5 Ways the Arts Show Us How to Hold Political Grudges

Paul Ryan ACA repeal
This is why we hold political grudges.
Paul Ryan and Congressional Republicans share a hearty laugh after a 2016 vote to take away people's health care. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When Ronald Reagan died, he was treated as a hero. When Dick Cheneydies — almost certainly, alas, not in prison in The Hague; to our eternal shame—he will undoubtedly be treated like a hero. When John McCain dies, he will undergo nothing short of apotheosis. I fully expect public schools, if not airports, to be named in honor of Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell. This is all a significant problem. If the misery and filth that are the true legacy of Ronald Reagan were ever properly acknowledged in contemporary discourse — much less punished — we might not be in the dumpster fire of governance, ethics and humanity in which we’ve found ourselves consistently since the 1980s, somehow today more than ever. This is why it’s vital that we nurture our political grudges — so we don’t forget, so we’re ready for the next assholes. The arts, as always, are a valuable resource. I’m going to look at examples from mythology, architecture (kind of), opera and more than one literary genre to find some educational, entertaining examples of the power of grudges.

J. A. M. Whistler brings humor to his grudges.

Political grudges are helpful and productive. They ensure grudge holders pay attention and get involved, communicate with their representatives, stand up for important values in public and never ever miss a chance to vote. If nothing else is sufficiently motivational, there’s always a righteous, angry grudge to help save the republic. And the republic absolutely needs saving. (I’m doing my part; I’ve argued in the past for political grudges against George W. Bush and Sandra Day O’Connor, so that’s taken care of!) A grudge is an investment in remembering what has been, and continues to be, important while the circus works to distract us. Thus, these political grudges are of even greater importance during the shatteringly irresponsible and mendacious Trump era than previously.

Rehearsing the litany of grudge-worthy intentions and behaviors visited upon us by Washington — I’m focusing on Republicans here; the two sides are not remotely parallel and I have a grudge against people who try to argue that “both parties do it.” — would be overwhelming, so I’ll just skim the surface of the fetid sludge that is American politics to clarify why I’m advocating political grudges. Most immediately, there’s the fact that the Republican Party has spent the past six months compulsively trying to take health insurance, which is to say health care, away from tens of millions of Americans and crash the entire health care system for everyone else. And not, as some conservatives are occasionally able to say with a straight face, to “improve” the Affordable Care Act; the singular goal of this ghoulish plan to leave the sick to die in the street is opulent tax cuts for billionaires who can obviously well afford to pay their full share of taxes and STFU. How’s that for stating the terms of a grudge?!

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Republicans now set national science policy, despite officially refusing to believe in evolution or climate change. Republicans confirmed President Trump’s cabinet full of reactionaries and comic book villains — including would-be EPA assassin Scott Pruitt at the Environmental “Protection” Agency and the ignorant, malevolent Jesus-freak Betsy Devos in charge of the Department of Education, in charge of school. We’ve arrived at a point when George Will himself is declaring in the pages of the Washington Post that the “GOP has become the party of the grotesque.” And George Will would know. What is it like not to hold political grudges against these people?

1) Prometheus and Sisyphus

Rubens Prometheus Bound political grudges
Peter Paul Rubens, Prometheus Bound, 1611-12 / via

The ancient Greeks were fans of a grudge. The myths of Prometheus and Sisyphus are both essentially grudge stories, which is to say, jaunty tales of elaborate, interminable punishment. Prometheus angered Zeus by stealing fire from the Olympian gods and giving that forbidden technology to humans. Zeus punished him in a way as creative as it is gory: Prometheus was chained to a mountain where, daily, an eagle would attack him and eat his liver. Being immortal, this did not kill him, and his liver would magically grow back each night, fresh for the eagle the next day, every day, forever.

The grudge against Sisyphus is evocative because it’s redundant — he’s already dead. He had been something of a trickster, outsmarting and embarrassing the gods as he avoided settling in to the underworld. The gods regained control and saw to it that he was punished with failure and frustration even after death. That’s commitment to a grudge. They punished him with the hard labor of pushing a heavy boulder up a mountain, only to have it slip away from him and roll back down the base of the incline every time, forever.

