Why we love/hate artists so much

Excerpt of “Borrowed Creativity: The Envy of Art” in the unfinished book Borrowed Glories: Envy, Inequality, and the Glory of God.

For the complete chapter outline and other excerpts, CLICK HERE.

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By Tilly

Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917) The Millinery Shop, ca. 1882–8
Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917) The Millinery Shop, ca. 1882–8

Amadeus: a case study

“All I ever wanted was to sing to God. He gave me that longing. and then made me mute. Why? Tell me that. If he didn’t want me to praise Him with music, why implant the desire, like a lust in my body, and then deny me the talent?”

Salieri the composer is confessing to the priest. This award winning 1984 film, Amadeus, is a movie entirely about envy. It is about the obsession and hatred and deceitfulness of envy, through the eyes of one of the most envy-prone demographics in the world: artists.

It tells the story of Antonio Salieri’s rivalrous relationship with Wolfgang Mozart, the genius child composer-turned-adult legend. The movie opens with Salieri slitting his own throat in his own mansion, loudly begging forgiveness for killing Mozart.

They put him in an insane asylum, and he is visited by a priest who encourages him to confess because confession is good for the soul.

Salieri hums several tunes, asking if the priest recognizes them. The priest politely, and with slight embarrassment, says that he doesn’t. “Can you remember no piece of mine?” asks Salieri in frustration. “I was the most famous composer in Europe. I wrote forty operas alone.”

Finally, he hums a few bars of a very familiar piece. Anyone watching the movie recognizes it immediately, and so does the priest. He gets excited and finishes the tune. “Yes I know that! Oh that’s charming. I’m sorry; I didn’t know you wrote that!”

Salieri is looking calmly at him. “I didn’t,” he says. “That was Mozart.”

He then launches into the story of God’s injustice. He tells how, as a little boy, he loved music more than anything, and prayed only for talent:

While my father prayed earnestly to God to protect commerce, I would offer up secretly the proudest prayer a boy could think of: Lord, make me a great composer. Let me celebrate Your glory through music and be celebrated myself. Make me famous through the world, dear God. Make me immortal. After I die, let people speak my name forever with love for what I wrote. In return, I will give You my chastity, my industry, my deepest humility, every hour of my life, Amen.”

He promises God his celibacy in return for this world-famous musical ability. This very humble prayer, however, is not answered.

Because even as he is enjoying a good musical career as court composer for a monarch, suddenly, Mozart appears on the scene. Mozart is instantly recognized as an exceptional musician. The only problem with Mozart is that he is inane, conceited, flirtatious, and has a laugh that could curdle milk.

Salieri has already heard the glory of one of Mozart’s pieces, but he hopefully figures it must be a fluke. Until, one day, he is handed a folder of Mozart’s works in progress..

“They showed no corrections of any kind. Not one. He had simply written down music already finished in his head. Page after page of it as if he were just taking dictation. And music, finished as no music is ever finished. Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall… I was staring through the cage of those meticulous ink strokes – at an absolute beauty.”

Later, listening to Mozart’s first opera, he says “I heard the music of true forgiveness filling the theater, conferring on all who sat there, perfect absolution. God was singing through this little man to all the world, unstoppable, making my defeat more bitter with every passing bar.”

Salieri, a composer himself, is in a unique position to recognize exactly how great Mozart is. Only because of his own aspirations and (lesser) talent can he obsessively envy Mozart’s. He has given his life over to music, expecting to be given legendary ability in return. Instead, he has only enough to recognize Mozart’s genius. He knows his inferiority better than all the thousands of people who fill auditorium seats to hear his own work.

What is really wonderful about this movie is the way Salieri describes his ensuing struggle to dethrone Mozart. He immediately sees it for what it is: a battle cry against God Himself.

After he understands that Mozart is a genius, he kneels before a crucifix and prays the following prayer:

“From now on we are enemies, You and I. Because You choose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy and give me for reward only the ability to recognize the incarnation. Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block You, I swear it. I will hinder and harm Your creature on earth as far as I am able.”

Salieri’s great plot is to anonymously commission a Mass from Mozart for money, then kill Mozart and play the mass as his own work at Mozart’s funeral.

