Some people seem to think that Jim Carrey's work as a visual artist is less impressive than his work as a film actor. I have no opinion on the matter, though I do believe The Cable Guy is massively underrated.
I do think the Guardian's observation is a bit harsh. ("If his art helps and heals him, that’s great. He just should not be showing this stuff to anyone and expecting anything except derision. Crudely coloured Jesus-like faces, lurish fluorescent portraits, random abstractions and kitshch clay figures—this is a joke. Please, say it’s a joke.") Something about the series of political "cartoons" Carrey has been posting lately, though not massively technically or indeed analytically sophisticated, seems to be very much in keeping with the state of the art for political commentary in the age of anti-Trump resistance.
Let’s Make A Deal: You’ll be a real world leader. I’ll sway the midterm elections. And together we will save the world from the bloodthirsty Canadians. pic.twitter.com/kHa1w3ye03
— Jim Carrey (@JimCarrey) June 12, 2018
Everything about these works is tabula rasa, right down to the word "CREEP" daubed across Paul Ryan's chest. There's no need for a sophisticated brushstroke, no need to go digging for meaning, not nobody, not nohow. You don't need Breughel to parse the Trump administration's commitment to corruption. You don't even need Jim Carrey.
But Jim Carrey is indisputably who we've got.
It tends to be newsworthy when a celebrity broadcasts their political affinities, especially when that celebrity has traditionally appealed to a broader constituency than the 25.1 percent of the country that supports a controversial president. Which is to say this: People apparently like to read about celebrities who are willing to risk alienating people who spend money on their entertainment products by publicly disagreeing with them about politics.
Maybe it's true that celebrity political endorsements are meaningful in some way, and not just a cynical way for journalists to squeeze one more drop of moisture from the washcloth of our collective obsession with fame. I don't believe they are, but I have been wrong lots of times, and about important things.
Maybe it's also true that art has a duty to reflect the conditions of upheaval, inequality, and injustice that prevail in the times that produce it. I believe it's less a question of duty than of inevitability—that art made well can only reflect its times, and that the impulse to reverse that process almost always yields bad art—but again, I'm wrong all the damn time.
One thing I know for sure: The idea that art's noblest purpose is as a vehicle to demonstrate the artist's outrage over social conditions reminds me of a passage in I Married a Communist, the somewhat underrated (inasmuch as anything he wrote can be called "underrated," but this one came right after American Pastoral and right before The Human Stain, sooooo...) 1998 novel by the late Philip Roth.
In the book, aging novelist Nathan Zuckerman remembers the period during his youth when he fell under the fatherly tutelage of a hard-left, staunchly pro-labor radio actor named Iron Rinn (a.k.a. Ira Ringold) who later faces disgrace when outed (accurately) as a Communist during the red scare of the 1950s.
Before all that happens, Nathan goes to college at the University of Chicago, and brings along a copy of a radio play he'd written at the age of 15 as a possible submission for Ira's weekly program, The Free and the Brave. Ira had read aloud from the play, which bears the unimproveable title The Stooge of Torquemada, at a dinner party full of fellow radio stars and writers, extolling its virtues and investing its hard-nosed language—"Take a bow, GI. Take a bow, little guy. The superman of tomorrow lies at the feet of you comments men this afternoon."—with the same reverence he'd apply to the work of Norman Corwin, Howard Fast, or any of the other jingoistic writers Nathan had knowingly aped in writing it.
In an effort to curry favor with his new writing teacher, the cape-wearing, cane-toting aesthete Leo Glucksmann, Nathan slips him a copy of the play along with an assigned essay on Aristotle's Poetics. Glucksmann's contemptuous response is Nathan's introduction to a world of ideas about art bigger than those he's encountered at home in Newark, NJ.
This tirade against The Stooge of Torquemada is the first time anyone has ever even suggested to Nathan that there may be something more to art than the transparent advertisement of its author's exemplary ideological stance. The polemic reveals "a real adult critic exposing me to the dangers of the tutelage I'd been under with Ira, teaching me to assume a position less rigid in confronting literature."
It also serves as an essential counterpoint to some ideas that seem to have become intractably cemented in the public imagination about what art—whether created by Jim Carrey, Childish Gambino, Sanford Biggers, Barbara Kruger, Yayoi Kusama, or anyone else—is for. Leo's speech has been on my mind a lot in the past few years, and so of course I returned to it when Roth died, partly because reading Roth is one of the great pleasures in life, and partly because I worry that the ideas evinced in it died with him:
"Art as a weapon?" he said to me, the word "weapon" rich with contempt and itself a weapon. "Art as taking the right stand on everything? Art as the advocate of good things? Who taught you all this? Who taught you art is slogans? Who taught you art is in the service of 'the people'? Art is in the service of art—otherwise there is no art worthy of anyone's attention. What is the motive for writing serious literature, Mr. Zuckerman? To disarm the enemies of price control? The motive for writing serious literature is to write serious literature.
"You want to rebel against society? I'll tell you how to do it—write well. You want to embrace a lost cause? Then don't fight in behalf of the laboring class. They're going to make out fine. They're going to fill up on Plymouths to their heart's content. The workingman will conquer us all—out of his mindlessness will flow the slop that is this philistine country's cultural destiny. We'll soon have something in this country far worse than the government of the peasants and the workers—we will have the culture of the peasants and the workers. You want a lost cause to fight for? Then fight for the word. Not the high-flown word, not the inspiring word, not the pro-this and anti-that word, not the word that advertises to the respectable that you are a wonderful, admirable, compassionate person on the side of the downtrodden and the oppressed. No, for the word that tells the literate few condemned to live in America that you are on the side of the word.
"This play of yours? It's crap. It's awful. It's infuriating. It is crude, primitive, simple-minded, propagandistic crap. It blurs the world with words, and it reeks to high heaven of your virtue. Nothing has a more sinister effect on art than an artist's desire to prove that he's good, the terrible temptation of idealism! You must achieve mastery over your idealism, over your virtue as well as your vice, aesthetic mastery over everything that drives you to write in the first place: your outrage, your politics, your grief, your love. Start preaching and taking positions, start seeing your own perspective as superior, and you're worthless as an artist, worthless and ludicrous. Why do you write these proclamations, because you look around and you're 'shocked?' Because you look around and you're 'moved'? People give up too easily and fake their feelings. They want to have feelings right away, and so 'shocked' and 'moved' are the easiest. The stupidest. Except for the rare case, Mr. Zuckerman, shock is always fake. Proclamations. Art has no use for proclamations! Get your lovable shit out of this office, please."
(P.S. If you're an audiobook enthusiast, there is no greater reader-writer union than Ron Silver and Philip Roth. ESPECIALLY on I Married a Communist. Just saying.)