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The Artist and the Art

[ 61 ] September 21, 2011 |

This won’t be surprising to longtime readers, but I agree with Dargis in almost every detail here. Plenty of great art has been made by extremely odious human beings and I don’t think it makes much sense to deprive ourselves of it, but the temptation to apologize for great artists should also be resisted.

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  1. actor212 says:

    Why, Scott! That would mean tolerance! That would mean all kinds of…perversities!

    I agree. A person’s work should be kept separate from how pigish they are as people. No one’s asking you to sit next to Charlie Sheen at dinner, but that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying his work if it’s worthy of admiration.

    The trouble in American society, which is infecting Western society in general, is our fascination with the cult of the celebrity. This makes it harder to segregate the artist from the art.

    Imagine if Picasso was getting popular now, rather than the early 20th century. Would we be able to divorce his serial affairs from his work? Maybe. But it would be a lot harder to.

    • Richard says:

      Good article. I agree as well. Judge the art, not the artist. The political views of an artist shouldn’t matter in judging the work of art. Celine was a despicable anti-Semite and Fascist but he wrote one of the most corrosively funny books ever. Borges applauded Pinochet. Brecht applauded Stalin (and lived on money that Stalin’s henchmen in East Germany gave to him although he insisted that payment be in US dollars). They created great art. If you don’t read them, the only person you’re hurting is yourself.

      • actor212 says:

        I’ll throw a name that can shed light on the entire discussion: Roman Polanski.

        If I watch a Polanski film from the last decade, say The Pianist or The Ghost Writer, I’m not sitting there making a mental note to knock a few points off my feelings because the guy’s a pedophile. Both were good films, and I enjoyed both immensely.

        Similarly, if an avowed right wing director ever made a good film (let’s say Braveheart), the fact that I don’t agree with the politics, unless of course the politics interferes with the film, is not going to lessen my judgement of the movie.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

        Judge the art, not the artist.

        I disagree. You can judge both. Just don’t confuse one’s judgments about one for judgments about the other.

        I think Knife in the Water, Repulsion, and Rosemary’s Baby are terrific films.

        I also think that Roman Polanski is a despicable human being and a rapist who ought to be in prison.

        Neither of these two opinions cancels the other one out.

    • Malaclypse says:

      Imagine if Picasso was getting popular now, rather than the early 20th century. Would we be able to divorce his serial affairs from his work? Maybe. But it would be a lot harder to.

      Nonsense:

      Well some people try to pick up girls
      And get called assholes
      This never happened to Pablo Picasso
      He could walk down your street
      And girls could not resist his stare and
      So Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole

      • actor212 says:

        Damn you, sir! You’ve just negated my entire argument with a song lyric?????

      • mpowell says:

        The problem with this perspective is that Picasso’s work frequently depicts women according to the artist’s views of them. As an amateur art observer, I’ve noticed a worrying perspective from Picasso on the subject that seems to go unmentioned. He seems to be repulsed by the male attraction to women which borders on a disgust for women (seen most prominently in his sketches of prostitutes). This would fit the personality of a guilty womanizer.

        • Ed says:

          The problem with this perspective is that Picasso’s work frequently depicts women according to the artist’s views of them.

          That’s right. It is interesting that the reverse applies to Polanski — whatever his offscreen habits and criminal guilt, his empathy for his threatened heroines is always strong.

  2. I don’t think it makes much sense to deprive ourselves of it

    Thank god for the ability to steal films.

    For all the Picasso works I’ve seen I can’t work out how I might have put a dime in his pocket. Paying to see LVT’s films is out for me.

    • Warren Terra says:

      This gets at my issue. I have no problem with playing Wagner’s music, or with driving a Volkswagen, even though I know the people who created both were or wished to be monsters. But then, they’re dead, and they don’t benefit from my patronage. Roman Polanski is alive and living without facing the consequences of his actions; I’d have no problem enjoying his films if I came across them on the television, and I’d consider watching them on Netflix – but I’d never actively dig into my pocket to send the guy money.