This doesn’t sound like the ultimate revenge, but to the insane artist, it is perfect.

“His funeral!” he rhapsodizes, years later, to the now clearly disturbed priest.

“Imagine it, the cathedral, all Vienna sitting there, his coffin, Mozart’s little coffin in the middle, and then, in that silence, music! A divine music bursts out over them all. A great mass of death! Requiem mass for Wolfgang Mozart, composed by his devoted friend, Antonio Salieri! Oh what sublimity, what depth, what passion in the music! Salieri has been touched by God at last. And God is forced to listen! Powerless, powerless to stop it! I, for once in the end, laughing at him!”

We wonder to ourselves, is this really what he wants? Would it really satisfy him, to be known for creating ONE piece that was really genius? Would that do it for him? And the whole time, he’d know that it was false. But for an artist of this obsessive type, an entire person’s worth could rest on one great piece. And for Salieri, revenge against God will be accomplished simply by falsely taking back glory that he believes God took from him and gave to an imbecile.

In the end, he doesn’t get it. Mozart ironically dies of an illness before he can finish the mass, though Salieri sits up with him on the deathbed and tries to take dictation for the rest. It is unfinished, and we see Salieri attending the rainy funeral, thwarted. He tells the priest, to conclude the story, that God deliberately killed Mozart to keep him, Salieri, from winning.

And we wonder–how insane and egoistic do you have to be to think that a young musician’s untimely death has anything at all to do with you and your envy? What kind of delusion to you  have to live under to think, twenty years later, that you were the cause of Mozart’s death by rheumatic fever?

The insane Salieri is wheeled away at the end of the movie, telling the shaken priest and all the others in the asylum that he is the patron saint of mediocrities.

“I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you all.”

Artists are the worst

Here I will just take a moment to say that artists are notoriously envious people.

Maybe it’s because creative people are often navel-gazers. They tend to be overly contemplative. Overly emotional. Sometimes a little neurotic. Also, we live in a world that places a lot of almost mythical importance on art. Art as god seems to be one of our culture’s favorite little idolatries. We believe that even when we get rid of any allegiance to a knowable higher power, Art is so wonderful and lovely and glorious that it can be our replacement source of meaning.

So, while the old false gods had priests or oracles or witch doctors, now we have artists. Because of this, artists often believe that they can, if they do well enough, actually become legendary. Art can be a one-way ticket to honor, if you happen to live in the right era and say the right thing at the right time, for the first time. (I say that you have to live in the right time and place because, for a lot of the artistic communities that have appeared in the last century, novelty has been enough to compensate if talent is not available. This is how you account for Marcel Duchamp’s 1950 piece, “Fountain,” which is in fact nothing but a porcelain urinal sitting in a museum in Philadelphia.)

We don’t need to go into a lengthy discussion of aesthetics here. I only want us all to agree that artists, as a whole, are the worst about both trumping up talent that doesn’t exist and obsessively resenting talent they see in other people. The story told in Amadeus was the perfect illustration of their capacity for envy.

Pretend games and the nature of the universe

Have you ever noticed what happens when you leave children alone together for more than about five minutes? They start to play. And what do they start to play? (Assume there’s no x-box or iPod in the room.)

Pretend games.

If they are girls–this is just a sweeping generality–they will play games of romance or domesticity. When my sisters and I were young and outnumbered the boys 5-to-2, we played Love, and House. Sometimes we played Journey, children piled high on a wagon with a lot of wooden chairs on top, with father “away at war” and Mother, played by my sister Sophie, constantly halting proceedings to give birth. But in general, our favorite games had something to do with being in love.

If some neighborhood boy wandered haplessly into our midst, he was immediately put to work playing the love interest. I wasn’t going to play the boy–AGAIN–if there was a real live boy right here for us to use.

The stories had very predictable themes. Some kind of bad guy was usually chasing a damsel around, and there was a good guy who was supposed to come in and do battle against the bad guy to rescue her and marry her under the dogwood tree in the front yard. Or there were two workers in a fancy kitchen who connected while shaking out the same rug, under the jealous and watchful eye of the Evil Boss, and had to run away together. Or we were performing comic renditions of Romeo and Juliet (“Romiet and Julio”) which featured duels between characters with names like Prince Floppysocks.

