Originally written 2011
What is it that separates the depraved from the artistic? Many would say that the difference between the exalted and the banal are obvious, but isn’t there really just a hairs breadth between them?
I’m thinking of the failed Da Vinci, the debauched Mozart, the infamous Wilde. Edna St. Vincent Millay was a heroine addict. Jackson Pollack a drunk. Picasso was an asshole. If you met Van Gough in the streets, you would be very leery of him. He was the kind of man you’d cross a street to avoid.
Art exhumes subjects from the darkness and holds them up to the light. What beckons is the universal understanding that what is revealed connects us all to the heights and depths of human existence.
Our romantic versions of these great artists and writers is based on the a priori distinction of the greatness of their work, but if we remove their creations, what sets them apart from so called degenerates? (There was a reason the Nazi's called it, 'degenerate art.')
It’s not enough just to step into the darkness. Hedonists drink it in and suck out all the pleasure they can find. Brutalists engage in violence to abate the condemnation of a merciless god and judgmental brotherhoods. Addicts seek escape. Victims are consumed. Each of these is the necessary fodder of great artists.
Art exhumes subjects from the darkness and holds them up to the light. What beckons is the universal understanding that what is revealed connects us all to the heights and depths of human existence. Those are more often than not the depths of the depraved, the pathetic, the shameful, the miserable and the distressing. And yet we look on those who swim more readily in those waters as less than us rather than seeing potentially great artists.
The rarity of the artist seems to come from the ability to see in - reach in - rather than avoid. Is that simply the difference between the heroine addict on the street and Edna St. Vincent Millay?
Why is it so revered to show those bits of rarer truth to those who choose not to venture beyond the light? Sanity is like Patriarchy, it defines and dictates all of the terms of existence, but if depravity and insanity are aberrant and abhorrent, why is the art that comes from the debauched, perverted and unhealthy so revered by those who are normal? Maybe it's time that normalcy and sanity were questioned and determined to be a waste of life, a waste of existence, a waste of opportunity. The safety and comfort of the light is a waste of time and space for an artist.
The most popular artists are not ipso facto the greatest. Popularity tends to reveal the artists ability to traverse normalcy, while the greater artists are often maligned by their personal indulgences in the subversive. Nureyev was the superior dancer to Baryshnikov possibly because Nureyev lived a life more averse than Mikhail’s.
But how far down should the path lead? Anais Nin dove so deeply into the exploration of her sexuality that she had a 9-day sexual affair with her father when she was 30. Clearly incestuous but decidedly not molestation, abuse or rape; she writes beautifully about what is considered an utterly disgusting act and manages to distinguish the affair, herself and her father by laying bare her desire and subsequent foreboding.
Going further down that road (or really taking a left turn at this intersection) is Oscar Wilde, who was by our modern standards a pedophile. Often thought of as a victim of time, circumstance, ego and naiveté, Wilde was in fact mildly punished by today’s standards. While his known pedophilia (he paid for sex with boys as young as 12 and 14) was not directly brought up in his third trial, it seems as though the age of his consorts and the type of boys they were
mattered much less than the perceived depravity of his acts with grown men of stature. Being gay in the Victorian era was far worse than being a pedophile as long as the boys weren't of society or property. And yet it is not surprising that this Greek scholar and possibly the most important philosopher of aesthetics since Aristotle (Wilde's The Critic as Artist might be the most important treatise on art theory since Aristotle's Poetics) , should have engaged in pederasty.
If I were to suggest today that pedophiles had the makings of great writers, I would be inviting moral outrage, and yet those same modern standards allow Wilde’s trials and punishments to be seen as barbaric, cruel and unenlightened. Wilde’s acts are not changed by our perceptions of them; the acts remain as they are; it is only our judgment of them that falters.
If artistic expression transforms experience into beauty, then the experience is seminal to the transcendence of the creation. While we condemn exactly the same experiences if they find no expression, we often revere the behaviour (or at the very least withhold judgment) when such acts, and the artists who indulge them, are the means for great works - because the greatest expression of art is the beauty (ugly as it often is) of what it truly means to be human.