2) The Hess Triangle in Greenwich Village

Hess Spite Triangle political grudges
The Hess “Spite” Triangle / via

From the cultural grandeur of ancient mythology, let’s turn to the triviality of tiny plots of New York City real estate. On 7th Avenue, across from Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village, you can find the Hess Triangle — or, as it’s more colorfully known, the Hess Spite Triangle. The “spite house” is a genre of architecture that includes structures specifically designed to ruin someone else’s plans — to prevent the construction of another building, to stick it to “the man” and his so-called eminent domain, to ratchet up a familial or neighborly feud, simply to be upsettingly ugly in the sight-line of someone specific. A spite house is the reification of a grudge at architectural scale.

The Hess Triangle represents a building-sized grudge, but the plot itself is only around two square feet and flush with the sidewalk. A David Hess owned a whole apartment building at the site, which was condemned in 1910 to expand the subway. This fun-size triangle was the only part of the original property outside of the zone needed for the subway; the city hoped Hess would just donate it and go away. Instead, he declined to make the gift and installed a mosaic staking his claim: “Property of the Hess estate, which has never been dedicated for public purposes.” I’m on the city’s side in this case — clinging litigiously to vestigial private property rights vs. public transportation and public sidewalks — but Hess provides a memorable grudge anecdote. Moreover, this kind of determined stubbornness sets a good example for the rest of us holding onto political grudges as long as it takes to be effective.

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3) Roald Dahl’s Short Story “The Devious Bachelor”

I’m about to utterly spoil a short story by Roald Dahl, but Dahl has been dead for nearly 30 years and the story was published in 1953, so, really, you’ve had your chance — and now you’ve been warned, so no grudges against me! In “The Devious Bachelor,” Dahl establishes Lionel Lampson as an aesthete, a connoisseur, a snob and a bore; he’s both the subject and object of grudges in just a few pages of narrative. The same night Lionel discovers that his close friend Janet, a younger, female friend, has been saying cruel things about him behind his back, he learns of the unique painting process used by society portraitist John Royden. Royden, who only takes female clients, first paints his sitters nude; once the paint dries, he paints a layer of undergarments over the body, and then a gown in the final layer.

Nursing a smoldering grudge against Janet and her gossip, Lionel secretly contrives to commission a Royden portrait of her. Several months later, he throws a dramatic dinner party at which he reveals his nude portrait of Janet; Lionel had very carefully used painting conservation techniques to remove the layers of over-painting, leaving only the bottom layer exposed to Janet and his guests. Scandal, of course, erupts at the misogynistic expression of his grudge and Lionel flees to the country to lay low. But then he receives such a nice note from Janet, forgiving him, claiming delight at his clever practical joke and clearing the air with a gift of caviar, Lionel’s favorite. Relieved, he indulges in the delicacy, and the story ends as he mysteriously begins to feel unwell, the implication being that he succumbed to Janet’s grudge, which she expressed with poisoned caviar. While neither revenge porn nor murder is appropriate grudge behavior, you have to admire the creativity and the commitment to process.

4) Giuseppe Verdi’s Opera La forza del destino

Verdi’s opera La forza del destino (The Force of Destiny) adds an almost metaphysical edge to the harboring of a grudge. The feuding characters keep on running away from each other only to find themselves brought back together more and more improbably, again and again until most of them kill each other. Opera! In 18th-century Spain, Leonora and Alvaro are in love and plan to elope because her father has forbidden their marriage. Her father catches them as they’re leaving, and he is killed in what the libretto presents as a genuine accident. Nevertheless, Leonora’s brother Carlo swears vengeance.

Leonora enters a monastery to live out her life as a hermit in rural isolation and regretful guilt, a sort of self-grudge, so to speak. Alvaro and Carlo, both under assumed names, find themselves reunited in the military without recognizing each other. They become faithful friends and comrades, and Carlo only discovers Alvaro’s real identity when he and Alvaro (mistakenly) believe Alvaro has been mortally wounded and Carlo sees a picture of Leonora among his friend’s papers.

Carlo wants to kill Alvaro with his own hands.

Carlo’s grudge is persistent: rather than taking their camaraderie and Alvaro’s proximity to death as a reason to put the past behind them, Carlo’s only thought when he learns that Alvaro will recover from his injuries is of the satisfaction he will feel when he kills him with his own hands. Their fight is broken up and they go their separate ways; Alvaro enters a monastery — coincidentally, the same monastery as Leonora, of course, but neither is aware because of her hermetic solitude in the mountains. It takes five more years of Carlo’s monomaniacal commitment to the grudge, but he tracks Alvaro down and they finally have their duel, away from the monastery…in the mountains.