      • Richard says:

        I would even though I believe he’s a criminal who should be sent to jail. I’ll go see Polanksi movies at the moviehouse and read plays by Brecht and novels by Celine (even though, by doing so, I’m giving money to their heirs). If I have to make moral judgments about artists and don’t spend money on works where the artist is a jerk, creep or criminal (Polanski, Gibson, to name just a very, very few), then there would be nothing to read or watch.

        And renting a Polanski film on Netflix does put money into his pocket although indirectly.

        Are you saying that if Wagner was still alive, you wouldn’t go to a concert of his music?

        • Warren Terra says:

          I’m not actually a huge opera fan, but if I were I’d happily go to the Ring Cycle if Wagner were dead, and refuse to go if he were alive (and unrepentant). I’d prefer not to give him the satisfaction, let alone the money, of my patronage.

          RE Netflix, I don’t know how video rental companies work, ie whether the copyright holder gets revenue from each rental or just sells the disc outright – though even in the latter case, success in the rental market would presumably make additional Polanski movies and replacement discs more expensive to Netflix and more lucrative to Polanski. But I also said “actively dig in my pocket” to distinguish accessing his work at an all-you-can-view buffet I’ve already paid for from making the decision to spend a discrete amount of money to his benefit.

          • Richard says:

            Well we just disagree there. I have no problem in patronizing living moral monsters (Polanski, Wagner if he were alive and if I liked his music) as long as I like the art.

            I once did a search of my record collection in connection with this issue and realized I had records by over half a dozen convicted murderers. (Leadbelly, Sid Vicious (technically not convicted but clearly guilty), Spector, Spade Cooley, the drummer for Derek and the Dominoes, one of the lead singers for Tower of Power, Pat Hare, Chicago blues guitarist who recorded “I’m Gonna Murder My Baby” before he did just such a thing, Little Willie John).

        • Murc says:

          (even though, by doing so, I’m giving money to their heirs).

          The fact that both of their works are still under copyright and royalties can be extracted is totally insane.

          • Richard says:

            Thats another topic altogether.

          • djw says:

            Right, but the moral issues are different, and less problematic. Heirs of monsters don’t deserve to benefit financially from the art, but neither do heirs of non-monsters. But (unless they are also heirs to the evil practices or aims of the artist-ancestor) whatever argument you might muster against financially supporting Wagner would look quite different than financially supporting his non-evil great granddaughter who happens to be the beneficiary of a stupid way of organizing intellectual property.

            • Richard says:

              I actually do think heirs of non-monsters deserve to benefit from intellectual property of their parents but believe the copyright term should be shorter than it is now. But I’ll refrain from arguing the merits of my position at this time. since the question of copyright duration is a very thorny one.

            • Warren Terra says:

              If I were to create a copyrightable work of considerable and marketable genius, I’d for darn sure want to take some of my wealth and use it to ease the lives of my (hypothetical) children. And if I lived for decades enjoying the royalties from my creation, I’d sock some of that money away for their benefit.

              Under your prescription, if instead of living for decades after the world first recognized my genius I were to be hit by a bus, my kid would not only be bereft of a parent but also deprived of the value of the property that parent owned – indeed, property that parent constructed.

              If instead of working to create a copyrighted work, I’d instead done some other job, I could save the earnings and pass them on to my kids. Why not a copyright? Also, how could a creator sell their copyright if the purchaser knew it would dissolve upon their death?

              Don’t get me wrong: copyrights need to expire. But the lifetime of the creator is not a good benchmark. People who create and die young should control the property they’ve created just as long as if they don’t die young – and, also, vice versa. If someone is so fortunate as to live for 75 years after creating a copyrightable and lucrative work, they should live to see their copyright expire (assuming we were to retain the 75 years).

              • If instead of working to create a copyrighted work, I’d instead done some other job, I could save the earnings and pass them on to my kids.

                You really can’t if you get hired as a bus driver and then get hit by that bus really quickly.

                Why should your kid win a lottery when mine does not anyway?

                • Warren Terra says:

                  You seem to be arguing against not only all forms of inheritance but even against all form of nurturing. I grew up in a comfortably middle-class home piled high with books. Not only were my material needs met, I got all the educational resources I could stand. Why should I win the educational-resource lottery when some other kid doesn’t?

