Sep 042006

No one thinks big thoughts about the morality of the shoe salesman, or the morality of the computer programmer, or the morality of the garbageman. But somehow the morality of the artist, who after all purveys a product, just like so many of the rest of us, becomes a source of endless hand-wringing and agonized speculation. Even the industrialist gets off comparatively lightly. Israel informally bans performances of Wagner because he wrote anti-Semitic tracts. Yet as far as I know you can drive a Ford there without getting funny looks, despite old Henry’s ravings in the Dearborn Independent.

In 1975 a career criminal named Jack Henry Abbott began writing Jerzy Kozinski letters from jail. These revolted Kozinski, so Abbott switched to Norman Mailer, a more promising customer. Mailer proclaimed Abbott a literary genius, a “phenomenon,” arranged for extracts from his letters to be published in The New York Review of Books, prevailed upon Random House to edit them down into a book, In the Belly of the Beast, and successfully lobbied the parole board to have him released from jail. Abbott appeared with Mailer on “Good Morning, America.” Susan Sarandon named her son after him. Six weeks into his release Abbott stabbed a waiter, Richard Adan, to death in an East Village restaurant. Adan was himself a promising writer, an irony lost on Mailer. “Culture is worth a little risk,” he noted at the trial. “Otherwise you have a Fascistic society. I am willing to gamble with certain elements in society to save this man’s talent.”

Twelve of the elements with which Mailer was willing to gamble convicted Abbott of first-degree manslaughter and sent him back to jail, this time for good. In 1987 he published one more book, My Return, demanding an apology from society for his treatment. Society demurred. In 2002 he hanged himself in his cell.

Martin Amis, writing about the case in 1981, says:

The first thing to be said about In the Belly of the Beast is that it isn’t any good. It isn’t any good. It is also the work of a thoroughly, obviously, and understandably psychotic mind: as such, it is a manifesto for recidivism. Its author, plainly, could not hope to abjure violence…. You can hear the paranoia snickering and wincing behind every word.

Amis quotes enough to leave the accuracy of his judgment in no doubt. But his relief is palpable. Suppose the book had been good? How in God’s name would that have justified Mailer or anybody else who wanted to let this maniac out of jail? Amis accuses Mailer of the “wishful misapprehension… that a ‘creative individual’ can’t be evil,” even as he labors under the converse, and equally wishful, misapprehension that an evil individual can’t be creative. The blurb copy for a biography of Richard Strauss inquires breathlessly: “Was Richard Strauss the most incandescent composer of the twentieth century or merely a bourgeoisie [sic] artist and Nazi sympathizer?” — as if these were mutually exclusive. Malcolm Cowley’s astonishing remark that “no complete son-of-a-bitch ever wrote a good sentence” represents the apotheosis of this attitude.

A couple weeks ago Terry Teachout divided artistic peccadillos into two classes: “statement-signing” and “wife-beating.” Neither, apparently, is all that awful, though the beaten wives might disagree. And the categories might be adequate to Mailer himself, if we stretch “wife-beating” to include wife-knifing. But one wonders: to which category does brigandage belong? Or male prostitution? Where do we file William “Tell” Burroughs’ little stunt? A new class for negligent homicide?

Since Terry carefully specifies that his categories apply only to “major,” “truly great” artists, one could object that neither Villon nor Genet nor Burroughs is “major.” This is wrong in the first case, right in the second, arguable in the third, and utterly beside the point. Nothing about their despicable behavior excludes them from making great art, just as it would not exclude them from high competence in some other field. Hitler was a lousy painter, but he need not have been. (To become Hitler he of course had to fail at painting, but that’s a completely different question.)

Terry, to his credit, confronts the extreme case directly:

I wouldn’t have any objection to placing a permanent ban on performances of Tristan und Isolde if it were to be revealed tomorrow morning that Hitler, not Wagner, had composed it. I wouldn’t support such a ban, but I wouldn’t actively oppose it, either, any more than I oppose the informal Israeli ban on public performances of Wagner’s music. (It’s been broken once or twice in the past, but never without an outcry of public disapproval.)

Whoa. A permanent ban — on an opera? What does he propose to do about Mein Kampf? Next to that a Hitler-composed Tristan und Isolde looks pretty tame. I used to run a little sideline in picking on Terry, and I don’t mean to do so here. I cite him to show how this topic can derange ordinarily sensible people.

