We all know the cliché; the “Enfant Terrible” – the out of control, rebel artist, gratuitously strafing his way through excess drugs, booze and sexual debauchery, yet somehow (miraculously) maintaining a consistent output of brilliant, original, groundbreaking work. They abuse their most important relationships, yet inexplicably, they’re still universally beloved and admired. It’s a nonsense, of course – a confection carefully crafted by marketing men to shift units, as any artist that has tried to live such a self-destructive life, for real, has rapidly discovered to their cost. Nobody can behave that badly and escape the consequences.
In upholding this stereotype as an ideal, is it we who are, in fact, behaving badly? Why do we egg them on, toward ultimate oblivion? Why do we insist our artists transcend mortality, when it is patently obvious they cannot. Nobody can. Are artists our blood sacrifices to an impossible standard?
George Orwell held that all human problems stem from a common cause. It’s a thread that runs through all of his best-known works. Charles Dicken’s novels, too, are testament to the very same thesis. Humanity’s ills can be attributed to the undeniable observation that human beings tend to choose to behave very badly.
The solution, as obvious as it is, is not to impose more violence, laws, governance and force, to create the illusion of order. The people charged with doing that, in spite of their stated best intentions, invariably end up behaving extraordinarily badly themselves. The late Fidel Castro, to choose just one example, was demonstrably a poster boy for this terrible contradiction. No, the real solution is for individuals to choose, voluntarily, to behave much better than they do.
The prevailing zeitgeist holds that the key to thriving is whatever you can get away with. Like good little trained psychopaths, we imagine that taking whatever we want, justifying our aggressive greed on the basis of freedom, liberty and rugged individualism, while at he same time defraying the costs of our actions on everyone and everything else, is just fine. It’s how you win. It’s how you thrive. Capitalism is a religion devoted to this idea that behaving as badly and as capriciously as we want, toward other people, living things and the environment, is the highest ideal. We’ve essentially equated behaving badly with virtue and the highest good; so twisted is our logic.
Any sober examination of the facts quickly reveals that this cannot be, yet we doggedly adhere to the fixation. This, I submit, is unarguable proof of our collective insanity. Personal gain, at the expense of the destruction of other people and our shared life-support ecosystems, is no gain at all. Behaving badly is far from heroic, yet who do we laud as our heroes? Mendacious, dishonest, manipulative sociopaths, marked out by their extreme self-indulgence and conspicuous over-consumption. These are the people we want to be. Our fantasies and aspirations are about being able to behave as badly as the worst of humanity.
Humans have a seemingly infinite capacity to create self-serving justifications for their bad behaviour. In every case, their outrageous, petulant selfishness is wrapped up in talk of the natural order of things, as if it were some immutable law of physics. The truth is, that it’s the pure sense of entitlement to their own unlikely good fortune that the privileged seem to seduce themselves with.
Those of a conservative inclination fervently and sincerely believe in their innate moral, intellectual and ethical superiority, which they feel gives them license to impose policies that are little less than murderous, on the poor, precarious, disabled and vulnerable. They don’t necessarily want to kill these people directly, but are quite relaxed about leaving them to perish. They don’t shed tears over the situation they, themselves, created and think that this is just Nature running its course, denying utterly their active part in helping Nature along. Regrettably, there is no hard evidence whatsoever for the genetic superiority of conservatives, which might have justified their entitlement to their good fortune, despite their obsession with DNA studies. The truth is that sudden misfortune can turn anybody into a down and outer, at a speed that few would be comfortable acknowledging. Yes, it could be you. Don’t fool yourself that you’re immune.
The recent Brexit and Trump campaigns and ballots appear to have unleashed a veritable orgy of bad behaviour, vindicating and elevating the seemingly worst-behaved candidates, giving license to the most base abuses by the winners and losers alike. The winners will, of course, be betrayed in the end, as what they voted for was pure impossibility. More bad behaviour. Expect similar in the forthcoming French and German elections. It’s what the electorate have been taught by example. When life’s apparent winners nakedly cheat, lie, evade their obligations to their societies and live lives of extreme and vainglorious opulence, is it any wonder that the bad behaviour of ordinary people seems wholly legitimised?
While the victors accuse the vanquished of character defects and moral deficiency, it masks the real socioeconomic causes of extreme inequality: there is a class of people making off like bandits, stealing from everybody they can – very bad behaviour indeed. Meanwhile, everybody blames the victims. Even more bad behaviour. The problem is that the victors can’t escape the boomerang consequences of their bad behaviour, in the end. It will come back to bite them and bite them hard.
It’s a peculiar irony that the privileged accuse the impoverished of a “culture of entitlement”, when it is their own sense of entitlement to their assumed privilege that has caused the suffering and misery in the first place. Swindlers always believe that everybody else is a swindler and further, that they should be better swindlers, so that they wouldn’t be so poor. These people deny their interdependence on the other people in the society they live in and never acknowledge that their existence is ultimately dependent on the kindness and indulgence of strangers. Other people are not prey, furnished for your sole convenience, so that you may take much more than you need.
What the genuinely productive and thriving artists all discover is that gratitude and generosity matter and matter crucially. You can’t behave badly, indefinitely and get away with it. Eventually, it costs you your creative capacities and your art. Successful artists learn that ethics, self discipline and choosing to behave well, both to yourself and to others, is the secret. You have to be a well-behaved person to be a good artist. Sure, you can get away with atrocious behaviour for a short while, but it’s not a viable way of building a long term career. And the important thing about good behaviour is that nobody can or will make you. It’s a choice you have to make, over and over again, at every moment, despite the temptations to choose otherwise.
Our politicians, activists, the partisans in the electorate, business leaders, financiers, landlords, entrepreneurs, war mongers, scientists, media barons and rabble rousers could learn a thing or two from thriving artists. Behaving badly is the road to ultimate destruction.