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May 15, 2006

Art and politics: The artist's biography

This is the first in a multi-part series on politics and art.

Many indisputably great works of art have been produced by people whose personal morality leaves a lot to be desired.

It's natural to look for heroes. Many sports fans are disconcerted when their favorite players are accused of serious crimes. Rationally, there's no reason they should care any more the criminal record of their favorite star receiver than about that of any other stranger they'll never meet. Yet, all other things being equal, it's more fun to cheer for someone who's a good guy as well as a good player. Even so, fans usually have no problem accepting that you can be a great player and a terrible person. Even the basketball fans who are deeply suspicious of Kobe Bryant don't argue that  his checkered personal history makes him a worse ball player.

Art lovers aren't always as good at making this distinction. Maybe that's because aesthetic appreciation is a kind of intimacy. Art is consensual manipulation. We put ourselves under the artist's sway in order to feel something or see something from their point of view. For some people, it's extra-disconcerting to realize that the singer of their favorite tender love song is also a rapist.

This is not to say that details of an artist's biography are never relevant to our interpretation of his or her work. Suppose you learn that some tender crooner was also a lifelong abuser who kicked the shit out of his wife after his most famous recording sessions. This information might make us wonder what that guy was really expressing in those songs. Possession? Sentimentality? Real love that he was only able to express on stage?

These the questions that keep the music biopic industry alive. However, in order to answer them, you have to look for aesthetic evidence within the work itself. Does the singer actually sound fake when he's trying to sound tender? Would someone who didn't know his history be able to discern this aesthetic flaw in his delivery? If upon repeated listening the song sounds every bit as heartfelt and note-perfect as you remember, there's no aesthetic reason to discount the work.

As a rule, I'm suspicious of criticism that puts too much weight on the artist's life and times when interpreting their work. Some historical context is important for interpretation. It's a mistake to assume that there's an easily discernable link between experiences and works of the imagination.

It can be upsetting to learn unflattering things about an artist you admire. Some people find that these revelations make it difficult to enjoy the work. That's understandable on an emotional level, but it's not a legitimate aesthetic argument. There's no rule that says that you're obligated to watch or listen to all art that you acknowledge as worthy.

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Comments

Pure speculation: Did you have Spade Cooley and the song "Shame on You" in mind when you wrote this? I've never seen any instance where it's more tempting to color one's reading with the details of an artist's misdeeds.

Not specifically, but http://www.answers.com/topic/spade-cooley>Spade Cooley's biography is an excellent example.

The Jews who try not to be stirred by Wagner's music are a particulary prominent example of a life limiting the appreciation of the art that some how came out of that life. Reading Ezra Pound became less enticing too.
Do I simply write off the art, do I console my self that they were both slightly mad which could explain both the gift and vile attitudes toward fellow humans?

The effect of a bad reputaion on one's perceptions is profound and from the standpoint of the works that could be appreciated with out any background or context, as is certainly the case for classical music, it can be a profound loss.

-----
BTW, Linday, thanks for point people to Carnival of the Godless...best day my hitcounter has ever seen.

It would be so convenient if I could blame a spell checker rather than the artrhitic abandon of my heedless happyfingers typing technique, Lindsay.

not sure, but i remember something dhlawrence is reputed to have said: "trust the novel, not the novelist"
not that there are not difficulties (celine, the bible, and say neil young now )...so face the difficulties line by line and bring along your sense of wonder

is it in lewis carroll...? ...."it is simply a matter of who is in charge the words or the speaker" (mangled)

Is there an eskimo interpretation of Catcher in the Rye?

what is the engine of all these bio critics?

it seems that some are unhappy and uneasy with ambiguity...they want fox news in their art too.
db

Lindsay:

Looking at all your recent posts in this vein-Frey, Polanski, etc., it's clear that most of your posters are clueless as to what art is, lest they would not deny a laugh at a Woody Allen film for his supposed quasi-incest scandal.

Can I make a counter-proposal? Instead of playing to the Lowest Comon Denominator, and merely eliciting ignorance and prurience, as well as claims of mass murder, bigotry, fornication, God, etc., after you run through this series, could you actually, possibly, have a series devoted to what constitutes art, what differentiates good from bad art, what the tactics bad art and its apologists use are, etc.?

In short, a more focused debate on less subjective things than personal tastes and moral outrages. Otherwise, it sort of rents your intellectual authority when you rip on other LCD blogs for assorted trespasses.

Could you mull it over, please?