Consumers of art from moral defectives tend to come in three flavors: Transgressive Hipster, Disgruntled Fanboy, and Dime-Store Psychologist. For Transgressive Hipster vice is extra credit; it adds to the mystique of the artist as existential hero. One can chalk up the glowing reviews of In the Belly of the Beast to Transgressive Hipsterism, and no other theory can account for the popularity of Charles Bukowski, excepting possibly the theory that his books are very short. Transgressive Hipster is doubly unfortunate, having imbibed Mailer’s ideas while lacking his talent.

Disgruntled Fanboy thinks of the artist as his friend, and regards the artist’s bad behavior, or even the artist’s expression of opinions different from his own, as a personal betrayal. Of course his relationship with the artist is entirely imaginary, and it is certain that Fanboy, if he had the good fortune to meet his idol, would bore him to death. Disgruntled Fanboy can be observed, in pure form, in the 2003 boycott of the Dixie Chicks.

Dime-Store Psychologist, a Usenet fixture, holds that the life leaches into the work. He spends a great deal of time combing Wagner’s operas for anti-semitism, Yeats’s poetry for fascism, Woody Allen’s movies for pederasty, and so forth. Quite often he finds it. Many of Woody Allen’s movies are pederastic, and if you can’t abide them on that account, I understand. But that has everything to do with the movies and nothing to do with his diddling his teenaged stepdaughter while married to Mia Farrow. Lolita is more unpleasantly and graphically pederastic than anything Woody Allen ever wrote, despite the fact that Nabokov managed, in life, to keep his pants on.

What none of these types is doing is paying attention to the art; they are paying attention, but to something else. Pay attention to the art.

Read the books, look at the pictures, listen to the music. Then, should it prove necessary, call the cops.

Update: Ilkka Kokkarinen comments. I’d trade the navigation gizmo for a name with five k’s.

  14 Responses to “When Good Art Happens to Bad People”

  1. Artists purport to be moral teachers of society. Outside of churches and schools, artists are the unchallenged dominant moral teachers. It is a wonder that we don’t subject them to MORE scrutiny.

  2. Sentence a) Not any more.

    Sentence b) Er, parents?

  3. 1) Do you mean g does not apply to artists AND their values?

    2) If art is the subjective representation of reality based on the artist’s own metaphysical values (except when a patron is involved), why shouln’t we look at those values? (Note: Since music is merely decoration for the ear if no lyrics are involved, it is a mistake to put primarily musical composers in the same class as literary or visual artists.)

    3) The pall of genius must be avoided at all costs. Heavy objects do not fall faster than light merely because Aristotle said they do. Neither were Wagner’s political beliefs good, even though his music was. Kipling got it right: All men count, but none too much.

  4. I don’t want to put money in the pocket of someone I strongly disapprove of, so I won’t go to Mel Gibson movies. It has nothing to do with his being an “artist.” The Jews of your great-grandfather’s generation would not buy Fords because they didn’t want the old bastard to get their money–it certainly wasn’t because he was an artist. Once a man is safely dead, and his estate no longer benefits from his works, I think it is foolish to boycott the works, be they Ford cars or Wagner operas.

  5. I know it’s off topic, but I was wonderin’ if you could, as a request, do either of the following:

    1. Have some compilation of the sidebars you put on the right, over the time you’ve been blogging (they’re utterly fantastic, I love them. I try not to ever blow smoke up the nethers of already egotistic bloggers, but I dearly love your asides). Maybe in some kind of extra-link setting?

    2. The reason I wrote, can you compile a links list? You have that tiny one on the right (and a damned good one it is), but I was clicking through some of the right-side links and thought “this deserves to be chronicled”. Of the two, this one seems less likely you’d acquiesce for the sheer bloggy workishness of it, but it can’t hurt to ask.

