Claire Comstock-Gay not only writes phenomenal horoscopes for our friends at the Rumpus as Madame Clairevoyant (seriously, check them out every Monday); she also graces us with some gorgeous fiction from time to time. Even so, my favorite works that she produces are the rare commentaries that she posts on her Tumblr, which is otherwise a heady mixture of Moonstruck fandom, reading logs, and absorbing miscellany. The crowning jewel among these—”probably my life’s work”—is Claire’s fledgling Anti-Genius concept, which seems to resonate more robustly every day.
[T]he original and most basic point of Anti-Genius is that producing great art does not excuse a person from the responsibilities of being human. The most basic point of Anti-Genius is that good literature is the most important thing in the world to me BUT STILL people are more important…. Anti-Genius means that the wives matter, the girlfriends matter, the kids matter, what is even the point, otherwise. Anti-Genius means that art is the most important thing there is but it is never that important.
In the name of Anti-Genius, Claire takes on the likes of Geniuses Leo Tolstoy (“my #1 enemy”), Woody Allen, Harold Bloom, and all the brilliant artists who cast shadows upon other peoples’ lives in order to brighten their own. Her project begs the question of how accountable an artistic community should be to individuals who are forcefully shoved into its margins by its brightest stars. In an effort to know more about this project, I asked Claire to hash out the idea with me while I made some weird cookies (turmeric with coconut and ginger, FYI).
Soleil Ho: OK, so what is Anti-Genius all about?
Claire Comstock-Gay: At its core, Anti-Genius is a project against the cultural myth of the Artist/Genius as a fundamentally different kind of person than the rest of us. We’re willing to forgive so much cruelty and so much really terrible behavior if we imagine that it’s coming from a Genius (particularly high profile examples are Roman Polanski & Woody Allen, etc, but it extends a lot farther than that, I think). It’s such a seductive myth, that if your art is just good enough, you can transcend the rules that apply to the rest of humanity.
SH: Where do you think that tendency to forgive comes from?
CCG: I don’t totally know! A few ideas though: 1. We are very moved by like Annie Hall or Anna Karenina or whatever, and want to be able to enjoy the art we like in peace. It’s a bummer to be asked to think about how F Scott Fitzgerald treated Zelda when we’re just trying to enjoy Tender Is The Night. 2. Since most of the capital-G Geniuses in our culture are white men, and since we tend in general to scrutinize the behavior of white men much less than we would anyone else, it’s unsurprising that it works this way for writers and artists too! 3. [i had another thing i was gonna say but it is gone from my head now but when i remember i will say it]
SH: It’s almost like the audience is willing to sacrifice a lot in the pursuit of pleasure. But definitely, it seems like we’re more willing to sacrifice certain types of people over others
CCG: Definitely. When I talk about this with people in my real life, they tend to get really defensive– “what, you want me to sacrifice my enjoyment of art??? What, I’m not allowed to enjoy anything anymore? What, you only like art that expresses LIBERAL VIEWPOINTS that you AGREE with? Why are you trying to take away my pleasure? Why are you trying to sanitize art???” And I mean, it just seems so outrageous that we’re so fixated on this idea of loss, when like Toni Morrison exists in the world!
SH: Could a lot of this come down to a fear of guilt, you think? The fear of acknowledging complicity? Which also seems endemic to a world in which the alienation of a person from their labor is staus quo, right?
CCG: Yes definitely! Though I think–and I’m not totally sure about this one; I’m curious to know what you think about this–guilt and the fear of acknowledging complicity factor a lot more strongly into current discussions of abuse by artists. (I’m thinking of Woody Allen, I’m thinking of everything that’s been happening in alt lit right now.) With someone like Tolstoy (my #1 enemy, and the example I keep coming back to, sorry everyone), Tolstoy’s wife barely even factors into the picture at this point in history. She was a real person, but we are far enough removed from her that it’s hard to feel guilt or complicity at all? We can’t imagine a cultural landscape without War and Peace, and therefore Tolstoy’s personal life doesn’t matter; it was a kind of necessary evil to get the Classic Literature out of him.
SH: To break this down a little though, what does it mean to read Tolstoy while acknowledging the humanity of Sophia Tolstoy?
CCG: (do you mean what would it look like to read tolstoy while acknowledging her humanity, or what are the implications of trying to do that?)
SH: Both! (Hehehe.) Basically I am wondering if that is even possible! Because I think the key question for Anti-Genius is, how can we love good art by bad people? Or is it impossible to get out of this with a good conscience?