Alvaro wants no part of this duel, but Carlo forces him to fight and Alvaro ends up mortally wounding (really this time) Carlo. Horrified that he has now killed his true love’s father and brother, he goes looking for help and finds Leonora in her cave, still praying, after all these years, to assuage her guilt (the extraordinarily famous, extraordinarily lovely aria “Pace, pace, mio dio”). They’re both surprised, but Leonora runs off to comfort her long lost brother, dying nearby. As she cradles him, with his last breath, does he apologize for his behavior and forgive hers? No. He stabs her in the heart. Without condoning the (fictional) violence, of course, the perseverance, the dedication, the professionalism of Carlo’s grudge is nothing short of inspirational.

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5) J. A. M. Whistler’s The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, 1892 edition

Whistler cover political grudges

The American expatriate painter J. A. M. Whistler is possibly better known for his grudges than his paintings. You might be most familiar with the artist’s mother, but that’s hardly his most exciting or his most controversial work. His most infamous painting is Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket, 1875, now at the Detroit Institute of Arts. This was a significantly avant-garde painting in 1875 — it’s still avant-garde. It is a painting of fireworks over a London pleasure garden along the Thames, a night scene, as the nocturne of the title suggests, and Whistler displays little interest in depicting specific details of the subject or creating any kind of traditional formal composition. This image was definitely too “modern” for art critic John Ruskin, who disparaged the painting, saying, “I have seen, and heard, much of cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”

Whistler political grudges
J. A. M. Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket, 1875 / via

Whistler sued Ruskin for libel, put on a brilliant artistic performance in court and wrote a book about it and many, many others of his critical grievances. The artist won his court case, but was awarded just one farthing in damages. He still had to pay the court costs, so his legal victory ended up nearly financially ruinous, which does paint a picture of what the jury must have thought of the obstreperous, righteous snob on the stand. The obstreperous, righteous snob in his own book, though, comes across as a sort of brilliantly charming contrarian folk hero for the primacy of painting over criticism; he called the book The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, and it’s a delight. Whistler brings humor to his grudges, which might be the most important lesson on the subject we can learn from the arts.

The book begins with a not-necessarily-objective transcript of the court case. After that, there are reprints of reviews and Whistler’s brutally condescending replies in the form of letters to newspapers. The artist is so committed to his epic, promiscuous grudges that he includes a few passages consisting of pages-long lists of mean pull-quotes from bad reviews of his work by critic after critic. Those reviews, some spiteful, some just missing the point and being smug about it, are a badge of honor for Whistler’s artistic self-assurance.

It’s his book, so Whistler remains in control of the narrative to settle his scores. He annotates some of the most disparaging assessments of his work by outright mocking the critics in footnotes. When critics are pompous about their expertise and what they find objectionable in Whistler’s work, he helpfully provides quotations from that same critic praising mediocre artists and disparaging objective geniuses such as Rembrandt, Corot or Velasquez, occasionally with a small additional commentary. Quoting Ruskin’s assessment that Rembrandt’s use of color is “wrong from beginning to end,” he dryly identifies the critic as “John Ruskin, Art Authority.”

Whistler gives a master class on fighting back with maximum pettiness. The expanded second edition, overseen and designed by Whistler himself, begins with several pages concerning the multiple attempts by Whistler’s former assistant to publish pirated copies of the first edition. He has a grudge about his book about his grudges. He comes off half as a rigorous, snarky self-defender, half as a relentless internet troll, avant la lettre. Many of Whistler’s grudges were reciprocal. He sassed none other than Oscar Wilde, repeatedly, and, more impressive, held his own, both morally and rhetorically, when Wilde responded with his own snark.

Whistler notwithstanding, political grudges are not the same as personal ones. I’m not advocating that anyone indulge in seething resentment toward their friends or family. Even in the arts, it’s almost always better and smarter to transcend obstacles with grace and just keep making work, rather than getting mired in grievances. That’s obviously a better path for an artist to follow, but in the realm of politics, holding a grudge is all of our responsibility — and privilege.