  6. Lolita more pederastic than Woody Allen? I think not. Lolita is all about the tragedy of Humbert’s hopeless attraction to Lo, whereas in (to take the best example) Manhattan, the Diane Keaton character wryly observes, upon first meeting Woody and his high-school girlfriend, ‘Somewhere Nabokov is smiling.’ Her assumption is that his relationship with the high schooler is flawed and doomed, that Nabokov would recognize Woody’s delusions. But the story evolves otherwise; it is Woody’s relationship with Keaton that is doomed — she’s old, and thus as neurotic as he is — and his affair with the nymphette Mariel Hemingway which is revealed by the end of Act III as True Love, fully fulfilling to both parties. That, my friend, is pederasty. Give Woody his due; the pederast heart writes what it wants.

  7. Dad: Boycotts are another matter, and I have written about them elsewhere. But to deny that there has been a lot of bad thinking devoted to the life of the artist in particular would be foolish.

    James: As to point 1, you want me to archive the old mini-blog entries, is that the idea? I’m not sure what you’re driving at with point 2.

    Michael: It is precisely because Woody Allen, unlike Nabokov, wants to get in a good word for pederasty that Lolita is graphic and nasty in a way that none of his movies are.

  8. Haspel: It’s one of those things that sounds idiotic now that I’m saying it back to myself: I was wondering if maybe you’d put a more complete blog listing (you had a lot of great blogs in your postings). I don’t know why it seemed like it wouldn’t be a huge amount of busywork for one request. Nevermind.

    On one though, I was wondering if you had some archives of the little blurb things on the right. They’re just great, I love ’em. I just want more and want to find out if you have them archived and if so,, can I get to them. I really like them, I mean I go through them all one by one when I have a few minutes free. You do short work well.

    Krantz: Haspel does have a point. The Nabokov book is recoiling from pedo behavior, making it cringeworthy with the details, not titillating. You can also get more about just how bad it was supposed to be from his interviews immediately after the publishing when he was defending himself from the charge of being an old perv- he explained what he was doing in no uncertain terms. Also, you should read Chris Hitchens on Lolita as well: he seemed to understand the context of the book.

    So Nabokov makes all these cringeworthy details while Woody’s work is supposed to produce a woody. I suppose you could say Nabokov’s is worse subjectively, but Woody Allen’s is objectively.

  9. Aaron,

    What is your view of artists whose work has a certain arc, from good to bad, or, if you can think of one, bad to good? Do their despicable views or attitudes change with the arc or not?

  10. People have twisted themselves into odd shapes claiming that the cringeworthy details in Lolita are actually “Humbert”‘s bid for sympathy, showing off how self-aware he is of the monstrousness of his actions. Nabokov’s framing games don’t discourage this kind of speculation, for sure – recall that Lolita leads off with an introduction by one “John Ray”.

    The passage that I think has occasioned the most disagreement on this point is the famous one where Humbert hears the voices of playful children floating up to him from a nearby town. Real contrition, or a bid for leniency?

  11. Just a quick note concerning Israel’s “banning” of Wagner’s music:
    A lot of hot air gets generated every time a performance is scheduled, but the performance normally runs anyway, and the ban is more nominal than anything else. The reason behind it is less so Wagner’s views on Jews and Judaism, and moreso the fact that Hitler and his Nazi party were particularly keen on Wagner’s music. For many people, Wagner’s operas constituted something of a soundtrack for the Holocaust, and it is in respect of this that the music was banned.

  12. Oh, hey Aaron. Your quote on the side was wrong: “Shakespeare is wine. Agatha Christie is beer”

    No. John Donne is wine. Shakespeare is dark lager. Agatha Christie is an aperitif.

  13. Simon: It is true that Wagner is occasionally performed in Israel, the informal ban notwithstanding. But Wagner, surprisingly, wasn’t even the most frequently performed composer in the Third Reich; Verdi was. Nor was Wagner widely performed in the concentration camps themselves, where gayer, lighter stuff was favored, for obvious reasons. Yes, he was Hitler’s favorite. But it’s a long way from that to “a soundtrack for the Holocaust.” Might it possibly be that Wagner’s well-known, virulently anti-Semitic views have a wee bit to do with the ban?

  14. My understanding of the matter is that Wagner’s personal views constituted much of the reason behind Hitler’s favouring of his music, but were only the final nail in the coffin when it came to Israel’s informal ban. But you may be right; this “ban” has lasted some fifty years already and I’m sure that numerous reasons have been given for its existence.

    Thanks for that information regarding Verdi, incidentally. I didn’t know that. I shall recommend a nationwide ban on his music immediately.

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