CCG: Ah yeah, definitely the key question. I think about it all the time, but have not found a way out yet. I’m always saying, and I mean it, that I don’t care if a person is really moved by Anna Karenina. That’s ok! I don’t want to be dogmatic about it! I’m just so sick of the Good Art = Good Person equation. But then, is that really true? After knowing what we know about these artists, what does it mean about us when we love their work anyway? Probably impossible to get out with a good conscience, which is probably inevitable and ok? I’m not sure. Like, we’re all complicit in so much already, and is the point of art really for us to be able to consume with a clean conscience The Anti-Genius project: making everyone SO UNCOMFORTABLE, maybe.
SH: Right, like is the whole premise of wanting to have one’s hands clean fucked up already? But if so, what should ideally come out of this collective discomfort?
CCG: Right!! Our hands are always already not clean, and it’s our desire for them to be that leads us to this forgiveness of the artists we love. (Or not even forgiveness in some cases, but refusal to acknowledge that any behavior was wrong to begin with.) I mean, ultimately, I really want to destroy the myth that a bad life makes a better artist. Or that a bad life is an intrinsic part of being an artist. It’s so untrue, and we all want to keep believing in it! But I just want artists to know that they are human, and they’re living in the real world, and what they do matters, and we see it and we care. I want people (young women, in particular!!!) to know that it matters when their art boyfriends treat them terribly, and we see it and we care.
SH: Historical figures’ individuality aside, our continued forgiveness of their behavior can also serve as implicit permission for contemporary artists to do the same things
CCG: YES exactly! (I was going to get into that earlier and got sidetracked by Tolstoy rage (just regular day-to-day life for me!), but YES.)
SH: Because it worries me how often abusers continue to get invited to things, continue to be lauded despite what they do. Their art precedes their acts, and perhaps it should be the other way around. “The serial rapist X, who also writes poetry.”
CCG: RIGHT. I am always dreaming about stuff like that on “About the Author” pages in books. “X, who abuses his girlfriends, has published 3 collections of short stories and is working on his first novel. He lives in Brooklyn.”
SH: Yes. I feel like Anti-Genius depends on an artist living their life in public though. Or at least, it depends on the artist’s victims having access to public fora.
CCG: Yeah, I was just going to say that! Because I keep reaching to Sophia Tolstoy and Zelda Fitzgerald as historical examples, when clearly there are so many more, we/I just don’t know about them.
SH: Right, because silencing takes so many forms. Like, it’s horrifying that people are only talking about Bill Cosby because of Hannibal Buress.
CCG: Right! Because our tacit forgiveness of someone like Bill Cosby is actively silencing people.
SH: Nobody likes a party pooper.
CCG: Which like, I get it, but also it seems so outrageous that we’re still so fixated on defending Bill Cosby and Woody Allen when there is SO MUCH other art that exists in the world, so much of which is just as good, just as funny, etc etc etc, and also does not rely on supporting abusers.
SH: What if the abuse is intrinsic to the kind of art that is valued? If you think about “gaze” and about ways in which oppression is built into art forms, it makes sense that this would be enable the exploitative genius to thrive.
CCG: Right. Oppression is built into the way the world operates right now, why should art work any differently? But of course we THINK that art works differently. Which goes back to the whole myth of the artist as a separate kind of person.
SH: It’s certainly damning to any idea of a true “alt” anything.
CCG: Ha, getting really dark now! It’s very true though.
SH: I think we need less hope in art. Because hope that art is somehow “different” elides all of the darkness. So in a way, I interpret Anti-Genius as a more pessimistic view of art: the human spirit may be transmitted through a bad person’s work, but that shouldn’t necessarily matter.
CCG: I think that’s true probably! And at the same time though I recognize a kind of naive optimism in myself, and in this obsessive project of shit-talking practically every male writer in the canon. Because in spite of it all, art still MATTERS to me, GOOD art still matters to me, otherwise why would I even care. I’m not sure.
SH: Your shit-talking comes from a place of love
CCG: Haha! It really does though. A place of love and joy. Like, particularly as a person who used to be the kind of teenager who thought that it was really important for me to “understand” “great” “art,” and if it made me feel bad then it was a problem with me. It is a very joyful experience now to be really mean about some of these dude writers!
SH: Is there anything worth preserving in the Genius project?
CCG: I mean, I guess I think it is worth preserving the idea that art CAN take us outside the boundaries of our lives, it CAN transcend the world we live in, it CAN make us bigger than ourselves, though often it does not do these things. But that’s not quite the Genius project, anyway, so probably no?
SH: I’m also thinking about the deification of artists by critics, fans, art-viewers….
CCG: I don’t know, I think that any individual person loving and revering any individual artist (FOR EXAMPLE: I think Helen Oyeyemi is a genius, I genuinely do) is really different than the cultural machinery that gives us the Genius.