December 15, 2011

Is tolerance bad for art?


John Waters when filth still meant something

John Waters, in this interview at The Financial Times, claims to be regretful about how gay culture has gone mainstream:

I miss it … I’m for gay marriage. I don’t want to do it, but I certainly think people should be allowed to, and I wouldn’t vote for anybody that would be against it. But at the same time, why do we have to be good now? Why can’t we be villains in movies?

It’s a provocative and complex statement, meant only half in jest, and it made me think of something written recently by Lars Iyer (Dogma) in his literary manifesto “Nude in Your Hot Tub, Facing the Abyss” at The White Review where he wonders why Literature has lost its cultural vigor. Iyer writes:

Like Kant’s dove in free flight cutting through the air, the writer needs to feel a kind of resistance on the part of Literature, needs to work against something even as it struggles for something. And what is there to work against when there’s no one left to antagonise?

These questions — Why do we have to be good now? What is there to work against when there’s no one left to antagonise? — seem to stem from a common complaint. Art often feels most alive when it exists in contrast to the convention, when it originates in outsiders. Would the work of writers like Truman Capote or Tennessee Williams have had such power (or would the authors have been so motivated to write so powerfully) if their sexual identities were embraced by the mainstream culture? Is there an inherent artistic force that comes from being forbidden? Indeed, some contemporary writers (recent examples might include Andrew Sean Greer‘s A Story of a Marriage and Alan Hollinghurst‘s The Stranger’s Child) turn to historical period novels as a way to summon the tension of less tolerant times, as if tacitly acknowledging that some essential dramatic element has been lost in the relative tolerance of modern, urban, Western civilization.

The world is, of course, still filled with all manner of bigotry and orthodoxy that require resistance. Nevertheless, art’s ability to shock, subvert, and alter perception — perhaps its most delightful function — occasionally seems diminished as a result of the various victories of civil rights and moral plurality.