We live in an age of tarnished idols. Picasso was a womanizer, drunk with his own success, having been born into the pivotal moment of modernism and thus achieving more living fame than any artist since. He also produced extraordinary painting and sculpture and expanded the world’s collective mind. Betty Friedan, author of essential works of second wave feminism, was an abusive drunk who left a trail of damage wherever she went. Wagner was caught up in the anti-semitism of his times, but Jewish musicians still admire him and play his works. T.S. Eliot made a couple of anti-semitic statements, then there was Pound, an avowed anti-semite and fascist who was kept from being shot for treason by two Jewish psychiatrists at St. Elizabeths. Virginia Woolf was an anti-semite and Patricia Highsmith a mean drunk. Nabokov’s most famous novel is about a pedophile because he wanted to write something that would outrage his bourgeois audience. Roman Polanski is still on the run because of his dalliance with a 13 year-old in a hot tub back in the boundary-busting sixties. He also made extraordinary films. We recently discovered that Pablo Neruda has a diary entry admitting he coerced his maid into having sex. All of the above are now consigned to eternal damnation by those who have purified themselves with Clorox. Would it were true that good people produced great art. This is occasionally the case — we all know good people who also produce good art– but it’s not a dependable measure of art or morality. I have often thought that real artists take emotional and imaginative chances that lead them off the edge. But this is not necessarily so: there are plenty of lawyers and doctors who’ve gone off the edge. So what are we to do? The more humanities departments reify their identity politics and subscribe to morality as the measure of all things, the less possible it is to have a multileveled discussion about literature, and the canon may one day be determined by whose underwear was the cleanest. What if we admitted that, in the above cases of bad people who make great art, that at least one part of them was producing something that’s a lasting gift to us all?
On artists and politics: in every historical instance artists throw their loyalty to the left, and after the revolution they get fucked, they get criticized for imperfect ideology, etc. There are philistines on the right AND the left. You can see it in the university. Let’s do it differently this time.
Republican politics has become about manipulating people’s stupidity. It has been developing steadily for a long time and the country has finally reached the level of illiteracy that a politician can say anything and be believed. All they have to do is say “Liberal,” “Muslim,” “Abortion,” or “Homosexual” to get their base to salivate. The GOP and their corporate barons know that whoever owns the media can lie the loudest and the longest and that the loudest, longest lie wins. Right now, all kinds of media are struggling to maintain a semblance of journalistic integrity. They are being attacked by the president and undermined by their corporate sponsors. They have done long term damage that many of us will not live long enough to see set right. Sooner or later, if they keep cutting off people’s ability to be heard, they will get mass violence. This is what happens. Read history.
When all of this is over
I want to sleep.
Pull the covers up to my chin
and dream of all the places
I can go and not hear
The righteousness of resistance
is tiring, as loud
as the dictator’s rant.
But for the time being
I join the single voice
that daily becomes
That holds me in its river of love.