Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Bad Art & Fanaticism.

Before he became a war criminal, the former Bosnia Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was a poet, in fact he even appeared on the BBC's arts programme Bookmark to discuss his poetry back in 1992 when they didn't do anything so vulgar as probe non-literary activities such as ethnic cleansing that philistines like me would have thought worth mentioning. It kind of puts last week's Question Time into perspective.

I don't speak Serbo-Croat but I'd be willing to guess that his poems were on a level with Saddam's novels and Hitler's paintings, which is to say crap. I don't say this out of simple prejudice or because I've internalised a kind of Halo Effect, in which I assume that someone dreadful couldn't possibly have redeeming qualities, but because of an observation made by Eric Hoffer more than 6 decades ago in The True Believer:
Marat, Robespierre, Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler are outstanding examples of fanatics arising from the ranks of noncreative men of words. Peter Viereck points out that most of the Nazi bigwigs had artistic and literary ambitions which they could not realize. Hitler tried painting and architecture; Goebbels, drama, the novel and poetry; Rosenberg, architecture and philosophy; von Shirach, poetry; Funk, music; Streicher, painting. "Almost all were failures, not only by the usual vulgar criterion of success but by their own artistic criteria." Their artistic and literary ambitions "were originally far deeper than political ambitions: and were integral parts of their personalities."

The creative man of words is ill at ease in the atmosphere of an active movement. He feels that its whirl and passion sap his creative energies. So long as he is conscious of the creative flow within him, he will not find fulfillment in leading millions and in winning victories.
In other words fanaticism is a refuge for failure. I know some genuinely talented people have fanatical views, in fact extremism is often almost de rigour, but they don't actually take in the movement itself, they write a few words in support or wear a Sandinista tee-shirt they don't become key players in the movements.


Umbongo said...

One exception that might prove the rule is Stalin whose poetry wasn't at all bad. As to Hitler, he was a competent draughtsman but, that said, I don't think you could call his work "art". Mind you, consider all the time, trouble and suffering that could have been saved if AH had been admitted to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts.

That said, why restrict your condemnation to failures in the art and literary world? A glimpse at Gordon Brown's academic and journalistic "careers" mark him as a complete failure outside politics. So with Cameron: a short, sharp, doleful experience in PR with Carlton Communications and, er, that's it as far as earning a living (or, indeed, earning anything) from non-political ability and talent is concerned.

As for Cleggie, he dabbled in journalism and apparently won a journalistic prize from the FT. However, he couldn't wait to enter politics and devoted much effort to training as a professional parasite in Brussels, both as bureaucrat and MEP, before becoming a full-time parasite at Westminster.

Ross said...

Weren't the careers of Cameron and Brown only stepping stone's to becoming politicians though rather than ends in themselves?

asquith said...

I am led to believe Stalin was quite literary & had a real appreciation of art. The reason he was so cruel towards artists was that he felt their power moving him, so he knew how significant it was.

I also read about the fact that many artists actually thrived under censorship because they had to find creative ways of saying what they really thought, making it plain to the reader but not to the censor, at least so they could vaguely get away with it. Whereas in a free society there is not the same spur. Art often thrives in wank times, including economic gloom.

Let's, further, not forget that the Ayatollah Khomeini used to write poetry, a lot of Song of Solomon-type stuff about women. Looking at some Iranian girls, he can hardly be blamed for hailing them!

What always got me was with things like Mein Kampf, henchmen & social climbers always had to read the dictator's work, even if it was shite, & pretend to enjoy it.

I was once bored in a seminar & had a daydream about Henry VIII doing karaoke, being compeletely shite at it, but forcing all his courtiers to praise his performance on pain of death.

It would have been a bit like Arthur Dent & Ford Prefect being forced to listen to the Vogon Jeltz reading his poetry

James Higham said...

Was it Vogon poetry? Gruntbugglies and all that?

Umbongo said...


"Weren't the careers of Cameron and Brown only stepping stone's to becoming politicians though rather than ends in themselves?"

You know, I never thought of that and, of course, you're absolutely right. Nevertheless, their pre-political careers are a fairly good indication of the probability that, outside politics, they would have had careers marked by a solid mediocrity.

After all, although they have both been stellar successes in getting to the top - or almost top - of the greasy pole, the effects on the rest of us have been (in Cameron's case, will be) dire. OTOH the point of a political career is not to benefit those over whom the politico has been elected (or appointed) to rule, it is to to enable the practioner to loot as much cash, kudos and undeserved privilege from the system as s/he can.

TDK said...

Isn't this begging the question.

We know the "Tortured Artist" stereotype actually exists. So we know that fanaticism and art can go together. Yet your contention is that fanaticism is a refuge for failure. If so then every tortured artist must be a failure, which doesn't square with the evidence. Sure, Van Gogh was a failure in his time but plenty of fanatics are not failed artists. Ian Curtis, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain all were fanatics yet also successes.

The equations fanaticism+talent = artist; fanaticism+less talent = political tyrant are problematic.

Isn't it possible the failed artist never made it beyond their first clumsy experiments before a career in politivs beckoned. Perhaps they may have flowered as recognised geniuses if they had been more fanatical in pursuing their first calling. I know this is a stretch but fame isn't given on merit. Most of the celebrated in one era are forgotten in a generation. Hitler had the wrong background to achieve fame in a era when caste and class were important. In the modern era his background would have been a positive asset. Is he any less talented than Tracy Emin? Isn't this what the BBC's embarassment really tells us.

Or alternatively perhaps the fanaticism alone is the critical factor. When you read the biographies of the Jim Morrisons of this world, they come across as real shits as people, and the more successful they become, the more they repel anyone who isn't a sycophant. Or take a look at John Lennon. Here's a person who went through a fanatical phase long after he reached fame and all of his subsequent political posturing was pure sixth form garbage. I wouldn't trust Lennon with the levers of power.

TDK said...



Friggin' spelling mistakes


Ross said...

TDK, as Hoffer says the failure or success is "not only by the usual vulgar criterion of success but by their own artistic criteria". The likes of Van Gogh must have felt their creativity was being fulfilled even if it wasn't recognised.

"Is [Hitler] any less talented than Tracy Emin? "

That's a low bar to hurdle.

TDK said...

What I dislike about this kind of argument is the circularity. Kind of, they became wicked people because they failed as artists. How do we know they failed as artists: because they became wicked people. Or perhaps I dislike the reductionism: we can boil it all down to this one factor.

The vast majority of putative artists fail and give up without turning evil. If that wasn't true then who'd work in A&R. Think of the responsibility.