Bruce Sterling and I are holding forth on the State of the World in our annual conversation on the WELL, with several other contributors joining in.
Speaking of art, the past, and its lessons for the future:
In my neighborhood in Turin, there’s a bronze statue to a statesman
called “Massimo d’Azeglio.” Massimo happened to be born a rich
Turinese aristocrat, but he always wanted to be a novelist and painter.
He married the daughter of the most famous novelist in Italy, and his
brother actually managed to become a painter.
Massimo himself never managed that. He wrote a few derivative
knock-off novels and he did a lot of weekend painting, but he happened
to be living in a time of national catastrophe and tremendous political
upheaval. So he enlisted in the cavalry, where he got shot in a
losing battle and never recovered his health. Then he got called into
politics, where the King made him Prime Minister because he was the
only courtier around who didn’t lie and cheat all the time.
Massimo is a great statesman and the father of Italian
Constitutionalism and all that, but I never stroll past his statue, and
in Turin I do that all the time, without a shudder of dread. That guy
was a born artist who was forced to become important because he was
never left alone to do what he personally wanted to do.
He put his bohemianism aside, and he became dutiful and responsible.
He made a big difference: he liberated a suffering people (for the
brief periods before they got stomped again), he forged a new national
consciousness, he signed a lot of budget bills, he sat around a lot of
smoke-filled tables with the rich and the well-born. The wife never
liked it much. There seems to have been a lot of trouble over that.
Massimo’s got a bronze painter’s palette and an open bronze book,
sculpted at the foot of his towering monument — ’cause his persecutors
knew he was an artist — but he’s never gonna be able to bend down
from his bronze heights of statesmanship and pick them up.
Given his noblesse oblige, I’m not sure that Massimo was ever allowed
an open choice about being powerful rather than being an artist, but
power is a form of bondage. No one who needs power and has it, ever
gets enough of it. Artists like to talk about their work, but powerful
people like to talk about their vacations.
To think that you can become powerful, and not become like that
personally, is like thinking you can knock back a gallon of Gentleman
Jack and not get drunk because you can write novels and paint. You can
write and paint, but that’s not what it is, that’s not what it means.