                  Unless you want to create Walden II, or the postwar Israeli Kibbutzes, and have the kids raised communally in a creche, some parents will give their kids more than others. We should be implementing a robust support system to give opportunities and resources to the deprived kids, not abolishing parenthood.

                • I’m arguing against a lot of inheritance, certainly, and yes, a robust support system would be terrific. But I don’t see the particular argument for passage of copyright via inheritance other than “But it’s MY kid!” If it’s valuable work it should be public.

                • Warren Terra says:

                  If it’s valuable work it should be public.

                  This leaves little incentive for the creation of valuable work.

                • Bill Murray says:

                  and yet people created great art for years and years and years and years without worrying about that.

                  But then I agree with Substance McGravitas about inheritance. I am trying without much success to get my mom to spend her savings on herself

            • rea says:

              Although some of Wagner’s heirs were far bigger monsters than he was.

              • Warren Terra says:

                Didn’t know that (not an opera fan). That might induce me to avoid sending money their direction, much in the same way that I might boycott any other product I liked if its producer were to be purchased, and its products therefore sold to benefit, someone I despised (Koch Industries, for examples).

              • Henry Holland says:

                Although some of Wagner’s heirs were far bigger monsters than he was.

                Not really true. Wagner had three acknowledged children: Isolde, Eva and Siegfried. Isolde had one child, Eva none. Siegfried was the father of Wieland and Wolfgang among his 4 children. None of these people can remotely be considered “monsters”.

                Who you’re probably thinking of is the British Winifred Kindworth, who was married to Siegfried (in an arranged marriage intended to stop his homosexual affairs, which failed) and who was more than eager to cozy up to Hitler. Siegfried died in 1930 at 61, if he had lived Winifred would not have taken control of Bayreuth and who knows how things would have played out?

                Luckily for me, except for Tristan and Parsifal, Wagner’s operas bore me to tears, so no big moral dilemma really!

        • rea says:

          If Wagner were still alive, I doubt he would be talking racism and antisemetism like he did in the 19th Century

          • Richard says:

            He would be more cautious in public utterances but I don’t think his basic views would have changed much

          • Stag Party Palin says:

            Let’s take it up a notch. The year is 1946. What if you needed an operation to save your life, an operation only made possible because Nazi doctors performed vivisection experiments on Jews to gain the knowledge required? Would it make you feel better if the Nazi doctors had already been executed? Would you *wait*, possibly killing you, until they had been executed? Would you go ahead, knowing that the victims
            would not like their sacrifice to be in vain? Would you not go ahead, knowing that you were encouraging future crimes?

            Now, what was that about art and asshole artists?

            • Warren Terra says:

              Let’s take it down a notch, and avoid the Nazis. You say that like it was a hypothetical, but it’s actually a very real question in medical ethics. Not so much the Nazi experiments (rather crude and useless butchery) but more nuanced ethical dilemmas, such as surgical controls.

              There is an operation in which cartilage is cleaned out of the knee joint or some such, that was for a time not infrequently recommended for severe arthritis of the knee. So some surgeons did an experiment: half the people who came in for the surgery, they put under general anesthesia, sliced open the knee, stitched it up, and the next morning told them the surgery went well. Turned out that in this case the placebo surgery worked a well as the actual surgery – but they’d lied to their patients, and general anesthesia isn’t 100% safe. Was it ethical for doctors even to consider their results? There are other studies that are methodologically sound, have lessons to impart, but weren’t carried out completely ethically; you don’t have to invoke the butchery of the Nazis.

              Look: I’m an American. That means I live in a country built in no small part on slavery and genocide, and benefit indirectly from those crimes. I even revere some of their perpetrators, Jefferson for example, although not for those actions. But I can admire Jefferson’s constitutional brilliance and enjoy the fruits of his labors while recognizing that in some areas of his life and beliefs the man was a monster by modern standards – by my standards.

            • Bruce Baugh says:

              #1. Did this ever actually happen, or is this another thought problem in the “quien es mas macho” school?

