Tiny Beautiful Things
With economies around the world in the crapper and the US government poised to unleash the same type of budget cuts that have crippled Spain and tossed the UK into a triple-dip recession, I thought it would be easy to whip up a column on “Austerity and the Arts”. What are the cultural ramifications of recessions throughout history, I wondered? Is it true that a bad economy creates, as essayist Rick Moody asserted recently, “In grim economic times, large entertainment providers become more risk averse, which means that they issue more conservative music… [resulting in a] drift into the formulaic and the mundane”? (“I dared criticize Taylor Swift”, Salon.com, 02 February 2013)
I had already found some interesting things in my early research, like the fact that economist John Maynard Keynes (vilified by modern trickle-downers but still one of the most prescient economists in history) was a champion of the arts, helping to found The Arts Council of Great Britain. Keynes saw arts funding as a winning proposition for both the artist and the state, as it provided employment for a lot of otherwise shiftless creative types, stimulated demand for other services and gave “form and body to civic pride and a sense of social unity.” In creating the arts council, Keynes said, “We look forward to a time when the theatre and concert hall and the gallery will be a living element in everyone’s upbringing.”
Do economists still care about stuff like that? Does anyone? Governments around the world that ever had such things have slashed arts funding over the years, exhibits have been criticized for their supposedly radical content, and many have even questioned the need for public art at all. I guess these artless souls prefer the bland symmetries of the gated communities and country clubs they frequent over the noisy, vibrant public spaces the rest of us inhabit. They probably admire artists like Thomas Kinkade, not only for the sappy schlock he cranked out, but for the bare-knuckled capitalism that was his life’s real work. The guy made hundreds of millions and didn’t even paint half the stuff he signed.
But that’s art, right? Warhol makes a mint with his repetitive soup can images and everyone else goes on the dole. The vapid hustlers of the monied art world all flock to Miami Beach for Art Basel, while a million talented nobodies bag groceries in obscurity. Sadly, this is where my Austerity column started to lead me—down the well-traveled rabbit hole of bewilderment and jealousy that I think is common to a lot of artists and would-be artists—writers included. Keynes diminished legacy depressed me, and the more research I did, the more depressed I felt. As a flailing writer and the husband of a talented public artist, I found myself a little too close to my subject.
I don’t want to write about me all the time because I know how it makes me look—whiny, self-absorbed, entitled, ridiculous. I know I’m no Steinbeck, and I sure can’t claim to be oppressed or persecuted. It’s not like the Taliban will cut out my tongue for singing, as Malian musicians have been threatened. (“Mali: no rhythm or reason as militants declare war on music”, The Guardian, 23 October 2012). I chose a long time ago to live a bohemian life, skipping merrily along the poverty line, writing whatever the hell I wanted, and I’ve mostly had a good time doing it.
At the same time, I know I’m not alone in feeling that artists have been unfairly devalued by the carnal demands of the modern marketplace. While a few creatives rake it in, the majority cannot earn a living with their art.
On my desk are two books, part of my research into the cultural/psychological ramifications of austerity, but really because I take a form of solace in them, each in their own way. However I might arrange them while I’m working, at the end of the day I always seem to find them stacked together neatly, like two magnets in electrical embrace. Both are advice books, one fictional, written by a man during the last century’s Great Depression. The other is non-fiction, written by a woman during this century’s Great Recession. Both are stellar reads, though in vastly different ways. On top is the fictional Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathaneal West, and underneath is Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things.
It seems obvious why advice books would be popular during recessions. Economic upheaval, job loss, downward mobility, all these things cause people to question their identities and value to society, to seek answers and reassurance, even from some dubious sources. I’m referring to West’s main character, who is almost nihilistic in his hopelessness. In Miss Lonelyhearts, West uses real letters sent to a real newspaper as pavers on his main character’s road to despair. One is from a 16-year-old girl who was born without a nose and wonders what she did in a past life to make God curse her: “I sit and look at myself all day and cry. I have a big hole in my face that scares people even myself so I can’t blame the boys for not wanting to take me out. Ought I commit suicide?” she asks, signing her letter, “Sincerely yours, Desperate.”
The advice columnist, the eponymous Miss Lonelyhearts, is supposed to write this noseless waif down from the ledge, but he has his own problems. He doesn’t know why bad things happen to good people, or why happiness is so maddeningly fleeting, even when you don’t have the awful and insurmountable problems his readers do. He can’t begin to contemplate what might soothe this poor girl, so he stares dubiously at his typewriter until his editor comes over to dictate another canned response: “Art is a way out… Art is distilled from suffering. As Mr. Polnikoff exclaimed through his fine Russian beard, when, at the age of 86 he gave up his business to learn Chinese, ‘We are, as yet, only at the beginning…” One can almost hear the wailing of the noseless girl as the next day, she throws down the newspaper and reaches for a bottle of go-away pills.
Though Strayed is something of an existentialist herself (she doesn’t pray, she doesn’t talk about chakras, and she also admits to not knowing why nice people get cancer and jerks don’t just keel over and die), she’s the polar opposite of West. She also gives much better advice than Lonelyhearts. Instead of spouting platitudes, she sifts through the highs and lows of her own life and tries to draw parallels between her experiences and those of her advice-seekers. But it’s amazing to see how similar the anxieties and problems are in these two very different books, and ultimately, how reliant on art we are to frame solutions to these problems.
