Artists on Trial

From The Wall Street Journal:

Enjoying the novels of Ernest Hemingway can be a difficult thing to do after reading the man’s biography. “A Farewell to Arms” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” are masterpieces of efficient storytelling that changed Anglophone writing forever. But their author was an inveterate liar, prone to hedonism and violence, vicious beyond belief to wives and friends, and culpably stupid on political subjects.

The case of Hemingway is an extreme one, but the truth is that most supremely gifted artists are not in possession of high moral character and have wrought immense pain in the lives of those closest to them. Their admirers learn to manage the tension between life and work as best they can. Some cases are easier to manage than others, depending on the nature of the work and one’s emotional and intellectual attachment to it. But in the end, work almost always trumps biography. I doubt there are many people inclined to relish the music of Richard Wagner who refuse to do so on account of his anti-Semitism and all-around repugnance. Lord Byron’s sexual propensities would be hard to describe in a respectable newspaper, but one learns to forget them while reading his poetry.

Is there much to say about the capacity of terrible people to produce works of great beauty? I have on my shelf a marvelous collection of essays by the literary critic Brooke Allen, “Artistic License: Three Centuries of Good Writing and Bad Behavior” (2004). Ms. Allen holds up her subjects’ disgraceful conduct and splendid literary productions and registers little more than gentle surprise that one can produce the other.

But the young today, and especially the inhabitants of elite college campuses, are no longer content simply to contemplate the mystery that wonderful works of art can emerge from the crooked timber of humanity. The highly educated young are ready to judge—even if, in a world without mythology or religion, they lack clear principles on which to base their judgments. In “Drawing the Line,” Erich Hatala Matthes aims to give them those principles. He acknowledges the perils and excesses of a worldview in which past sins constantly threaten to nullify accomplishments and soil reputations, but he accepts its premises almost entirely. The didacticism of his subtitle—“What to Do With the Work of Immoral Artists From Museums to the Movies”—captures the spirit of the age. What to do with them!

Mr. Matthes, who teaches philosophy at Wellesley College, uses four chapters to ask four questions: Do immoral artist make worse art? Is it wrong to enjoy the work of immoral artists? Should immoral artists be “canceled”? And how should we feel about immoral artists?

There are, to my admittedly hidebound sensibilities, basically two problems with the book. The first is that Mr. Matthes draws no distinctions between what constitutes “art” and what doesn’t. Woody Allen, R. Kelly, Louis C.K., Paul Gauguin, Michael Jackson, Roseanne Barr, Roald Dahl, Caravaggio, Chuck Close—all are simply and equally “artists.” But they are not all artists except in the loosest sense. Louis C.K. and Roseanne Barr are comedians. Michael Jackson was a stupendously gifted entertainer but not the creator of any transcendent or ennobling work of the human spirit.

The distinction matters. The only reason an aesthetic artifact deserves to remain in the public consciousness is that it possesses unique and abiding worth. We can argue about what constitutes that worth, but a catchy pop song with a forgettable tune and nonsense words, or a mildly humorous comedic routine memorable mainly for its idiotic vulgarity, is bereft of it. Enjoy it as much as you like. Or don’t. The argument that its creator’s deplorable personal deeds or retrograde social views should determine its longevity in our collective life is simply not interesting.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes if the free link doesn’t work for you, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG says that the artist is not the work and vice-versa.

If they are the somehow linked, do we put the work of an artist who committed a serious crime in prison? Or do we destroy it completely?

How, exactly, does condemning art (and, presumably, putting it away someplace where no one will be offended by it) that gives many or some people pleasure make the world a better place?

Exactly how evil does the artist have to be in order to be banished from society?

In the United States, generations of people referred to African Americans by what is now described as the “N-word”. At the time and in the place where this practice was common, it was the standard term for African Americans. If a person at those times and in those places did not use the N-word, he/she/they would be perceived as making some sort of distinction between members of the race.

During PG’s lifetime, the word, “Negro”, has moved from a polite way of referring to an individual’s race into something that may lead to some degree of scorn for someone who utters the word.

A great many Americans also used slang words to describe other groups of people as well. Poles, Germans, Japanese and Jews come immediately to PG’s memory. Some of those slang words have moved into the impolite realm of language. PG is unaware of any that have reached the negative place occupied by the N-word, but time continues to march on.

In summary, a bad person can produce good art and good literature.

In PG’s youth, those who banned or attempted to ban books were regarded with scorn and disdain – narrow-minded, prissy neo-puritans.

“Banned in Boston” referred to the time period during which Boston officials had wide authority to ban works featuring “objectionable” content, and often banned works with sexual content or foul language. This even extended to the $5 bill from the 1896 “Educational” series of banknotes featuring allegorical figures which were partially nude.

Per Wikipedia:

Theatrical shows were run out of town, books were confiscated, and motion pictures were prevented from being shown; sometimes movies were stopped mid-showing, after an official had “seen enough”. In 1935, for example, during the opening performance of Clifford Odets’ play Waiting for Lefty, four cast members were placed under arrest.

