Saints, Radicals and Artists


Saints, Radicals and Artists

Image by the|G|™

It should worry us that we seem to prefer our saints, radicals and artists dead. Consider the Catholic Church’s response to Edith Stein. Beatified more than half a century after she was gassed in Auschwitz, Stein had sent a letter to the Pope before the war warning of the Nazi’s violent antisemitism. No response was ever recorded.

And consider next of all the case of Stig Larsson. Dying before his work gained world-wide fame, the Hollywood franchise spawned by his Millennium series of books gives truth to the claim that a living author is a liability. We might even be tempted to think, perversely, that Larson’s radicalism whilst still a living journalist was nothing but a stumbling block to his work’s success. He needed to die before the world could take him seriously.

Sometimes, then, the very best an artist can do to get their work ‘out there’ is to just give up and die. Suicide is one popular means to that end. No doubt the reputation Yukio Mishima enjoys outside of Japan is mostly due to his failed attempt at a military coup followed by a grizzly attempt at sepukku (although it helps that he was also a rather good writer).

But for those of us without the guts to, well, gut themselves, there is always the hope of being murdered, Caravaggio-style. If you are the sort of person who fears your own violent death, then don’t become a writer. Something like this must have been on J.G. Ballard’s mind when he opined that “for a writer death is always a career move.”

We like our saints dead, our radicalisms in the past, and our artists as far away from us as possible. Only then will they not intrude upon the exquisite pleasure we gain from being vicarious spectators to their piety, purity or extremity.

But what is so disconcerting about these people? Why is a living, breathing artist so offensive? What is so obscene about sanctitude that we would rather a good deed not be done? And why does ruffling feathers make you into a pariah?

As far as I can tell the answer is plain old resentment. Unlike the multitude of the gainfully employed, artists tend on the whole to live a little, saints try their damnedest to help others and radicals… well, their stirrings offend the deep conservative impulses that liberals are so fearful of acknowledging.

For the rank and file of work-place depressives, resentment is reason enough to harbour secretive grudges. For the many office workers left to slowly dry out behind computer screens, the end of each day does is not always the beginning of a blissful evening spent in luxury. In reality, the tiresome concerns of the working day are merely substituted for an equally tiresome set of home concerns. These days, ‘switching off’ increasingly means ignoring the innumerable things we should otherwise be planning, cleaning, training, walking, watching, reading, fucking, playing and gleefully consuming.

Simply because artists, radicals and saints do at least attempt to grab positive liberty by the balls, we will continue to resent them at the very same time as we lap up their legacies as though they were ambrosial bowls of milk and honey.

We poor fools.