know his biological origins? Do the mysteries of his genes hold keys to his personality that he will never understand? Possibly, but it doesn’t matter and he doesn’t know. Mentors, Naumann argues in a far more elegant way than I am about to put it, are the parents we choose for ourselves.
I’ve hung around on the fringes of the commercial art world before, and it can be trying tif you have no money or progressive politics, but if you go to an art fair you’ll maybe get free champagne and probably the opportunity to see some beautiful artworks. The reading of this book is an appropriately similar experience. Yes, the way Naumann writes about young women isn’t in keeping with the memoirs I usually read, but his knowledge of art, artists and commercial and academic art historians is also outside of my usual reading, too. Mentors isn’t a long book, but it holds the attention pleasantly, much like wandering around an art fair with someone who knows what they’re talking about and doesn’t care that you’re not going to buy anything.
This is undeniably an enjoyable book, full of humour and personality and a real sense of all the various people who mean a lot to Naumann. It’s an easy, warm, unpatronising read and – entering it with no pre-conceptions at all – thoroughly enjoyable!
On November 14th 2018, I launched my first (and so far only) book, Bad Boy Poet, in the basement of Burley Fisher Books, Dalston. Here are some of the songs and poems I performed:
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