Today is the birthday of Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist who is widely celebrated as a creative genius, a feminist icon, and a Latina/Mexican culture hero. Salma Hayek made a biopic about her and she's known for quotes such as "I paint flowers so they will not die."
She is also a classic reminder that artists can be unbelievably stupid and grotesque in their political commitments. As committed communists, she and her husband, fellow artist Diego Rivera, were pals with Leon Trotsky for a spell while he lived in Mexico. As an architect of one of "history's worst totalitarian regimes," Trotsky is a bad enough egg to roll with (Kahlo even had an affair with him, but as Woody Allen is fond of saying, "The heart wants what it wants").
But Kahlo and Rivera soon grew disenchanted with Trotsky and became admirers of the man who commissioned his murder, Joseph Stalin. A low-ball estimate of deaths under Stalin is around 9 million while other numbers come in around 20 million and more.
So take a long look at "Self-Portrait with Stalin," painted by Kahlo in 1954, soon before her death that same year. That is some fucked-up art right there. Uncle Joe had died the year before and only the most deluded bitter-clingers were under any illusions about his reign of terror.
Think of say, Andy Warhol's Mao series or his Mao wallpaper, in which another homicidal tyrant is reduced to kitsch by being treated like a cartoonish movie star (Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor) or turned into an absurdist wall decoration. With Kahlo, there's no critical distance or critique of Stalin. Kahlo remained a true believer in a truly godawful ideology her whole life.
Sadly, many great artists have been suckers for terrible, terrible politics. Nobel Prize-winning author Knud Hamsun wrote an obit for Hitler that is equalled only by W.E.B. DuBois's for Stalin ("He was attacked and slandered as few men of power have been; yet he seldom lost his courtesy and balance"!). Richard Strauss was tight with the Nazi regime, Ezra Pound did actual propaganda broadcasts for Mussolini and how many creative types still swoon for Fidel Castro? More recently, the Austrian novelist Peter Handke, a perennial shortlister for a Nobel, figuratively blew kisses to Slobodan Milosevic during his war-crimes trial.
The politics of our artists—whether high-brow as in the case of Kahlo or low-brow in the case of, say, David Allan Coe—are all too often far more disappointing than the very worst of their creative works. That doesn't mean their art or thought must be rejected out of hand (a great example of separating the two involves public reaction to a mural in Detroit by Kahlo's husband). But it's always worth trying to understand art in the context of a creator's time and place while we figure out whether and how we want to make use of it. All too often, we sacralize art and turn artists into high priests and priestesses who are somehow channeling the Divine, touching the Infinite, and tuning into the Cosmic.
Which is usually just as much a load of shit as Kahlo's "Self-Portrait with Stalin." Art, music, literature, and other forms of creative expression become far more interesting—and far more frustrating and infuriating—when we take into account the stupidities of the people who create them. Knowing that J.D. Salinger drank his own urine, Walt Whitman called blacks "baboons," and Dalton Trumbo wrote his anti-war masterpiece Johnny Got His Gun to keep America out of World War II as long as the Nazis and Soviets were at peace doesn't make our lives or hero worship any easier.
But if we wanted easy, we wouldn't be consuming art now, would we?