We thought we had the best stories ever and were probably child geniuses.

Turns out, all the neighborhood kids were doing the same thing. The boys who lived two houses over were playing their own pretend games, except all of theirs had a different central theme: battle between good and evil. They were cops chasing bad guys or cowboys ambushing indians, or Lord Voldemort rising up to destroy Harry Potter.

Collaborations between these two houses were impossible; they were utterly bored by our attempts to introduce romantic sideplots and generally preferred to play alone.

But it is interesting to me to note that in general, girls play romance, and boys play war. And what kind of plot would you say Redemptive History is? If you had to identify a ‘type’ for the great drama of rebellion, fall, expulsion, pursuit, ongoing conflict, reconcilement, and final triumph that we are currently living through?

It’s a romance. It’s a war.

Art = stories

Art tells stories. That’s what it’s for. This is true of music, and novels, and movies, and dances, and paintings and sculptures and poems. Good art tells stories well. Bad art tells stories badly. But all of them tell a story of some kind. These stories are either true, or they are false.

All that a story needs to survive is conflict. It needs somebody to be pushing against something, whether it’s two people pushing against odds to fall in love or a good man pushing to conquer evil or a young man pushing to get through adolescence.

Movies, prose, and poetry

A movie or novel is the most obviously storytelling kind of art. These mediums have plots, and if you ask someone to tell you “what that movie was about,” they’ll tell you the story of the movie. If a writer understands the proper forms of story arch, character development, theme, and denouement, their plot will carry off and you’ll have a good piece of art. Whatever they choose to say with their story will be said, and people will eat it up like catnip.

When Steinbeck wrote Of Mice and Men, he used a story about a big dumb guy and a small quick guy to talk about the futility of dreams, the cruelty of weak people, and the nature of friendship and loyalty. He did it so well that when we finish this little book, we find ourselves nodding at everything he said to us, without always knowing exactly what he has said. All we know is that the book has made a strong statement of some kind, and it is a statement that corresponds to some longing we feel deep within ourselves.

All of this from a story about a guy who likes rabbits.

Music and poetry

Poetry tells stories that are simply condensed. E.E. Cummings can say as much in ten words as many people do in a novella. For a poem, maximum meaning gets stuffed into minimum verbiage, but the result, just the same, is a story.

Music also tells stories. If a song has words, it works similarly to a poem. Maximum meaning must fit into minimum space, and must be shaped into the lines and syllables available. Patty Griffin’s Long Ride Home is a perfect example of this.

It begins this way:

Long black limousine

Shiniest car I’ve ever seen

The back seat is nice and clean

She rides as quiet as a dream

 

And you have a clear picture there of some car that you’ve been in before, maybe not your car but some rented car and some special occasion. But you don’t know what is happening yet.

Someone dug a hole six long feet in the ground

I said goodbye to you and I threw my roses down

Ain’t nothing left at all in the end of being proud

With me riding in this car and you flying through them clouds

 

So now you know it’s a funeral. You know there’s some kind of complex relationship between the speaker and the dead person, but still don’t know what it is.

 

The chorus goes on:

 

I’ve had some time to think about it

And watch the sun sink like a stone

I’ve had some time to think about you

On the long ride home

 

Songs are lucky in that they can use words to tell a story, but they can also use the music to force emotion into the heart of the listener, and to color and change the mood of the words. The musical half of Long Ride Home works with the lyrical half exactly the way it should.

 

In the next verses, we get a new piece of the picture dropped into our heads with each line.

One day I took your tiny hand

Put your finger in the wedding band

Your daddy gave a piece of land

We made ourselves the best of plans

Forty years go by with someone laying in your bed

Forty years of things you say you wish you’d never said

How hard would it have been to say some kinder words instead

I wonder as I stare up at the sky turning red

 

Aaand the chorus comes back.

 

Why is this song so great? Because it does exactly what it sets out to do; it paints a clear picture and tells a complete story in two verses, a chorus, and a bridge. We feel like a disillusioned husband for three and a half minutes. We decide all kinds of things in those three and a half minutes: that we’ll never get caught behaving that way in a marriage, that there’s something sweet about being left alone, that the sunset outside of our own car window is saying exactly what we’re hearing Patty Griffin say through our car speakers.