. . . .

This movement had several unintended consequences. One was that Boston, a cultural center since its founding, was perceived as less sophisticated than other cities without stringent censorship practices. Another was that the phrase “banned in Boston” became associated, in the popular mind, with something lurid, sexy, and naughty. Commercial distributors were often pleased when their works were banned in Boston—it gave them more appeal elsewhere.

Prominent literary figure H. L. Mencken was arrested in Boston in 1926, after purposely selling a banned issue of his magazine The American Mercury. Though his case was dismissed by a local judge, and he later won a lawsuit against the Watch and Ward Society for illegal restraint of trade, the effort did little to affect censorship in Boston. The interracial romance novel Strange Fruit, by Lillian Smith, was also banned by the Watch and Ward Society and in 1929 Boston’s mayor Malcolm Nichols and the city censor banned Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Strange Interlude.

During the same era there were also periodic “purity campaigns” on radio, as individual stations decided to ban songs with double-entendres or alleged vulgar lyrics. One victim of such a campaign was bandleader Joe Rines who, in November 1931, was cut off in mid-song by John L. Clark, program director of WBZ, for performing a number called “This is the Missus”, whose lyrics Clark deemed inappropriate. Rines was indignant, saying he believed Clark was over-reacting to a totally innocent song, but Clark insisted he was right to ban any song whose lyrics might be construed as suggestive.

The Warren Court (1953–69) expanded civil liberties and in Memoirs v. Massachusetts and other cases curtailed the ability of municipalities to regulate the content of literature, plays, and movies. The last major literary censorship battle in the U.S. was fought over Naked Lunch, which was banned in Boston in 1965.

Banned books included those from Walt Whitman, Giovanni Boccaccio, Eugene O’Neill, Aldous Huxley, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway (twice), William Faulkner, John Dos Passos, Lillian Hellman and The Everly Brothers (for “Wake up, Little Susie”)

8 thoughts on “Artists on Trial”

  1. The wheel of revolution turns and sometimes it brings the Puritans to positions of (supposed) power, this time in the Academy. Give it time and the wheel will keep turning and they’ll be remembered with derision – like Boston’s censors – and then forgotten. As for fiction authors, the best solution is to learn as little as possible about their lives and concentrate on the works. If you love a book why take the chance that learning about the author will spoil your enjoyment?

    I think all authors should use a pen name and a made up biography: the social engineers will have a conniption if they can’t analyse or control the sex, sexual orientation or ethnic origin of authors, either individually or collectively, plus no more claims of cultural appropriation. Mind you, I don’t know how masked book signings will go down.

    And PG, thanks for the video, it brought back happy memories of my youth. It’s amusing that the decision to ban in Boston seems to have been based on someone not listening to the lyrics, since nothing happened. But then reactions to songs are often based on ignoring the words.

  2. While I agree with PG’s summation of the article, and I am against the banning of any book based on its author (or content for that matter), I greatly dislike this statement:
    ” but the truth is that most supremely gifted artists are not in possession of high moral character”
    Primarily the word “most” is bothering me, and perhaps the reason for a time that “most” great artists were of poor moral character has more to do with the sort of author who was give a pass by the “gatekeepers of quality” and less to do with being a good artist.
    I would hypothesize that there are a great many excellent artists of perfectly fine moral character and there always have been.

  3. A famous guy once said, “Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone” or “chunk the first brick” or something silly and unimaginable like that. Not that humans don’t cast stuff, but do any fall into the category of “has not sinned”? I don’t think so.

    But apparently some do think so, at least of themselves. The more I learn about these self-righteous, spoiled, apparently sinless humans who are “offended” at every occasion and cast literary (or actual stones) at anyone whom they deem to have sinned, well, the happier I am that I was abandoned on this planet by star people 69 years ago. There. The secret’s out. But I don’t care. Frankly, I suspect being abandoned by any other species is far preferable to being a member of homo sapiens, welcome or otherwise.

  4. Also, who is the OP to say that singers and commedians aren’t artists and shouldn’t be remembered? The judgment of what is great art won’t be made by the OP–or any of us. It will be made by posterity. Before we spit on “pop singers” perhaps we should remember that both Dickens and Shakespeare were the pop artists of their day…

    • Few give a hoot about what has been deemed great art because they don’t give a hoot about the people making the judgement. They don’t even know who they are. Nor do they give a hoot about the standards used to judge nominees for great art status.

      Instead, they consume what they like, paying no attention at all to the people who demand everyone else accept their personal standards. I encourage peple to immerse themselves in great art if they choose. Likewise, I encourage others to immerse themselves in the Da Vinci Code or Fifty Shades.

      God Bless choice, for our robust market offers more than has ever been available in history. Choose your great art, and vote with your wallet.

  5. Well…at the very least, I now know what “Banned in Boston” actually means, since I have an old comedy record from the late 50’s/early 60’s from Rusty Warren that was called that.

    I guess being “morally puritanical” does have its privileges after all.

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