The headliner of this year's Arkansas Literary Festival in Little Rock come April is John Waters, the filmmaker who delights in upending the stuffy stereotypes of the art world, a culturally confined universe that may be roughly defined as whatever crowd-pleasers the museums are showing this year.
Mr. Waters has never fit in with that crowd or any other. Happy and indeed proud to offend all the current gods of art criticism and American respectables in general, Mr. Waters just keeps firing away with both candid little quips and full-scale production numbers. He still lives in old Baltimore, a most unfashionable city that somehow keeps setting the fashion -- in iconoclasts.
He's been delighting his fans at least since "Hairspray" was all the rage, though he's been keeping them waiting all too long for his next Feature Attraction, stirring fears that there won't be one. Maybe today's pop culture is already so outrageous it can't be spoofed, not even by John Waters -- but we live in hope, or maybe just anxiety. This long dry spell can't have been easy for him, either, even if he never appears without a hair out of place or his wardrobe mussed.
Call him a cultural saboteur, and American culture -- high, low and especially middle -- needs sabotaging regularly, just to let us more staid types know the thing is still alive. And will still jump when needled. And needling it has been something of the Baltimore elite's specialty, enraging the bourgeoisie even while the city itself sums up their comfortable culture.
Mr. Waters is the latest in a distinguished line of such cultural provocateurs going back to H.L. Mencken of the old Baltimore Sun, who also delighted in shocking more pedestrian minds. Much like the Sage of Baltimore, Mr. Waters, too, is an unabashed elitist with a habit of pulling the curtains back on our assumptions whether liberal or conservative or in-between, and telling us what we may very well know inside but might be too insecure to say ourselves. Happily, no political platitude is safe while he's still at large.
It's not easy to describe John Waters and his role in or maybe slightly out of American culture. Is he a satirist, social critic, aesthetician, or just sui generis? Why not all of the above? For example, consider his response when the Occupy movement (remember it?) was briefly in vogue among the bien-pensant, and he was asked to join one of its demonstrations. At the time everybody who was anybody or wanted to be felt obliged to put in a good word at least for the Occupiers' good intentions, and repeat the usual pieties about the disgrace of Income Inequality in this country. Our president called it "the defining issue of our time" before moving on to his next defining issue of our time. John Waters, ever polite, declined the invitation to demonstrate with Occupy Baltimore:
"I'm for you," he explained, "but I can't go to riots when I own three homes."
There you have the essential and telling critique of all such economics. Once it dawns on an American that there are people out there out to take a slice of his income or property or hard-earned wages or cultural stature or whatever they have their eyes on this time, a whole new light is shed on the subject. And on just what economic equality means when it ceases to be a slogan and threatens, if only vaguely, to become reality. When that light comes on in our little gray cells, it tends to be far more revealing than any abstract lesson out of Economics 101.
In only a few words, John Waters summed up the whole, pit-of-the-stomach realization of just what these demonstrators were after -- and it was his. ("... I can't go to riots when I own three homes.") No more need be said.
Americans are and should be free to share what is theirs, but not to take what is others' and give it a nicer name. Like income equality or income distribution or whatever the current term-of-art may be in left-speak. Surely many an American would like to get rich, but in the main the Occupiers seemed out only to get the rich. The community organizers who led them were full of highfalutin rationalizations for their basic idea (which might be summed up as What's Yours Is Ours) and could scarcely be blamed for their screwy economics. After all, their specialty was organizing, not thinking. And they crossed the line from social protest into cliche long ago, just as our once popular president did.
It'll be good to have John Waters here in Little Rock to delight and disturb, upset our expectations, and with any real luck shake us out of our most cherished assumptions. And generally play agent provocateur. Every society needs one with real talent, not just catch phrases to march to.