February 8, 2003

IN THIS ARTICLE ABOUT ANTI-WAR POETS AND LAURA BUSH, the author marvels at poets’ belief that poetry must be morally pure.

And well he might. It’s easy to understand why poets might like to think that poesy confers high moral stature — just as beekeepers may think that the apiary arts do the same. But the evidence, frankly, is stronger for the beekeepers’ position than for the poets’. In fact, what’s interesting, or perhaps revealing, is that genocidal thuggish dictators so often have artistic aspirations. As has been noted here before, there’s often a lot of overlap between mediocre artistry and murderous tyranny:

Yet in truth, our last century’s worst disasters came from bad artists with dumb political views (Hitler (lousy art), Stalin (bad poetry), Mao (worse poetry), etc.). Perhaps the resemblance between our neo-conceptualists and Hitler is greater than they imagine. Consider the following behaviors alluded to in the piece, and then consider who besides exhibitors at the Whitney and Brooklyn Museum routinely engaged in them:

Dressing up in dumb costumes and having picture made in public places (Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Mussolini, Pol Pot)

Filling warehouses with severed body parts and icky stuff (Above except, mostly, Mussolini)

Portraying political opponents as subhuman (all of the above)

Spouting mind-numbing political cant while imagining they are saying something original (all of the above)

Thinking that they speak for the masses when they are really playing out own neuroses/psychoses (all of the above)

Genocidal Fascist/Communist dictators or Conceptual Artists? You decide.

I’m not sure if Saddam has written poetry, but he’s certainly a novelist of some renown. And there’s something about the artist’s desire for total control over his or her work of art that seems to find resonance with the dictator’s desire for total control over society. Indeed, some dictators seem to regard themselves as artists, artists who work with people and nations.

So perhaps the “antiwar” poets simply recognize a kindred spirit.