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The International Writers Magazine
: Art Archives

On Heroes in Art
Eric D. Lehman

We look up to heroes and see extraordinary lives. But although their accomplishments may be extraordinary, there is nearly no one who can stand up under scrutiny.

Ken Wilber

For example, I love the poetry of W.B. Yeats. I revere and adore the beautiful words. But if I look too closely at his life I find a weakling when it came to love, a grasping personality full of low-level magical thinking, and a failure in many ways, at least in the eyes of someone worshipping him as a hero. Even someone whom I revere like Gandhi made various mistakes, and one could find various faults with his choices and opinions, particularly with his treatment of women. But having artistic heroes is a chancy prospect at best. I had a student who absolutely worshipped the tragic poet Anne Sexton. Need I say that she emulated this suicidal author in one too many ways? Artists are notoriously bad models for us to set our life-clocks to.

My other students’ heroes may be even more dicey. They often choose artists that are still alive, people who can still screw up in bigger ways. Whenever we look up to a current musician or politician or sports figure, that person is bound to disappoint us in some way. And thus my students end up defending liars and murderers, because their hero-ideal cannot reconcile itself with the cold human reality. Or at a more representative level, many of the people of my generation worshipped the creator of Star Wars, George Lucas, as a genius, and when he disappointed them with new, mediocre films that disturbed the myths they grew on, felt betrayed.

Whether all judgment is opinion or whether there is some absolute good in the world, we all can agree that hero-worship at least is a matter of perspective. For example, one of my friends was a fan of the trans-personal psychology writer, Ken Wilber. He did not think that Wilber was some sort of demigod, but certainly was someone to look up to, to emulate, to venerate. When asked who his heroes were, Mr. Wilber made the list. Coincidentally, I had another friend who had met "Ken" a few times, living in the artist’s haven of Boulder, Colorado. His view of the man was radically different. "That guy hits on all the young girls on campus." He continued with a story that did not make the brilliant philosopher look very brilliant, scoffing at the man’s validity as a source of knowledge.

Both of my friends made the same mistake. Ken Wilber’s philosophy must be judged on its own, not in the context of his personal life, whether he is an enlightened seeker or not. During the so-called music revolution of the 1990s, the band Pearl Jam achieved what all struggling artists yearn for, stardom. But in response to journalists and fans asserting that he would "save" music, Eddie Vedder took an unusual position and demurred, telling fans that: "There should be no messiahs in music. The music should be the messiah." And that is what we must attempt to do, venerate the work rather than the worker.

Can the mistake my students and friends made really be avoided? Some would say that we humans need hero-worship, brought up as children looking up to those older and wiser than us. Both our culture and our biology seem to be against us. Krishnamurti refused to have students, said he was no one’s guru, thought that we shouldn’t have heroes or idols, and yet people still tried to emulate him by frantically doing hatha yoga and becoming vegetarians. Something in us wants to follow, to have heroes to look up to, models on which to base our lives.

Very well, then, but as Krishnamurti attested, these other people should not be our heroes. They are only humans, after all, whatever we imagine about their personal wisdom or virtue. However, what they create is not: their ideas, their images, their words. As John Keats tells us, art is the stuff of immortality, not our own transient lives. And thus George Lucas is not the hero, Star Wars is. Anne Sexton’s satirical poetry should be the focus, not her troubled life. Next time you want to venerate something, start with the row of books on your shelf, with the art hanging on your walls, with the ideas passed to you by those who have known the bittersweet disorder of existence. Because although perfection in life is a dream of madness, perfection in art is something we can at least hope to find.

© Eric D Lehman September 2005
Eric lectures at Bridgeport University
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