Artists Outside of Their Art

Is it necessary to like an artist in order to enjoy her work?

This question gets asked from time to time, and I’ve been thinking about it since my recent post on V.S. Naipaul’s ridiculous comments regarding women writers. Then, over the weekend, I read a piece about David Mamet’s now highly publicized conversion from “brain-dead liberal” to conservative. He has a book out with his collected thoughts on his newly-adopted political philosophy.

In an interview with the Financial Times (courtesy of Slate) Mamet says the following about Sarah Palin.

“I am crazy about her,” he answers immediately. “Would she make a good candidate for president? I don’t know but she seems to have succeeded at everything she put her hand to.”

These are not the words of a credible political thinker. I would have thought the writer of American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross, and Wag the Dog had a better Bullshit Detector. (If it pleases you, for a takedown of Mamet and his career, go here.)

I don’t fault Mamet for changing his political views. Like everyone else, he’s free to do that. It doesn’t change the quality of his plays or his insights into what makes for good screenwriting. (For an example of the latter, read his memo on screenwriting that made the rounds of the Internet awhile back.)

I can name on one hand the number of artists and writers whose lives I have read about in biographies or memoirs: Hunter S. Thompson, Nelson Algren, Georgia O’Keefe, Keith Richards, and Steven Adler. An odd collection now that I look at it.

O’Keefe was a fascinating woman who had a long productive career, and is one of my country’s great artists. Thompson was a brilliant writer who stopped writing interesting things after about 1975 (with the exception of his Nixon obit) and seems to have had a long parade of enablers for his bizarre behavior long after it wore out its welcome. Richards stumbles through life and still doesn’t understand the damage his heroin habit did to himself, his family, and his band The Rolling Stones. Adler, poor bastard, appears more the victim of a very crappy childhood and not very loyal friends in his band Guns n’ Roses, and still lacks insight into his own life and how he came to be the person he is.

Nelson Algren, one of my literary heroes, lived an interesting life, wrote some great books and stories, and then, hounded by the FBI who took away his passport for his Communist sympathies, seemed to give up when it came to literature. He is the one writer who taught me the importance of sympathy for your characters. Few writers are able to see and present the world through their downbeat characters the way Algren did in his story collection The Neon Wilderness and The Man With the Golden Arm. Perhaps because he was such a flawed human being himself. He had a famous relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, but refused to learn French. He had a gambling problem that was never dealt with in any meaningful way. After A Walk on the Wild Side, he continued to write rather well, but devoid of the ambition that drove him to write his earlier works. There are few things sadder than seeing how a literary talent lost the desire to make literature.

None of what I learned about the lives of these artists dimmed my appreciation for the music of the Rolling Stones and Guns n’ Roses, the savage brilliance of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the warmth of paintings such as Poppy or Dark Mesa and Pink Sky, or the muscular beauty of the prose in Chicago: City on the Make.

I don’t care what Mamet’s uninformed thoughts are on politics. If he was an insightful political thinker, then it would be a different story. (I did not read his political writings when he was a liberal.) I’ll still appreciate his movies and plays.

This is all to say that just because an artist is excellent at her art it does not mean she can’t be a dreadful human being, a bad political pundit, or clueless activist. And that’s okay. Art is all about about rendering the varieties of our shared human existence; its strengths, frailties, virtues, and prejudices. It’s unreasonable for us as fans to expect an artist to rise above her own humanity as a requirement for us to be allowed to enjoy her art.

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