              #2. Life-saving surgery and artistically meritorious films among other artistically meritorious films ought to be in different categories.

              The context for me when it comes to patronizing art by loathsome people is this: there’s more good art out there than I have time and attention to appreciate. If we assume here as a practical matter that no genuinely unique ordering of works released in a year, or a chunk of a few years, is really possible – there is seldom a truly #1 best of its medium/genre/etc, but rather a constellation of really fine work – then it seems weird to me not to weight my personal ranking by whether I’m rewarding people I think are improving the world, or at least not making it worse, as well as making good art.

              The counter-argument is that (some kinds of) art is important enough to either deliberately patronize people making the surrounding society worse for non-artists and those in less privileged conditions, or at least to blithely disregard the rest of life when it comes to choosing which of the more-art-than-we-can-actually-consume we’re going to reward. I don’t buy it.

              • Richard says:

                I evaluate a work of art based on the art. Sometimes I know about the artist, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I dont care about the artist, sometimes I do. I find no need to research the artist in order to make a decision about the work. When I choose to spend money on a work of art (buying it, seeing it at a theater, whatever), I’m not deciding that I want to benefit the artist – I’m deciding that spending that money will benefit ME (spiritual uplift, titilation, whatever). It doesn’t matter to me whether the money I spend benefits the artist.

                I go to see a Polanski film because seeing that film entertains me. I buy a Phil Spector recording because listening to You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling entertains me. I’m not making the argument that buying Lovin Feeling is so important that it makes up for the moral failings of Mr. Spector. And it makes no sense to me that I should go through the process of evaluating the artist and his contribution or lack thereof to society when I make a decision about what cultural artifact to spend money one.

                Your argument seems to say that this is just what I should do – that I should say Lovin Feeling is a great record but because Spector is a murderer, I should buy a record by an artist who is not as morally reprehensible as Spector (because, after all, there are a lot of records out there to choose from and not all recording artists are murderers).

                I profoundly disagree with this. I believe the appropriate decision is to choose the cultural artifact based on the artifact itself (and Loving Feeling is one great record) and ignore the questions of Spector’s moral failings.

                Just like I would not hesitate to see the Bolshoi Ballet perform while Breznhev was in power knowing full well that the money I spent on tickets would go back to Russia to support that vile regime.

                • Bruce Baugh says:

                  I found this argument more entertaining in the original Milton Friedman (The Social Responsibility of Business is To Increase Its Profit). If both entertainment and artistic criticism should proceed with blithe disregard of social consequences about who we’re rewarding with time, attention, and money, are there any areas of life where you do think we should pay attention to consequences? Or is this just a free-for-all and screw those who lose out because the people who got the time, attention, and money are bastards?

                  (PS. Is there any way to view comments unthreaded?)

                • Richard says:

                  “are there any areas of life where you do think we should pay attention to consequences”

                  Yes. I am not taking a Friedmanian or libertarian position. I am differentiating art from commerce. I don’t oppose economic boycotts (for example, like the UFWA had against grapes) although there will always be a question about their effectiveness. (And that was a boycott with a professed objective – boycott the grape growers until they recognize the union. A boycott of Polanski has no goal to be accomplished). My view is that art boycotts are based on an assumption I dont share – that the bad behavior of the artist outweighs the value of the artwork, are ineffective , don’t accomplish anything (except to deprive the art consumer of work that should be brought to his or her attention),and are necessarily based on arbitrary, even silly, decisions (no one has attempted to answer my question of whether the Bolshoi under Stalin or Brezhnev should have been boycotted or Karajan conducting Beethoven twenty five years after World War II.)

                  I’m not making a free market argument. You may have found Friedman more entertaining but I’m not making the argument he makes (which, of course, is not limited to the arts. In fact, I don’t believe he discusses the arts at all in the book you reference (although since I have read almost no Friedman, I can’t be sure of that)

        • Njorl says:

          What if Leni Reifenstahl were not funded by the state. Assume the Nazis don’t take absolute power, but are struggling to take control. Reifenstahl alternately releases high-quality non-political films which make money, then spends that money making thinly veiled but somewhat popular propaganda movies.