Wait, Dan, "what differentiates good from bad art" is the supposedly less subjective topic you're suggesting?

>Wagner

I love The Death of Siegfried. Wagner wasn't alive during the Third Reich, but his descendants were joyously Nazi, and Hitler not only loved his music, but said "who would understand the Third Reich must first know Wagner." But I love The Death of Siegfried.

Speaking of Neil Young, it might be well to bring up the Dixie Chicks, who faced a harsh boycott "for criticizing their President from abroad, during wartime." My God! They did it from abroad? That's much worse, for some reason! We must boycott them!

Led Zeppelin ripped off some of their lyrics from much poorer blues musicians, except when compelled to pay by a lawsuit. That's vile behavior, but I still bought Zeppelin albums after I knew that.

Boycotting artists because of their biographies would mean Picasso would get boycotted not only for his treatment of women, but once people found out that Guernica was about a certain battle in particular, he would be boycotted for undercutting the effort against Bolshevism. His painting suggests that fascist and Nazi support for Spain's General Franco in the Spanish Civil War is an atrocity and a war crime. But everyone knows that it's the Communists who had the most oppressive secret police (the Soviets' Cheka secret police, though renamed the GPU in the 20s, were invoked throughout the 30s, even by leading German officials, as a warning of what the Gestapo could become), who are guilty of agitation and murder in the streets (Communist flying squads were indeed guilty of this throughout the 20s in Germany, though the right wing matched them), who are guilty of extra-judicial murder and prison camp abuse (the Cheka slaughtered several hundred thousand "counter-revolutionaries" and sent many others to prison camps), and who threaten to overwhelm the anti-Communist Franco (Russia had aided the leftist side in the Spanish Civil War). The Freedom Fighters of the Condor Legion are only coming to the rescue against Communist oppression. The suggestion that a focused action by Nazi warplanes, with minimal though regrettable civilian casualties, is in any way comparable to the Communist world's atrocities is beyond the pale, and frankly, I'm appalled.

Point being, though the Polanski case may be more cut-and-dried, other cases of artistic boycott will seem cut and dried too. Popular support or opprobrium often supports the most extreme brutality. Boycott certain art as you're moved to, but be aware that if such boycotts ever prove successful, they will be used politically. Or should I say, You will be used politically.

Looking at all your recent posts in this vein-Frey, Polanski, etc., it's clear that most of your posters are clueless as to what art is, lest they would not deny a laugh at a Woody Allen film for his supposed quasi-incest scandal.

Dan, could you spend some time making your messages coherent before you post them. It's often funny to read of your disdain for the intelligence and writing ability of others when the proposition is expressed in sentences whose faulty grammar leaves them teetering on the edge of gibberish. But when you write something like I've quoted above, I find I can't even guess what insulting thing you meant to say about others who have posted before you.

The literal meaning of the words seems to be that posters are ignorant about what constitutes art for fear that they would laugh at a Woody Allen film because the director had been criticized for a romantic relationship with the adopted daughter of his ex-wife. Why criticism of Allen's relationship with Soon-Yi would cause people to laugh at his movies in the first place is hard enough to figure out. But I'm clueless when it comes to explaing why people might believe that not knowing what art is would help keep them from laughing.

Did you mean to say that people don't understand the definition of art, and therefore they are reluctant to laugh at Woody Allen's movies because others might assume their reaction demonstrated a tolerance for incest?

Dan,

I rarely ever say anything rude to a commenter unless it is obvious that he or she is a troll, but I must break with tradition for you. Do you realize how much you come across as an extremely pompous ass? Actually, I imagine you do realize it but just don't care because you're just that big of a pompous ass. Spare us the condescension, Aristotle.

Art is crafted by the minds and hands of individuals motivated by an internal insistence to interpret an intangible feeling into a physical representation of that feeling.

Getting to know that mind is a fools errand. People who please us, challenge us, mock us, and stay in our view for an over long period of time are bound to show us a mirror. The capacity to trend south of the moral distinction line rests in every breast. It is magnified by scrutiny, and then the hating starts. We hate the behavior so we can deny it exists in us.

Placing art in an historical context by genre or graphical style is valuable in de-cyphering intent of a movement. Examining the life of an individual to gain incite into what it created destroys art. Each of us may have our 15 minutes but only a few will have their lives become dinner table talk and the subject of a thesis or book.

