Art And Politics

They are two things that go together like cheesecake and horseradish, like stiletto heels and construction sites.

I am not so much concerned here with the occasional uproar about public funds being involved with art — I have been on both sides of that argument, depending on the robustness of the budget involved or the speciousness of the opposing viewpoint. (When I hear the word “installation” I reach for my gun, but on the other hand, you almost had to like anything that Jesse Helms hated.)

What is on my mind is the expectation, in some quarters, that an artist be politically correct and socially conscientious or stay on the porch. Awhile back there was a tempest in a teapot over Gerard Depardieu, a bit of whose performance in Danton I recently admired over at Zeus’ blog. Seemed that, as a young rough, he had witnessed rapes, or participated in them, no one could seem to agree what he had said, and feminists everywhere were up in arms demanding that people boycott his films. Having already decided, after Jean de Florette, that I would pay for a ticket to watch Depardieu read the phone book, I really did sit down and think this one over, and the thought I came up with eventually was “Why would you throw away the best a man has done, something done better than 99.9 percent of his fellow men could do it, for an uncertain idea of the worst he might have done?”

In the Eighties there was some similar huffery about Beethoven symphonies epitomizing male violence or some such claptrap, and then just recently — setting off this rumination — a literature professor I encounter occasionally, a poet herself, commented that she ceased to read the work of Robertson Davies, one of the wittiest novelists and belles-lettrists of the 20th century, because she had become aware that he liked to chase a skirt.

This, I reflected after we parted, is why I did not go on to become an academic in some literature department (I would have been a big fat pain in the Dean’s ass anyway, doing squat thrusts in the department hallway and making inattentive students run bleachers).

If art is worth a damn you love it helplessly. C.S. Lewis’ pronatalism and preachiness repels me but I cannot ever outgrow my joy in his childrens’ stories, nor in his spot-on portraits of human foibles. I can’t even stop listening to Jimmy Buffett in the car — only in the car, it’s just a thing I have — even though I damn near puked over the side to read the first few pages of his memoirs, opening with an episode where he called his therapist three time zones away after the trauma of nearly wiping out in his private plane (break my heart, will you?). John Buchan has my loyalty forever, jingoism and all. And I can just imagine what I would say, most days, about a man who fathered twenty-one children, but — Johann Sebastian Bach. (You wonder, had he not had all those mouths to feed, whether we would have so many partitas and chorales. This is what experimental science calls an “irreproducible result.”)

People are imperfect. What a concept.


12 thoughts on “Art And Politics

  1. We have to make decisions about this on an individual, a case by case basis.

    What good is the preaching of a predator priest? I say he makes the morality questionable. Even if one believes in absolutes, and I certainly do, the messenger can and does distort the message at times, sometimes so badly that the message is rendered useless. Should one receive a badly mangled package in the mail this will be immediately obvious.

    The simplest, and I think most appropriate way of looking at artists and their works is to understand that the works probably stand on their own, but the conduct and character of the artist can cast a shadow, or a light upon those works. Indeed, the greatness of a work can be diminished or enhanced by the conduct of the artist, but the two are not always linked in a way that requires us to judge the works of an artist solely by the life of the artist.

    • Are the predator priest’s words any less instructive if he fails to live up to them?

      Are Van Gogh’s paintings less important because he stalked a woman?

      Wisdom, knowledge, and art exist on their own I think. If I do not like what an artist’s work (Andrew Serrano, for example) then that’s one thing. If I do not like his personality, it takes nothing away from his work.

  2. I agree with zeusiswatching to a large extent. But it is only the technical aspects of the art that stand on their own – the skills revealed in the handling of light and shade, perspective, color mixing, draftsmanship. I can envision cases in which I would judge the work of an artist solely by his or her life – though I’m not “required” to. The most accomplished piece of art, created by a pedophile or a rapist would be greatly diminished by virtue of the artist’s life. I do think that those who profess to be professional art critics have less difficulty keeping the link intact.

    • Probably everyone has a personal breakpoint but for me, a big part of the matter is the weird question of where art comes from. Particularly when I write fiction, I have no idea who the hell is driving. If I try to “decide” what story I’m going to tell, it comes out flat and lifeless; sometimes the good story that I do tell sounds like no one I know came up with it. So if a pedophile paints an altarpiece… well, maybe it wasn’t the pedophile that painted it. If you get me.

      I hate dogs so much my aura must turn an ugly swamp-muck color if I so much as glimpse one, but the save-the-day hero of my frothy mystery was a toy poodle.

  3. I knew someone who had Robertson Davies as her university professor and the only thing that stayed with her was that he was (in her opinion) a “pompous chauvinist pig”.

    What a waste.

  4. I like human artists. They are flawed, and because nothing can ever be perfect except occasionally in our flawed perception, so are their works.

    The idea of shitcanning Jack London because he was a horrible racist repels me.

  5. I’m absolutely with the ‘admire the art (or not), forget the artist’ line. I don’t read artist biographies any more than I want to know about the private lives of actors or singers whose work I enjoy. We’re all flawed human beings, its just that a tiny proportion of us manage to push something up out of the gutter long enough for it to matter to others, and that is important.

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