Why selfishness is important

4 Feb

What a shame that we have so few selfish artists left.   Anymore, artists of even the most modest repute declare their selfless dedication to some grander public good.  Bono, to think of an obvious example.  All the  indie artists with whiny identical voices who generously contribute to nonprofit albums for the latest natural or human rights disaster to hit the papers — a disaster which, along their music, will  pass within the month from public consciousness.  The trend is positively feeding off our “recent” environmental crisis, along with the wars and global economic panic turned dispair.  A pressure is building in that invisible bubble known as society, mainstream media, or whatever you want to call it:  if an artist continues undisrupted in his or her work, he or she will be dismissed as frivolous at best, reviled as selfish and inhumane at worst.  Perhaps it hasn’t happened yet…but the roots are there, flourishing underneath us.  We are earnestly striving to extricate the age-old tradition of navel-gazing, purportedly for the sake of our wellbeing…no, for our sheer survival.

But that’s just it — art is selfishness.  No artist is truly in element without that delicious torment of an abounding ego that never, thankfully, quite realizes itself.  The fruits of civilization — visual arts, literature, music, dance — are born from a mélange of observation of surroundings and ensuing self-reflection.  If we lose selfishness, we lose what is beautiful.  Love of course is important.  But love isn’t what makes art.  It is selfish people in love, or who at least think or thought they were in love, who finally are the creators.

I just returned from my second viewing of Gainsbourg:  Une Vie Héroïque, the freshly-sorted half-biography, two-halves fairy tale of one of France’s most celebrated progeny of the twentieth century.  To call Serge Gainsbourg’s life “heroic” seems inappropriate at first glance.  But the more I think of it, the more I see that our use of the term “heroic” has been haplessly entangled with implications of morality and literal sainthood.  A hero is not always moral, generous, or concerned for others.  A hero may not even be nice.  A hero is someone admired by others, remembered for their work, even — and especially — if their work embraces and finally transcends their personal imperfections.

The epoch of artist veneration has passed.  Now it seems we esteem artists not by how beautiful or true their words are, but by their degree of involvement and concern with others, as demonstrated by the content of their art.  We still define heros by their contribution, though now the requirement for contribution is much more rigidly defined than it used to be.  Contribution must correspond first to the needs of others and society; then, if there’s room, an artist can talk about him or herself.   For those select few who persist in not giving a damn what others want, it’s a rough, lonely and thankless road — hey, turns out that’s how artists have lived since forever, until recently that is.

Selfish artists are in danger of extinction.  Let us save them.

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