Monday, February 09, 2009

Artifice and Authenticity

Just saw a movie about the life of Joe Strummer of the punk band The Clash: “The Future is Unwritten” (Great title.) It raises a knotty, disturbing set of issues for me. First, there’s my comparing myself to a great, successful, creative guy. But I’m not as prone to that issue as in the past since I now see more clearly my issues around wanting to “be a somebody” and have an escape route for it.

Second, is the painfulness of the combination of my hero’s personal failings – in this case his narcissism – and his great success in creating powerful, authentic, valuable art: The Clash’s music. The movie showed how Strummer made the decision to join the cool guys – Mick Jones and Paul Simenon - to form The Clash and abandon not only his then current band – the 101’ers – but also abandon his hippie persona and with it his hippie friends. Later, when he became moderately successful with The Clash and old friends approached him, he ignored them. They didn’t fit in with his new image. And in the home movies of the early years of The Clash and their marketing films, you can see their narcissism; the conscious creation of their superiority and their adoption of the attitude that the full-of-themselves famous exhibit. It’s remarkable how that persona infiltrates their bodies and minds so that you can see it dripping from their faces, gestures and walk.

(It was funny to see Bono of U2 in the movie talking about how great it was to see The Clash in Dublin because they weren’t like the usual rock stars driving their Rolls Royce’s into swimming pools. Maybe not, but the movie makes clear that the members of The Clash cultivated a thick and highly self-conscious image of themselves as cool, raw rockers. And yet they made a cool, raw rocking album.)

The interesting contradiction is that accompanying this conscious image-management is an artistic expression of integrity, authenticity and quality. It’s like my friend’s problem with T.S. Eliot. He loved his poetry until he found out Eliot was an anti-Semite. It ruined it for him. But should it, or must it?

Perhaps the two things – one’s personal behavior and being and one’s artistic creations – can be unrelated. And we make the mistake of thinking that they are connected. I always find it funny that people want to interview actors and read about them because they generally aren’t interesting people.

It’s our own narcissism which is the problem: we want our artistic heroes who create works that express our innermost being to personally embody those qualities. We meld their person with their art because their art touches our person. We are looking for an ego-ideal, a fully integrated image of right being and put those artistic heroes into that role of personal and artistic perfection. When their flaws show, it is a narcissistic wound for us the fan. They are the dream of our unrealized selves, realized imaginatively, and so they do great work for us and it wounds us when they fail.

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