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 wouldnâ€™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 wouldnâ€™t support such a ban, but I wouldnâ€™t actively oppose it, either, any more than I oppose the informal Israeli ban on public performances of Wagnerâ€™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.