Biographer: Extreme homosexual promiscuity is the source of all creativity

Lincoln Kirstein co-founded, along with the great choreographer George Balanchine, the New York City Ballet, one of the supreme artistic enterprises of the 20th century (now sadly declined under Balanchine’s successor Peter Martins). I’ve never known anything about Lincoln Kirstein except for his impressive-sounding name. A new biography, The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein, by Martin Duberman, was reviewed by Dwight Garner in the April 29 New York Times Book Review. Garner writes:

Kirstein’s attraction to high art was matched by a lifelong obsession with low and sometimes dangerous gay sex, beginning at Harvard, where he prowled for rough trade in Widener Library. [LA asks: “rough trade” at Harvard in 1940?] In 1941 he married Fidelma Cadmus, and the two remained together for five decades, but Kirstein’s homosexuality was an all-but-open secret. In fact, “The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein” reads, at times, like a long string of late-night cruising scenes, visits to Turkish baths and assignations with young blonds. We even get celebrity cameos. Duberman reports that Kirstein went looking for sailors in Brooklyn with Sergei Eisenstein and—late in his life, pathetically, while directing one of his own plays at Harvard—tried to hit on a young Tommy Lee Jones. (Did Jones respond by bopping Kirstein between the eyebrows? Duberman doesn’t say.)

Duberman isn’t merely after titillation, though. He links Kirstein’s sexual obsessions, with grace and insight, to his other achievements. “As Lincoln well understood,” Duberman writes, “undomesticated adventurous anonymity and risk-taking were central not only to intensified erotic arousal but to profound creativity of any kind. Had timidity and adherence to convention been the key components of Lincoln’s personality, none of his high-flying, hazardous ventures would ever have gotten off the ground.”

In the liberal popular culture and especially the movies of the last 15 years, sex has been presented as literally salvific. But Duberman takes this wholesale substitution of sex for God, the good, the true, and the beautiful several steps further. For Duberman the key to all true creativity is not just sex, but homosexual sodomy, and not just homosexual sodomy, but adventerous, anonymous, risky homosexual sodomy.

Isn’t liberal progress a great thing?

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Jim Kalb writes:

Isn’t Duberman notorious as an over-the-top propagandist for homosexuality? That’s not a handicap today I suppose.

I did like the reviewer’s attribution of “grace and insight” to such an unbelievably stupid claim. “Outrageous conduct is central to profound creativity of any kind, since timidity and adherence to convention don’t make for great achievement.” Who says the NYT isn’t the greatest newspaper in the world?

Laura W. writes:

The idea that narcissism and immorality are the well-spring of creativity is such a shop-worn cliche! People look at the moral imbecility of, say, Picasso and rashly conclude this was a necessary part of his creativity. Rarely is the opposite considered: that he might have been an even greater artist if he was able to empathize with others and was less of a sexual monster.

Robert Frost was rare among artists working in the ’40s and ’50s, a time when this idea of creativity became almost universal. He didn’t believe art justified, even demanded, an outrageous bohemian life. Friends actually urged him to leave his wife of many years because she was neither clever or pretty. He refused. Perhaps this in part accounts for his artistic stature? Perhaps this goodness made him a better artist?

The notion that creativity comes from the inner dynamics of the human personality permeates the views of critics and biographers. Is it possible it is wholly separate from these, that it is not created by the individual at all? As Tolkien said, “I am the sub-creator.”

LA replies:

Well that’s an interesting idea. But it makes it sound as though the individual artist is not the source of his own creativity at all—he is only an instrument of something higher. I don’t believe that. Take Shakespeare. The common view of him is something like Laura’s view: that he was simply the mirror of universal nature, and that his own individuality was not relevant to his creation. This theory is especially convenient when it comes to Shakespeare because virtually nothing is known about the personality of Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon and what is known does not fit the writer of the plays. As just one example among scores, what could be more unlike the sweet author of the plays than Shakespeare of Stratford’s grumpy will: “Cursed be him who moves my bones”? Charlton Ogburn’s great book, The Mysterious William Shakespeare (discussed in my reading list), shows that Shakespeare was not some impersonal voice of nature, but a distinct human being expressing himself in his works, as all artists do. Once you realize that Shakespeare was a real personality expressing himself through his works, all kinds of things about the plays start to make sense that did not make sense before. For example, the number of his characters who are melancholy, witty aristocrats and soldiers—it’s not just Hamlet who is like that, though he is the epitome of it.

Another example of the “impersonal vehicle” theory is Mozart. He is commonly treated today (and the movie version of Amadeus was the worst of this) him as though he were an idiot through whom great music flowed without his conscious participation. But to me the thing that most stands out about Mozart’s music is that he is an artist, consciously expressing and shaping certain sensibilities and experiences through everything he writes.

Now it’s true some artists seem more impersonal, Bach for example. Artists could probably be classified as being in a range from subjective to objective.

Laura replies:

I do mean that the individual artist is not the source of his own creativity, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t shaped by his individuality. Shakespeare’s creativity mirrored his personality, but didn’t spring from it. Many people have the same pressing inner tensions as great artists, but it never leads to artistic expression. They don’t have the gift. Shakepeare’s greatness also came from his ability to transcend the limits of his own experience. Of all great artists, he least expressed himself in the way we think of it today. The contemporary concept of art as a form of “self-expression” would have been alien to him. Given the range of personality in his works, he transcended the limits of his own experience. (The other artist who approached him in this regard was Dickens.) The more an artist pushes beyond himself, as well as expresses what he is, the greater he is. A culture that produces artists who believe in their utter autonomy and make a fetish of the artistic impulse eventually produces feeble stuff.

The distinction between a gift that comes from outside the artist and creativity that is only the wellspring of personality is important. It’s not that artists should see themselves as the impersonal tools of divine agents. But, artists who don’t view their ability as originating elsewhere often travel down the road to megalomania. An artist can be deeply neurotic without glorifying and sanctifying his neuroses.

LA replies:

Excellent points. Very interesting distinction between the creative talent that comes from outside the individual self (after all, has anyone ever created his own talent? that is a gift) and the individual self through which that talent is filtered and expressed.

When I said that Shakespeare or Mozart were expressing their individuality in their work, I did not mean that they were engaged in modern-type self-expression, only that their work naturally employed and expressed what was in them, making it part of something larger.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at May 04, 2007 11:33 AM | Send

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