          Do you go see the non-propaganda movies she makes?

          I think if there is a clear agenda and connection between patronizing the art and funding harm, then condemning the art for the artist is reasonable. I do agree, though, if there is no connection between patronizing the art and enabling harm by the artist, who cares.

  3. bh says:

    There’s a world of great art that you can experience without lining a living POS’s pockets. And when you pay to see a Von Trier or Polanski film, that’s exactly what you’re doing. There’s a genuine ethical issue there, one that doesn’t disappear through the boilerplate insults about Philistines and prudes.

    • Richard says:

      And how about Brecht and Celine? Would you not see their plays or buy their books because this enriches their heirs? And how about the Bolshoi Ballet under Stalin or Brezhnev? Would you boycott them because that money eventually would go to the Soviet government? And does it make a difference whether it was under Stalin or Brezhnev? And how about von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philarmonic in 1980? Do you boycott him, a one time ardent but supposedly reformed Nazi, because paying to see him conduct Beethoven or shelling out money for one of his albums lines his pockets. Do I not buy a rerelease of the Phil Spector Christmas album because that puts money in Phil’s pockets?

      I’m not denying there is no ethical issue here. But I’m saying that, for a whole host of reasons, I take the position that I will not boycott a work of art because the artist is immoral or otherwise objectionable even though my choosing not to boycott means I am giving money to that person. And that I can thoroughly enjoy a work of art, the Ronettes singing Santa Claus is Coming to Town, for instance, while realizing that Phil Spector is not a nice guy and while knowing that I just gave him some of my money.

      I’m not calling you a Philistine or prude for taking a different position (and don’t believe anyone here has made that argument) but I do think that position is misguided and wrong and, in deciding who to boycott and who not to boycott, somewhat arbitrary.

      • And how about Brecht and Celine? Would you not see their plays or buy their books because this enriches their heirs?

        What have their heirs got to do with it?

        • Richard says:

          Because they are dead but the heirs still collect royalties from their work. If you believe that you shouldn’t put money in the pockets of von Trier or Polanski, I’m asking do you also believe that you shouldn’t buy their works after they’re dead since their heirs will benefit.

            • Richard says:

              Not quite. I’m assuming no one would boycott the works of the son of a Nazi if the son had repudiated those views – the sins of a father situation. But if you believe that you should not put money in the pockets of moral monsters, a Polanski for example, do you not pay for a DVD of Cul de Sac after he dies because his heirs would collect royalties, thus benefitting him in a way. Or do you draw the line at death? I’m not making the distinctions here. I’m against any cultural boycott but if you do decide that a cultural boycott is the appropriate moral response, what lines do you draw?

              • djw says:

                I’m agnostic on the cultural boycott issue, but insofar as it has appeal, death seems a perfectly sensible time to cut it off (I alluded to this upthread). I can’t join you in characterizing his heirs collecting royalties as “benefiting him in a way” after his death, because he’s dead, and dead people can’t benefit from anything. If he had known you were going to do that before he died, then that knowledge might have benefited him in some small way, but that would be true weather you followed through or not. Dead people can’t benefit (or be harmed by) anything, since they are dead. Honoring their legacy, wishes, or whatever is about the living, not the dead. Insofar as the heirs are morally neutral, I see them as no different from anyone else to whom the law mistakenly and pointlessly grants rents.

              • I’m having a hard time understanding why anyone cares either way about the heirs – without invoking the stupidity of copyright law – unless you can identify whether or not they are using their cash to buy pikes to affix heads to.

                • Richard says:

                  Hey, I just posed the question to bh who seemed to indicate that he would boycott Von Trier and Polanki since going to their movies would put money in their pocket. And I posed the heir question as well as several others (Von Karajan, the Bolshoi Ballet under Stalin, etc). He, and others who support a moral boycott, may draw the line at death and not be concerned that buying a copy of Mother Courage or a record of Mack the Knife would benefit the heirs of Brecht. I don’t know.

