OPINION: Is an obtuse take on author (and briefly, actor) Kurt Vonnegut's private life evidence that we are infantilizing ourselves culturally?

News Flash: Artists Have Personal Flaws

on December 05, 2011 by Ross A. Lincoln



Vonnegut as he appeared in Rodney Dangerfield's 'Back To School'

William Shakespeare totally cheated on his wife while living in London during his theater career. Also, Truman Capote was a terrible person who shit-talked everyone, and even went so far as to encourage rumors that he wrote 'To Kill A Mockingbird', presumably because he thought it was funny.

Did I just blow your mind? I shouldn't think so. But a review of a new biography about Kurt Vonnegut which appeared in The Guardian over the weekend suggests the sad possibility that I did. That review is raising eyebrows for a particularly dunderheaded description of Vonnegut as "beloved by fans worldwide for his work's warm humour and homespun Midwestern wisdom", and it's true that this might be one of the most idiotic things ever said about the man and proof that the review's author has either never read Kurt Vonnegut or never met a fan of his work, or both. But it's the disturbing statement that follows which ought to be causing the most consternation. According to the review, 'revelations' contained in the new biography have "shocked many with a portrayal of a bitter, angry man prone to depression and fits of temper."

The idea that the revelations mentioned in the article are surprising is silly. Anyone who's ever read Kurt Vonnegut knows that by opening one of his novels, one is treated to hundreds of pages of the most blatant discussions possible of the man's personal failings. Those failings were essential to his work; more importantly, his ability to honestly consider them is part of what made him good at writing, and of why he became such an icon for humanists and liberals in general. That people who may be unfamiliar with his work are now expected to be shocked by his flaws is a sad testament to the way we have infantilized ourselves and the way we engage with our own culture. We long to believe that the art we like is created by people who reflect the best in all of us. 

Our insistence in believing this is, I suspect, a kind of religious imperative, imposed on us by an increasingly fundamentalist culture that demands we see art not as a result of the human experience, but as proof that the artist is themselves blessed, special, superior. (The flip side of this, of course, is the tendency to forgive monstrous actions because the monster is considered a genius, another way in which the pernicious idea of 'special people' as opposed to 'special accomplishments' hurts us all.) It not only prevents us aspiring to our own creativity, it robs us of our ability to truly appreciate art. This is especially troublesome because more often than not, that the artist is a deeply flawed human being is essential to their creative works. Take Orson Welles, who was probably an insufferable prick in private life. A controlling egomaniac known for being unreasonably demanding on set while at the same time being unwilling to meet deadlines, honor commitments or show simple self-restraint, those qualities were essential to the creation of some of the greatest works of cinema ever made. I'd hate to have been his friend, but it isn't as though I'm particularly offended by that fact.

(Related: I also once knew someone who had previously dated a certain extremely successful and respected director. If the story I was told is true, he's a dishonest pussy-hound who, when it comes to relationships, can't be trusted as far as he can be thrown. His films are also still brilliant and I'd wager that's in part due to how much of his personality goes into them.)

In my recent post about Frank Miller's completely unsurprising opposition to Occupy Wall Street, I said "Artists are people too, and it's best we don't expect our admiration for someone's work to coincide with admiration for them personally." Perhaps it would have been better put that our admiration for an artist's work has to take the artist themselves into account honestly. Who they are is an essential component of what it is they create. I'm not suggesting we should forgive, say, someone fleeing the country to escape justice after raping a 13 year old, but if we can't muster up the maturity to understand that marriages fall apart, people yell at each other, people break promises and disappoint each other, and that these universalities and our ability to confront them honestly are essential to the creation of good art, we don't deserve the culture we have.

Or perhaps more succinctly: As a much younger and far more naive person, I took it as an article of faith that the musicians I worshipped would also be the kind of people I could and would hang out with, which meant that they shared my values and conceits. I twisted endless logical-pretzels justifying glimpses that indicated they have much in common with people who created music I despised. Eventually, I was forced to accept that Devo, like everyone else in music ever, basically did the LA cokeheads thing in the 80s. Thus was I cured. So I think I can handle learning that Kurt Vonnegut had a mean, bitter streak and a troubled relationship with his family. At least, if that information wasn't already public knowledge going back to pretty much his first novel.

Tags: Orson Welles, Kurt Vonnegut

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