The Perils of Snark

Meanness in art is cheap and easy. In fact, all forms of meanness, sarcasm and derision, which I call “snark,” attract negative attention just like any other form of sensationalism does. Even more important, there is also a significant danger in snark. It is the danger that comes with equating one’s life and art in a romantic way. Snarky people make snarky art. The problem arises when the art begins to justify the lifestyle.

Galway Kinnell, in his most recent book of poems, gave a brilliant excoriation of what Shelley deemed “radiant desire,” in pursuit of which Shelley left a wake of human wreckage which Kinnell details, lamenting its similarity to his own dabbling in debauchery, in the poem simply titled “Shelley.” Bottom line: the art does not justify the man.

I am not necessarily advocating responsibility in art. I am advocating responsibility in life. Making art is only a subset of human experience; any idealistic notion otherwise is simply narcissistic. Most of the arguments for why being screwed up and snarky does not necessarily make you a better artist run along parallel lines to the argumentation for why using drugs does not necessarily make you a better artist.

Foremost among them is the perceptual difference: enmeshed in personal drama or high on substances, one perceives the work forged in the white heat of the moment to be thrilling, new and significant. The truth is that very rarely has such work ever jumped the gap between author and audience to create any lasting impression on anyone other than its maker.

Yet snark is seductive. One benefit of sarcasm, for example, is that one can slip out from underneath any statement, like a dirty sheet, the moment it comes under attack. Yet in the end, such constant shape-shifting can cause us to lose awareness of anything like a central self. Such destabilization has real consequences.

Furthermore, the reasons for being snarky are the reasons for being exclusive: hurt and insecurity. The consequences of glorifying, rather than coming to terms with and resolving emotional pain bear out not only on the page but in the harsh realities of life. One of the greatest examples of perilous snark can be seen in the modern deification of Sylvia Plath, who stands to many as an icon of tragic genius when, in fact, she should serve only as a warning against revising one’s work without revising one’s life.