The Evolution of the Asshole: Pt. II

Introduction & Part I: Adam & Eve Were the First Assholes can be found here.

So, to review, the first Assholes were Adam and Eve, and really (in terms of a biblical lineage) established a baseline for Assholes. It would have been easy to continue with Assholes of the Bible. That text is wall to wall Assholes. It’s like being in general admission at a Creed concert or a Queen’s University keg party. I mean, Noah and his arc and his strict rule of two. Must’ve sucked to be that third rhinoceros, punished to death by drowning just for being single. And the Magi? Like, whose idea was the frankincense and myrrh? Were they going to get stoned with the baby Jesus and listen to Dead bootlegs? Joseph and his “I didn’t do it” schtick. Judas, of course, and then pretty much everyone in the New Testament. It would be silly for me to go through the entire Bible, then the Koran, pointing out every instance of Asshole. It would make me an Asshole, and frankly I just don’t have the time, and to be honest I’m somewhat afraid of smiting.

Where to next you ask? Where did the Asshole go in the early ADs? My research may surprise you. Or, my interns’ research that is. (A few of them came back over the weekend. I figured out how they can receive course credit. Kind of.) Once a religious template existed, once the Book was written and asked to be followed, once society began to construct itself under the influence of speculative fiction, the natural course was to expect artistic expression of faith and modernity, and with it comes our next Asshole: the petulant and unseasoned artist.

Part II: Portrait of the Asshole as a Young Artist

Even before the Bible made painting dudes with beards surrounded by half-naked angels cool, the young artist was a well-established Asshole. In the earliest days of man, some poor father of troglodyte adolescents would come home from battling sabre tooth tigers and predatory birds for food for his family, staggering along, bruised and bludgeoned, often missing limbs and on the verge of death, to find his young offspring had spent the day not sewing loin cloths or tending to the fire as asked, but rather having painted on the homestead’s walls. The father would get angry, and the young artist would storm off, screaming about how they don’t like to be told how to feel, and how no one gets them, and how contribution can’t be measured by fire, and why do we have to quantify everything anyway, and why on games night it totally sucks that no one ever wants to play charades.

The wall paintings got weirder, more abstract. One day, in order to even view the blood and feces smeared on the wall in representation of the gods, you had to pay three pelts and bird’s eye. Visual art was born, and it had been born of young artistic Assholes. The “artist” started wearing his loin cloth inside out and smoking cloves. He stopped eating meat. He laughed at his parents, and their ancient ways. Hunting and gathering was so over, he argued. He often danced to music only he could hear, telling his parents afterwards that the dancing was his feelings and if they didn’t get it then they didn’t get him, inadvertently giving birth to interpretive dance and driving his folks crazy. He talked about moving to a loft cave in the next village over, where all his friends lived. When asked who these friends were, he’d roll his eyes, saying “oh, you don’t know them” and giggling to himself.

This sort of petulant nonsense went on for centuries, and in the earliest days of what we would come to know as art, all artists were by definition young. A few years after the Bible, some kid who refused to learn a respectable trade decided to write a second book which was highly experimental, substituting vowels for consonants and spelling God with a lower case ‘g’, but completely derivative of the Bible itself. It received poor reviews, and even worse sales. Somehow the writer convinced a few poor souls with low self-esteem and too much time on their hands to celebrate the book privately, in clandestine meetings, and in turn those kids started to write books that were equally experimental, and equally derivative of the Bible, but now they had a gang to pat each other on the back, and, well, literature was born, and from the get go it was led by these young Assholes.

As soon as there was literature, you had to know that someone was going to option it and adapt a play. This gave birth to a whole knew breed of young artistic Assholes: the playwright, the director, the set decorator, and of course the actor. Stages were erected, costumes fashioned, tantrums thrown, and understudies discovered jealousy. At first the plays were quite good, often funny, and tended not to stray too much from the source material. But soon after, the playwrights began to write their own plays, angering the writers who had lost a good revenue stream. The actors acquired a moderate degree of fame, and began to use that fame to assert influence on the productions. The playwrights retaliated by writing material that was less and less marketable with limited appeal to broad audiences. The directors sided with the actors, though would come to regret it the day some actor whispered to a friend “what I really want to do is direct.” Theatre had arrived, and with it a gaggle of Assholes.