You’d think that songs need words to tell stories, but they don’t. Music can do exactly the same thing to you without them. Music can cause you to feel things, conclude things, and interpret yourself and those around you as part of whatever story the music is telling. Just put on Jacob Gade’s “Jealousy Tango” and see how long it takes you to start thinking that you are a European spy.

Visual art

Paintings are also stories, though. They do the same thing that movies, books and songs do. Every visual piece–painting or sculpture or installation–makes the same claim: “This is what life is really like.”

In the old European churchy paintings, they did this with symbolic detail, using stories that everybody knew anyway. God reaches across and touches Adam’s finger on the Sistine chapel, and the story of Genesis is being acted out for us in stills. Venus floats towards us, standing in an open shell, and the myth of the Love Goddess is being told without words.

This kind of storytelling through paint is no longer the norm. Now, when people tell well known stories through tributary painting, it’s laughed at. You paint a picture of Princess Leia and Han Solo and you are a cheap hack, not a respected artist (although you may be called on as an illustrator).

Now, either you do stupid nonsense and write long explanations about why it means something (put a urinal on a table or do a violent performance piece), or you paint things that you see around you. Put a bowl of fruit and some other objects on a table and paint them well, maybe with a texture no one else has seen. People will like it. Learn how to do portrait art with both precision and emotion. People will buy that. Get good at impressionistic scenes of Paris, and people will go for them.

And you may think that you aren’t telling stories with these mundane scenes of tranquility or cuteness, but you are. When you paint a wistful painting of Paris in the rain, full of texture and color, you are saying “Here is a place called Paris, and it is a romantic place, a place where you could probably find yourself, or at least find very good pastries.” When Manet did a picture of two well-dressed young men lounging at a picnic with two mostly nude women, the picture said “This is all right; this is what people do now. Why shouldn’t there be picnics with people in mixed states of dress? Are you shocked? Well, don’t be.” When Jackson Pollock slung paint onto a canvas, many people were offended. Because he wasn’t simply having a good time playing around in a studio, he was saying “This is reality. It is random, chaotic, and accidental.”

And when we paint beauty, paint love, paint color and symmetry, or even just paint admiring renditions of the true ex nihilo Creation we see around us, this is what we are saying: “Beauty is real; right is the opposite of wrong; the universe is orderly.”

Artists are warriors

If art is storytelling, and if the nature of the universe is a story, then artists are actually warriors. If artists are warriors, and if God is in the middle of a great battle against evil, then all of these warriors are fighting on one of two sides.

Surely this puts the question of art-envy into another perspective. If we are all warriors, we are fighting well or badly, depending on the quality of our craft. If we see another artist who fights better than we do, by telling better stories with more brilliance, more understanding, more, well, talent, then we have one of two options. If they are telling lies with their art (such as “sex is the source of meaning” or “reality is chaos”) then we should oppose them, with our humble talents, in any way we can. Will we do this by openly calling them out? Yes, perhaps. But more importantly, we will do this by telling true stories. We’ll tell them as often and as well as we can. Our talents will limit us–what are we, anyway, except foot soldiers?–but we must march, and we must attack with all the strength of our pens and guitars and paintbrushes. God is the General.

We ask him for help,  but not the way Salieri did it. He said “God, give me talent and glory and in return I will give you my chastity.” We say “God, use the tool, however blunt it is. Help me to be responsible for what you have given; let me not cower in the fight, but let me never think that my talent does anything for the kingdom but what you ordain.”

And what about when we see another warrior on our team who fights harder, stronger, faster, and better than we ever could? Do we despair because we are foot soldiers instead of great cavalrymen? No! We rejoice! He’s on our side, you idiot. We should be overjoyed to have him on our side. We should cheer, to see any stroke against the enemy, made by any hand.

If we can’t rejoice at genuine strokes of beauty against our Satanic enemies, then we are obviously blind to the battle. We obviously don’t love the General or the thing he fights for, if we begrudge points made by people on our own team.

Obviously, in moments of creative envy, we are only seeing one thing. The eyes of men. We have forgotten the spiritual realm altogether.

This is the way defectors are made.

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