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Love the Art, Hate the Artist

Why are creative geniuses always portrayed as insufferable louts?

Fortunately, very few children want to be artists or writers when they grow up. That is something which--with the odd repellent exception--one simply ends up becoming or turns out to be.

Even though I enjoyed reading as a child, I think the last thing I would have said in response to the classic question was "a novelist." A pirate, a soccer player, an archeologist (yes, long before Indiana Jones), a bandit, a lion-tamer, even, perhaps, a doctor.

I have no idea what children nowadays would like to be when they grow up, but I'm sure they don't aspire to devoting their lives to literature, painting or "serious" music. Just as well, because, as I did 50 years ago, they would probably find it hard to identify with artists as they're portrayed in movies and, indeed, in books, and they certainly wouldn't want to emulate them.

The most worrisome thing for those of us who have turned out to be novelists or poets or sculptors or painters or musicians is that not even as adults have we seen much reason to admire our predecessors. We might feel great admiration for their work, but we rarely take to them when their lives are recounted in books or depicted on screen. I don't know if it's just that our profession has been particularly unfortunate in that respect or if artists really are unbearable.

The truth is that artists are usually seen as megalomaniacs and, very often, as loudmouths, who suffer greatly and cut off their ears, or pretend to be suffering and drag themselves histrionically through the mud. They are people who take themselves very seriously and are, by and large, vain, ambitious and rather on the stingy side.

With predictable frequency, they slide into some form of addiction (alcohol, drugs, gambling), which leads them to inflict the most bizarre and harmful behavior on their loved ones. They find it equally difficult to cope with either success or failure and require unhealthily large doses of attention. With apparent determination, they get themselves into inadvisable situations and set off along gratuitously self-destructive paths. They strive at all times to be brilliant and deep, which is tiring for them and tiresome in the extreme for those around them, as well as for the reader or viewer. They also take pride in being enigmatic, which is a dreadful bore; plus, they're obsessed with their work, which is all that really exists for them.

I've seen F. Scott Fitzgerald getting drunk as a lord while wearing Gregory Peck's face in the film Beloved Infidel; Michelangelo throwing one almighty tantrum wearing Charlton Heston's face in The Agony and the Ecstacy; Beethoven being proud and grandiloquent wearing Ed Harris's face in Copying Beethoven; and Mozart playing the fool as he wore the face of the now-forgotten Tom Hulce in Amadeus. I've also seen the seamier side of Van Gogh, Rimbaud, Bob Dylan, Truman Capote, Frida Kahlo and her husband, Diego Rivera (well, with a couple like that, what can you expect?), and many more.

Speaking from a purely personal point of view, the experience has served to make me try to be as unlike them as possible in my own life, even at the cost of avoiding behavior that many people--not children, but adolescents and childish adults--associate with talent and genius. There are, after all, still those who believe that drinking to excess, pumping themselves full of drugs or driving erratically will make them more like William Faulkner or Jack Kerouac.

This was why, in part, I was interested to watch the German series, The Mann Family, which came out several years ago and has recently been made available on DVD. Thomas Mann was not noted for his unusual or anomalous behavior. He was forced into exile during the Nazi regime, but apart from that, suffered few setbacks or hardships and led a reasonably respectable life. The life of his son, Klaus, a not inconsiderable writer himself, was rather more shocking and ended in suicide.

There was, then, nothing in Thomas Mann as a character that might lend itself to the excesses and exhibitionism that beset almost every artist depicted on screen or in literature. "Perhaps I will at last find an artist whom I like, someone I wouldn't have minded knowing," I thought as I began watching the series.

No such luck. Thomas Mann appears neither irascible nor hysterical, nor does he live in a permanent torment of doubt or poised on the edge of an abyss. He seems more like a notary or a factory-owner, and his one caprice--for a father of a large family--is a kind of abstract homosexuality that manifests itself only in half-furtive glances at handsome young men. Not a very attractive character, but sober enough.

And yet his seems more an example to flee from than to follow: a kind of pumice stone, rough and brittle, who doesn't even get upset over the first suicide attempt of his own son Klaus. He is a smug, solemn individual, who receives the news that he has won the Nobel Prize with unseemly nonchalance, as if it were only to be expected or were simply his due. To judge by this series, the author of The Magic Mountain must have gotten up in the mornings, looked at himself in the mirror and exclaimed reverently: "Gosh, I'm Thomas Mann!"

I don't know if we'll ever be able to see a movie about an artist or read a book about his or her life without it making us wonder if our admiration for the work of such a creature hasn't been a big mistake.

Javier Marias is an award-winning author and columnist based in Madrid, Spain. His work has been translated into 34 languages. His most recent book is the novel Tu Rostro Manana 3: Veneno y Sombra y Adios.

(Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa.)

By Javier Marias