Thomas Mann began his Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man as a young man before WWI and finished it in old age. It is a series of stories of deceit, heists, cabals, double-dealings, some of them amorous, none of them lethal, perpetrated by the charming adventurer Felix Krull. In various interviews, Mann made it clear that he was playing with the element of fraud that was – often? usually? always? – involved in creating serious art. Who was better qualified to write such a book than a man who was a great artist himself. Goethe said he could not think of a crime he was not capable of committing.
Most of us who have seen gallons of paint splashed on a canvas have wondered whether we were being duped. “I could do this myself,” we said. And we were outraged when the canvas was auctioned off for thousands. And when John Cage wrote music consisting of silence he was playing with the same idea as Thomas Mann’s.
If a composer has a choice between going up or down and chooses up for no recognizable reason, is he a crook? Or if a painter gives a girl two noses, or if a poet writes a line that – to most of us – makes no sense at all should he – or she – be locked up?
Before you say yes, please consider this. No painter, composer or poet who wishes to be taken seriously works out of context, unhistorically. Each creation is designed to follow a precedent or model, to comment on it, add to it, do better. And wanting to show off is not a crime.
All the others, of course, should roast in eternal purgatory.