Our cultural capacity for crime and charity is well known. Uncle Bob and sister Kate, Sally, Tequila and the Pedestrian, the Priest, the Alter Boy and the Pope, they are each and everyone displaying the the understood variety of human capacity. Some paint greatness and wreck lives, Others frame houses and wreck lives. Still others are wrecked lives. So what. It's who and how we are.

And the beauty of art, the reason it moves us - it's who and how we are.

Your art is very cool!
I want to see more.

a work of art should be judged upon it's own merit. the curiosity about the creator is largely voyeuristic rubbernecking, more often than not enabling the simplification and a superficial/reactionary classification of the work, rather than helping to achieve any viable or meaningful analysis of the work. the sociopolitical & economic factors surrounding the time/place of the creation of the work will help to contextualize and enrich an understanding of the work, but ultimately it's the spectator's patience and ability to internalize which will allow any vital work of art to breathe and be of any importance, which is imho the ultimate utility and 'purpose' of any work of art.

i elaborate and give a simplistic example here.

Wait, Dan, "what differentiates good from bad art" is the supposedly less subjective topic you're suggesting?

Posted by: aeroman | May 15, 2006 at 05:53 PM

Yes. (below)

Did you mean to say that people don't understand the definition of art, and therefore they are reluctant to laugh at Woody Allen's movies because others might assume their reaction demonstrated a tolerance for incest?

Posted by: parse | May 15, 2006 at 06:59 PM

Yes, you actually can parse. If you looked at prior posts, you'd see that the Polanski thread and others veer off into wacky things like Zionism, when people such as yourself try to declaim something- i.e.- a knowledge of bad grammar, and then unwittingly only prove my point, grammatically and logically. Reread this: 'a more focused debate on less subjective things than personal tastes and moral outrages'. Can the outrage.
Unless-you-prefer-only-simple-declarative-sentences.

Dan,

I rarely ever say anything rude to a commenter unless it is obvious that he or she is a troll, but I must break with tradition for you. Do you realize how much you come across as an extremely pompous ass? Actually, I imagine you do realize it but just don't care because you're just that big of a pompous ass. Spare us the condescension, Aristotle.

Posted by: John | May 15, 2006 at 08:17 PM

Such wit. See parse, above. Perhaps actually focusing on what I, or maybe Lindsay wrote, might soothe you?

Art is crafted by the minds and hands of individuals motivated by an internal insistence to interpret an intangible feeling into a physical representation of that feeling....And the beauty of art, the reason it moves us - it's who and how we are.

Posted by: stephen bates | May 15, 2006 at 08:40 PM

Uh- no. Art is communication at its highest level. It is the conveyance of ideas, not the ideas themselves. Lindsay's post, for example, can be tackled on its ideas' merits, and it can be seen artistically- how much music it has, how well she uses irony (wittingly, unlike parse), humor, drama, etc. If she were telling a tale, the use of cliches and character development would factor into it.
Art is not wholly subjective, just as beauty is not.
Attraction to an art or beauty is subjective, but not the thing itself. One may think Roseanne Barr is more beautiful than Halle Berry, and be more attracted to the former, but the beauty (physically) of the two women can be mathematically descried.
Art is a more complex series of variables than mere beauty, but not infinitely so.
One can like the poetry of Maya Angelou, but to say it is better than Rilke's is to demonstrate a lack of understanding of the craft. Similarly, you can like velvet clown paintings, but they are not the landscapes of Frederic Edwin Church, nor the simple beauties of Matisse.
To do so is to deny the highest part of the human- intellect. This is the game that many today like to play, in favor of being accepted in some political circles, but it is baseless in reality.
The highest of human pursuits is knowledge and the wisdom to apply it, not emotions. Most arguments on art, etc., are subjective precisely because emotions get in the way. Ditto for religion and other such things.
Or did Aristotle say that?

Sorry Dan, but in response to "Art is subjective" you simply responded "No it isn't." You just used a lot more space than necessary.

If art is, as you say, "communication at its highest level", then it is completely subjective. No one else can appreciate the artists communication to me. No one else can truly guage my thoughts evoked by the artist. Even if I say my views, you can't know if I'm being honest - a significant possibility with art. You can pick different ways of counting the score - critical reviews, wealth generated or popularity, for example - but those do not alter the subjectivity of the art, they merely betray the priorities of the scorekeeper.

When we argue that something is great art, or that someone is a great artist, what we are really arguing is that our criteria for establishing what makes great art or artists are correct, and other's criteria are wrong. Whoever wastes their time winning that argument will not change what I feel.

Lindsay,

Nice post. Oddly enough, I've been thinking about this lately. Maybe it's in the air.

