I always thought this was gonna be about Picasso
(Sorry it’s been so long! There’s been a lot going on! I’ll explain down at the bottom).
So, last week I got into a kerfluffle on Twitter. That’s nothing too unusual, but this one has really stuck with me for its abrupt weirdness, and the way it went from 0 to FUCK YOU, PAL! in fewer than 300 characters.
Here’s the deal: RC and I watched the Burns/Novick documentary on Ernest Hemingway, and I found each segment fascinating and full of stuff to chew on. Because I’m firmly convinced that all of these things are true at the same time: that Hemingway was a hugely talented writer; that, for good or for ill, you couldn’t possibly talk about American literature in the 20th century without talking about him; that, as essential as some of his work is, there’s also a lot of really problematic stuff in it; that as a human being he was pretty unquestionably a toxic asshole; and that at least some of that toxic assholishness was a direct result of the clash between some internal issues he was dealing with and the time and place where he lived, which weren’t super nurturing grounds for people suffering from depression and a bad fit with their assigned gender.
It’s that last part that’s the interesting thing to me: a Hemingway who’d been able to get access to therapy, to acknowledge and experience the full range of his emotions, and who wasn’t locked into a rigid early-20th-century set of expectations around manhood would be a very different man from the one we got. He’d probably still be kind of a know-it-all who could turn on his friends and loved ones at a moment’s notice, but I don’t think he’d be anywhere near the seething cauldron of tough psychology that the historical Hemingway was. The times shaped the man, or maybe more accurately warped him. And again: I think the specificity of that is really interesting.
So I was trying to lay that out on twitter (one of that site’s main roles for me is to act as a kind of steam valve for all of the ideas that I get obsessed about; Hemingway wasn’t the only seething cauldron of tough psychology in the land) when, two tweets in, a guy I know and considered at least a vague sort of friendly online presence pops in with something like “NOT THIS SHIT AGAIN. I’M SO DAMN TIRED OF PEOPLE SHITTING ON HEMINGWAY. NOT ON MY TIMELINE.” (I have to paraphrase here because he then blocked me, meaning that I can’t go back and see the verbatim quotes).
Two things strike me: 1. I think I pretty clearly wasn’t shitting on Hemingway; I was trying to lay out the “he had problems but some of them were caused by his time and place,” which seems like the opposite of shitting on him. And 2. The guy who got pissed at me is a professional critic.
And that’s what’s weird to me: it seems to me that trying to understand the psychology of a problematic creator and put it into a proper context is pretty dead-center on how you do criticism. But the dude acted wounded and defensive; ironically, kind of the way you’d expect Hemingway to react to a perceived slight.
The reason this sticks with me, I think, is because I don’t see any other way to engage responsibly with Ernest Hemingway than to acknowledge his contributions but then also acknowledge the problematic stuff about him and his work and then, if relevant, try to look at the context around those problems. I literally don’t know what else to do! It’s better than pretending nothing’s wrong; it’s also better than pretending he didn’t exist or matter.
You might say “just don’t engage with Hemingway, he’s old and boring, fuck him.” And I can’t say you’re wrong, really! I definitely think we’ve moved into a world where a person can have a full and interesting cultural life without thinking two thoughts about Ernest Hemingway. BUT: I can guarantee you that, just as sure as the sun’s going to rise in the East every morning, there’s a creator you care about who’s going to put you in the same position.
We’re living through what feels like a tidal shift in being aware of the problematic things about artists that were ignored for decades, and that’s fantastic. It’s 100% a good thing. But it also means that, over and over again, we’re all going to have to figure out how to engage with the work and the lives of people who shaped the cultural landscape that we love but who were also total shitbags.
And that’s why I have the subhead up above about Picasso. One of the earliest ideas I had for this newsletter was what to do with the Problem of Picasso, in that he was absolutely an abusive garbage dump of a human being but who also shaped 20th century European art in ways so enormous that they can’t be ignored (in grad school, I had a private game of keeping track of every time his Les Demoiselles d'Avignon was name-checked in any seminar that had to do with the 20th century, and it always hit double digits).
Enough people worked in his shadow or responded to him that you can’t really understand the big picture without, at the very least, him acting like a black hole whose gravitational pull affects everything around it. If I had to teach an art history course about 20th century European art, I’d talk about Picasso. But I’d also make it clear that he was a shithead, and if I found something that gave some context into why he was a shithead, I’d try to get into that, too.
Right on. Stay safe.
ABOUT THAT DELAY
So yeah, it’s been a while. I spent most of the winter and early spring looking for a job; I’m pleased to say that I found one, and thank god; the American manner of looking for a job in the 21st century is exactly as fun as swan-diving into a wood chipper.
While I was looking, my creative energy got pulled into recording an album; it’s tough to describe, but I think most of it could fit into a bucket labelled “really weird bluegrass.” Maybe it makes more sense to say that it’s a record where covers of Hank Williams and Low both appear and both make sense next to each other. You can stream it on Spotify or Apple Music, or download it from my own website. Or if you’d like, you can buy it on Bandcamp (although if you do that, let me know so that I can hook you up with a couple of extra MP3s).
I’ve also been working on a novel about sea monsters, but that’s a story for another time.
OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over.
If you have any thoughts/reactions/what have you about this, I’d love to hear about it, either by email or on Twitter. And if you know anybody who might dig this, please forward it on to them, or send ‘em the signup link! And thanks!