Fortunately for all of us the Renaissance came along, and provided a cultural rebirth, a movement under which art could thrive. Disciplines became more informed, and with it art flourished. It was a golden age, and while there were still Assholes, their voices were tempered by the majesty of creation, by the hurried excitement of cultural revolution. Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, made the world forget that the first man had been such an Asshole, not just a watershed moment in cultural evolution, but in the evolution of Assholes as well. When the Renaissance spread to England it bore Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spenser, Sir Thomas More, John Milton, and William Shakespeare. Literature now had direction, and the Assholes were quieted. Things were good. The French got ballet up and running, and though it would later lead to many an Asshole, it was pretty boss in the early days. With the advent of the printing press, music got out of the heads of petulant artists and the church, into the hands of the people, eventually leading to the formation of The Band in Toronto in the 1965.

And for a while, everything was fine. The arts flourished for centuries, and historians believed the Asshole to be extinct, at least as it pertained to the arts. But an early draft of Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization included a chapter that was cut by his publisher, who was of course an Asshole who was only in publishing for the grant money and cocktail parties. The long-thought lost chapter “Renaissance, la Sagesse, et la mort de la Connard” shows that though dead, the young artist Asshole was certain to return. The prophetic French Asshole wrote:

“…modern man no longer communicates with the Asshole [...] There is no common language: or rather, it no longer exists; the constitution of the Asshole as mental illness, at the end of the eighteenth century, bears witness to a rupture in a dialogue, gives the separation as already enacted, and expels from the memory all those imperfect words, of no fixed syntax, spoken falteringly, in which the exchange between Asshole and reason was carried out. The language of psychiatry, which is a monologue by reason about Assholes, could only have come into existence in such a silence. I just hope grad students never read or attempt to disseminate my work, and use it to make themselves sound way smarter than they are. That would be some bullshit. If this occurs, the Asshole will be born again.”

If only Foucault had known his words would become truth. Sometime around the mid-twentieth century, the MFA program was born. Where once young artists went out into the real world to get jobs, or took real degrees at university, or learned practical trades that had even a remote promise of income, or rightfully hid in their parents suburban basements writing hate poetry and listening to Jeff Mangum b-sides, they now had a place to go and spend eight years for a diploma that made them eminently unemployable, and yet gave them false confidence in their abilities as artists. I don’t know which Asshole invented the MFA program, but what a mad genius. The system self-perpetuates, as the graduated artists ultimately fail in the real world, only to return to MFA programs as teachers. It’s deliciously brilliant, and how I spent the better part of the past decade, much of it as an Asshole myself, until told my work did not qualify me to teach, and that perhaps I should go back to bartending.

It is not simply the desire to be an artist which makes the modern-era young artist an Asshole, but rather a lack of humility, a petulant aggrandized self-importance, and the overarching sense of entitlement that dominates the world of the young educated artist. In no other industry or discipline is ego born of accomplishing so little, with the possible exception of college athletics, animal husbandry, and the Senate. The perpetuation of institutionalized arts has given birth to false communities, and even worse false notions responsibility within that community. Student writers who’s only publishing credit is in a zine they made, painters whose entire body of work involves doing the cover art for a friend’s band’s CD, that band who is convinced they are Arcade Fire because they live in Montreal’s Mile End and have Mac Books, Arcade Fire themselves, all Assholes. Who knew so much ill-informed opinion, pedestrian work, and ego could come from a few open mike nights and a student vernissage? A-plus students all. The A stands for…

I know what you’re thinking: this cat’s a self-loathing Asshole, a hypocritical Asshole, a thrice divorced bitter aging Asshole who probably can’t name three Arcade Fire songs or a second Foucault book, and why does he like The Band so much? And you’re right. But my being an Asshole doesn’t do anything to diminish the centuries old tradition of the young artist as an Asshole. And not only are they Assholes, but they’re demanding, humourless, spoiled Assholes who believe they preside over their disciplines as caretakers, believing that the art should be precious and insulated, that anything that aspires to be both artistically viable and financially successful is selling out, overly confident in new and under-realized theories and opinion. We saw this a few weeks ago when writers got their MFAs in a knot about the Canada Reads competition being a competition, believing literature to be above games. These Assholes want us in our parents basements sewing chapbooks and recording ironic covers while making macaroni art hoping the grant monies start rolling in. I was there last week. It smells like Value Village and regret. You don’t want to go to there. For serious. It’s filled to the brim with Assholes.

Warning: Most of these Assholes of the literary world will be at AWP in Chicago this weekend, using words like “plenary” and “pedagogy” and “shot o’clock” as their graduate studies department covers the bill for three days of drinking and readings in the Windy City. Chicagoans beware. They are coming. And they’re bringing manuscripts. Really really bad manuscripts

Next: It kind of depends on how my week goes. Certainly on the list: tenured professors, people who post six panel memes on Facebook, anyone who works for Pitchfork, and Brian Burke’s podiatrist. 

Update: Part III: Dudes, can be found here.