In Tiny Beautiful Things, Strayed responds to a reader who has much in common with West’s noseless girl. Only this reader is a 26-year-old man calling himself “Beast with a Limp” who asks, “What is there for people like me who will never be remotely attractive and who are just average on the inside?” Strayed tells Beast about her friend Ian, who was horribly burned in a fire and who ultimately committed suicide, believing no one would ever find him romantically attractive. It’s a powerful and instructive allegory, but to really drive it home, Strayed has to abandon her experiential approach and remind “Beast” of the folk tale with which he shares his pen name.
“You know the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast? Strayed asks, “When [Belle’s] tears fall onto the beast, he is transformed into a handsome prince. What I want you to note is that Belle loved the beast when he was still a beast… Believe that the fairy tale is true.”
In a more honest and less cynical way, isn’t Strayed offering a bit of the same idea that West is intent on demolishing—that art can distill suffering into meaning? That a fanciful story somebody made up a long time ago can change our perceptions and thus our lives?
Portrait of John Maynard Keynes
(1883-1946) by Roger Fry
It’s fitting that I often find these books stacked together, because when I pull them apart I find myself vacillating between their two poles like a broken compass. When I have little faith in myself and my writing, I stare like Lonelyhearts into the void of a blank page and nothing I do will make words appear on it. But when I summon a bit of Strayed’s hard-eyed hope—that elusive, wary sense that the most vulnerable parts of us just might be our strongest assets—the words begin to flow again, and I can once again believe in the transformational power of art.
In the end, I decided that doing art during a recession is about the same as doing art during any other time. You have to believe in it, be open to it, trust it, do it. You have to embrace it as blindly and fervently as a spinning Sufi if you want to get anything out of it. But it wasn’t West or Strayed that taught me this during my failed attempt at writing an austerity column. It was, of all people, George W. Bush.
It’s supremely ironic that Bush would come up in all this because one can plausibly lay the economic suffering of the past few years on his head alone. It was Bush’s intentionally lax oversight of the financial industry which led to the housing collapse, and it was his crackpot combo of tax cuts and wars that drained the US economy and set us on this idiotic road to austerity. For these and so many other reasons, Bush has allowed himself to become, in his retirement, little more than a cipher symbolizing incompetence. I personally came to see him not as a president, not even as a man, but as a smirking cartoon villain—the Muttley to Cheney’s Dick Dastardly.
But when I saw his paintings—and I only wish I was kidding—I stopped seeing W. as a cartoon. I never would have thought it possible, but Bush’s recently revealed attempts at art have had the incredible effect of forcing me to see him as a human being.
It’s not that the two self-portraits (hacked from personal emails sent to Bush’s sister and released via the web) are technically any good. In fact, they’re not even in the realm of good. One is of his naked feet and shins as he soaks in a bathtub. The other bares his unmistakably simian face, staring from a shaving mirror as he stands, nude with his back to the viewer, in the shower. But unlike anything by Thomas Kinkade, Bush’s amateurish portraits show something I had no idea he was even capable of: Honesty. Introspection. Vulnerability. Doubt.
In the shower painting, we see a man’s back, his face obscured but visible via the mirror, as if he can’t face us except through this device. Is he supposed to be looking back in time, at the triumphs and failings of his life? Or is he looking at the viewer, in a way that seems to say, “You made me into this”? Is the bathroom theme supposed to imply a ritual washing away of sin or an escape from the pressures of life? Is he as isolated in his personal life as the painting makes him appear?
The Bush paintings reveal a lonely and lost old man who seems confused and maybe even haunted by his past. The world, his friends, his enemies—even his dog—have all moved on, as if he never even existed. What once seemed the most glorious life imaginable has become a national embarrassment. A few years ago, he was the most powerful man on Earth—the world must have seemed to revolve around him—and now he paints himself in the bathroom, because what else is left for him to do? Get a job? Clear some more brush? Crawl back in a bottle?
What does the world expect Bush to do now that his purpose is used up? What would he do if he could live his life over again? Would he trade it all for a life like mine? Though I doubt he actually would, his paintings convey that he’s at least thought about it.
All the snark and schadenfreude Bush’s art has provoked is understandable and probably even deserved. But it still misses the mark.
Even though I have no respect for Bush as a leader (or as a painter for that matter), I must begrudgingly admit that I admire him for trying to express himself. I can’t help but feel that his impulse to create, his desire to communicate an inner truth, his longing to stand before the world naked and flawed and vulnerable, is something that I and just about everyone else in the world can relate to. This search for universal connection is the essence of art, writing, music, performance—it’s what makes kids spend all day drawing their names in sand, in letters ten feet high, even knowing the waves will wash it away by morning. It’s what drove ancient cave dwellers to recount the day’s hunt, unaware that their work would continue to fascinate us ten thousand years later. It’s the same blind and mysterious and sometimes frustrating urge, for better or worse, that keeps me coming back to the blank void of the page day after day, week after week, year after year.
You can’t tell me art isn’t transformational. I saw Bush’s lousy paintings and they forced me to see him as human instead of as merely the cartoon dog depiction I saw so frequently during his administration. What a bizarre thought, that this reviled former president could restore my faith in art with his vaguely creepy bathroom portraits. If only he’d been interested in art as president, maybe he would have been as self-reflective as these paintings seem to imply. Or if he’d read up a little on J.M. Keynes, his legacy would see him building culture, rather than destroying human landscapes.