      • nixnutz says:

        I think Polanski is a special case. Because he continues to live as a fugitive my subsidizing his lifestyle makes me complicit in his crimes in a way that’s not true for Spector or Robert Blake. If he were to return to California and somehow be absolved from any further punishment I might be upset but I would have no further ethical objections to renting Knife in the Water.

        As far as people who are merely assholes or who hold repugnant views, I may find it difficult to enjoy their work, I may choose not to support their careers, but I don’t see it as an ethical dilemma.

  4. Left_Wing_Fox says:

    This issue actually shaped my views on boycotts as a whole; i.e. the market is a terrible means of enforcing morality.

    On the one hand, it has the potential to punish individuals far more than they might deserve (I.e. allowing businesses to discriminate against felons would put a lot of convicted drug dealers right back into the illegal economy just to stay alive)

    It also means opening the door for punishing people for non-crimes (distasteful politics, assholish speech, obnoxious personalities)

    That said, given the general uselessness of a boycott thanks to disagreements and information, boycotts rarely work at a grassroots level. The corporations who control distribution channels have far greater economic control, which they can wield essentially at whim.

    In the end, while I don’t begrudge anyone who finds the actions of the artist makes the work itself impossible to enjoy, I don’t think there’s any particular moral weight on those who can or cannot appreciate it separately. It’s the job of the justice system to deal with criminal behavior, not the markets.

    I also find the idea of “stealing” something because you don’t like their actions to be reprehensible. If you can find ways to enjoy their work legally without paying directly, fine. But downloading Polanski’s movies as a moral statement reminds me of the kids who stole candybars from the corner store to stick it to the asshole owners.

  5. jeer9 says:

    One man spends his time apologizing for a politician whose foreign policy and civil liberties positions are atrocious, which have resulted in untold innocent deaths and lives irrevocably destroyed, rationalizing this defense through a comparison with other politicians who were worse (because that contrast keeps it in the abstract and beyond real-life considerations of pain and suffering) or shrugging off this cruelty as a consequence of the fact that the issue lacks a voting constituency. The same man, however, is deeply outraged that a degenerate artist has escaped this same state’s clutches for a despicable crime committed thirty years ago, and the case, now being revived under dubious circumstances by a conservative district attorney seeking publicity and career advancement, has been thwarted by misplaced sympathies. The politician, though, receives his support and vote (because the alternative is so much worse) while the artist should be punished with an appropriate jail sentence (because justice, such as it is, must be served).

    Another man abhors that same politician for his inhumanity and isn’t much convinced by comparisons and contrasts with other scoundrels. The fact that other careerist hacks have acted even more reprehensibly doesn’t excuse the unnecessary harm his decisions have caused. The degenerate artist’s personal behavior repulses this other man but thirty years have passed, numerous opportunities to exact a fair penalty have been squandered by the state, and the damage done to the state by the culprit’s escape and its own failure to enforce consequences seems negligible at best (despite the howls that indifference to this sexual abomination seems to condone its practice and undermines the very legitimacy of the state).

    The degenerate artist during his last years explores in an underappreciated film the nature of crimes committed by the state and the political factors which contribute to the offenders avoiding responsibility for their malevolent deeds, not only those publicly acknowledged but those which remain murky and ambiguous. The ghost writer, who has finally stumbled upon the truth of the politician’s complex and manipulative personal circumstances, is eventually silenced by those forces who prefer their narratives of justice and politics to be clear, uncomplicated, and state-sanctioned.

    One should always resist the temptation to believe one’s moral indignation is anything but the haphazard (when it’s not disingenuous) calibrations of a political animal. Mercy and compassion are matters of the heart which don’t comport terribly well with anything so concrete as justice.

  6. Christopher says:

    So, uh, my big problem is that Dargis sort of implies that Lars Von Trier making an offensive off the cuff joke is just like Polanski raping a thirteen year old girl and fleeing the country, and both of which are just like Leni Reifenstahl being part of the Nazi government.

    I’d like to suggest that maybe one of these crimes is less severe then the other two. I’ll leave it to you to guess which one.

  7. Hi there friends, nice post and pleasant arguments commented here, I am genuinely enjoying by these.

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