Trust the art, not the artist
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, May 16, 2000)

There are times in life when an incessant inner buzz of worry, envy, regret and yearning afflicts the mind. On occasions such as this -- according to Cynthia Ozick, a novelist herself -- novels are good for what ails you.

As she wrote in The New York Times last week, don't turn on the TV during such difficult periods. That only heightens the frenzy. Instead, ''Get thee to the novel! -- the novel, that word-woven submarine, piloted by intimations and intuitions, that will dive you to the deeps of the heart's maelstrom.'' Go with Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd. There, presumably, things will be better. Perhaps even you will be better.

I've read advice like that several hundred times. It's said that art can heal, whether it's fiction, poetry, music, painting, theatre or some other happy obsession. People for whom art matters tend to agree. However cynical we are, on some level we imagine that a Schubert quartet or a Chekhov story or an afternoon looking at Renaissance painting will improve us. We'll be more serene, and with luck we'll be intellectually broader. And in some way, art will elevate us morally. Art is made, after all, by superior creatures.

There's much evidence to support these propositions, but unfortunately there's just as much to disprove them. A short course in cultural history, a brief study of Nazi Germany, or the reading of two or three biographies of artists will provide a sheaf of arguments for anyone who wants to deny that the arts bestow broad-mindedness and generosity on their creators and their followers. They provide something, to be sure, but often it's merely indifference and intolerance.

Robert Frost was a raging boor, Evelyn Waugh a bigot and a boor. Herbert von Karajan was an enthusiastic performer for Hitler, and Ernest Hemingway suffered from monstrous, soul-eating jealousy. Dashiell Hammett was a deadbeat dad, Bertolt Brecht a crook. Picasso? Don't get me started. Eventually, we accept such things, not as the norm but not as sensational aberrations either.

Did art help these people? Follow Ozick's advice and open John Banville's novel The Untouchable, the mesmerizing story of an exquisitely cultured mind in extreme decadence. Victor Maskell, the narrator, is Banville's fictional version of Sir Anthony Blunt (1907-1983), the British art scholar who was identified as a Soviet spy and relieved of his knighthood. Banville depicts him as sly, slippery, vicious, and not even a good traitor: His spying is at best half-hearted, his belief system non-existent. His only credible emotions are hatred of his own society and an intense dislike for a novelist called Querell, obviously based on Graham Greene. My reading about Blunt, and one brief meeting, persuade me that Banville has nailed him: a nasty piece of work, so habitually mendacious that he couldn't remember when he was lying to himself.

But how could that possibly be the case? Blunt spent most of his life immersed in art, learning its subtleties, telling careful truths. Few people of his time knew more about rococo architecture, Nicolas Poussin's paintings, Picasso's Guernica, or Hans Holbein's drawings. He was the curator of the Queen's art collection. How could he also be a villain? Actually, it seems that his sophisticated knowledge of art made him more hateful by intensifying his arrogance. A personality bent toward true nastiness simply enlists art in the service of malice.

Last week at the Art Institute of Chicago, I heard Joachim Pissarro of Yale University lecture on his great-grandfather, Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), the French impressionist. Joachim, who wrote a major study of Camille, called his talk "The Two Sides of Pissarro." Here there was no question of nastiness. Joachim admires his ancestor, but something puzzles him: Politically, the old fellow was a fool -- or so Joachim thinks. Camille was brought up in a bourgeois family (his mother supported him till he was 42) but became an enthusiastic follower of Peter Kropotkin and other anarchists. Joachim quoted a few of the more inane Kropotkin ideas (everything should be owned collectively, including the beds the workers sleep in) and asked, "Why did such a warm-hearted person endorse such an idiotic dream?"

The two sides of Camille (dedicated and much-loved professional, silly political thinker) just don't fit. Joachim couldn't explain the discrepancy; he just walked around it for an hour or so, studying it in amazement. What seemed to surprise him still was that the shrewdness so evident in Pissarro's art never transferred to his politics.

Much more serious failings are frequently ignored by the admirers of artists. So far as we can, we avoid thinking about distressing information, if necessary through selective reading of history. For many years I've admired the Russian avant-garde painters of the early Soviet period, such as Casimir Malevich, the founder of suprematism, and Vladimir Tatlin, the father of constructivism. Their art flowered spectacularly for six or eight years after the Revolution, then disappeared. In my mind they have always been victims of a cruel, blind regime. They eventually escaped abroad, vanished, or fell into obscurity.

All true, but not the essence of the story. Boris Groys, the Russian-German critic, has pointed out (in articles I've only now caught up with) that no one in post-Soviet Russia considers those artists innocent victims. They embraced totalitarian government as a way to grab cultural power, and took part willingly in the terror machine that Lenin created after the Bolshevik victory. Running art schools and museums, they suppressed artists they didn't admire. They didn't object when, in 1917-1921, the "red terror" was used against the liberal intelligentsia. Instead, the abstract artists happily designed government propaganda.

These collaborators with dictatorship never gave up on communism; communism gave up on them. Stalin got rid of them because he liked realism much better. By that decision, he put a false shine on their historic reputation. The real story of their complicity has been screened from our understanding by the Soviet regime's later horrors. Most of us never put it together, though the facts have been lying there.

It's always a good idea to trust the art, not the artist -- an obvious truth, but easy to forget. Ozick is right. Art heals, though the side effects can be painfully complicated.

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