I've recently been listening to alot of James Brown, and his domestic abuse issues have certainly caused me to think twice about some songs. As an example, "It's a New Day" comes across more as a message to women to "know your place" rather than the more innocuous "let's play the mating game". But in the end, music like James Brown's becomes such a fundamental part of the art that I don't think you can judge it by means of it's creator nor simply as a function of it's historical context. So much good contemporary music borrows from JB that when you listen to him it seems as if you are listening to music that it is distilled down to a few pure elements and it almost feels like having a guilty treat.

That said, I find that, once you let go of the need to judge the "ethical" correctness or value of the song itself, it can be enlightening to contemplate these contextual matters along with the song since it seems to introduce a bit of tantalizing dischord which adds a bittersweet richness to the music that would be lacking otherwise. I don't think it is inappropriate to be both disturbed and thrilled by a song at the same time.

Biography is my favorite form of literature. History a close second.

I'm not about to give up my James Brown music, although I loathe what his personal life stands for.

Look, I'm a stauch atheist, but I still love religious art.

Same here, MK. James Brown is a genius, regardless of his sordid personal life.

I think you're coming at the Polanski issue from a different set of premises. I happen to think that Polanski did something very wrong in this case. Moreover, he pled guilty to that offense and then refused to accept his sentence. I don't think that anyone is entitled to do that.

I'm not saying that we should ignore Polanski's work because he's a sleazy person (a la James Brown, Rick James, Pablo Picasso, Billie Holiday).

I'm saying that if you agree that statutory rape is wrong and that the State of California has the right to punish self-confessed statutory rapists, then it's morally problematic to go to Poland or France to work with Polanski. It's wrong not because he's a sleazy guy, but because your collaboration is actively helping him to evade the consequences of his actions. The statement that you're making is either that statutory rape is no big deal and/or that Polanski should be treated as if he were above the law. So, by extension, it's at least a little bit suspect for me to support those dubious enterprises.

I say, Roman, come back to the US, do your community service or your month in country club prison or whatever you might have been sentenced to for statutory rape, and get on with your professional career. I don't care how sorry he says he is for what he did, if he were really sorry, he'd take his lumps and get on with his life instead of flouting the law. Basically, by going to work with him, American actors are saying that it's not a big deal to skip out on the sentence of an American court if you're a famous director. I say if we're all equal before the law, it's a big deal for anyone.

Sorry Dan, but in response to "Art is subjective" you simply responded "No it isn't." You just used a lot more space than necessary.

***Actually, not, if you read what I wrote. This is one of the probs with blogs. People only skim. Here's what I said: 'It is the conveyance of ideas, not the ideas themselves. Lindsay's post, for example, can be tackled on its ideas' merits, and it can be seen artistically- how much music it has, how well she uses irony (wittingly, unlike parse), humor, drama, etc. If she were telling a tale, the use of cliches and character development would factor into it.' Now, rebut it. A simple, no is not a rebuttal, although it may make you a Bartleby.***

If art is, as you say, "communication at its highest level", then it is completely subjective. No one else can appreciate the artists communication to me. No one else can truly guage my thoughts evoked by the artist.

***Absolutely not. Because it's on the highest level it can reach beyond language or other boundaries mere speech or lesser communications can. Look at your last line. That is true, but that is your reaction, NOT THE ART! The art is the vessel the idea is conveyed in, not your reaction. All reactions will be different. I like Godzilla films, but they are not as good as Rashomon. Why? Because Godzilla is not as technically sound, does not carry as profound a message, is not as well acted, and a host of other objective criteria. Subjectivity must be total, objectivity need not be, for one objective fact, assented to by all, objectifies the rest of the things in relation to it. Th efact that many can appreciate a great work of art obviates your claim that 'No one else can appreciate the artists communication to me'. They don't have to, for as a higher form, it's communicating to them in its own way. If you say Hi to me it has only one, or two, possible meanings, and no subtlety. Great art can have multiplicity and subtlety. You have shown only that you do not get art.***

Even if I say my views, you can't know if I'm being honest - a significant possibility with art.

***Art is deceit. Why would you think that your views on an art would be relevant to me? The art is all that matters when discussing it. You commit the fallacy of asuming intent has any bearing in the making or criticism of art. It does not. If it did all interpretations would be equally vaild. Eashomon and Godzilla are the same film. Is that critical claim valid? No. It's demonstrably wrong.***

You can pick different ways of counting the score - critical reviews, wealth generated or popularity, for example - but those do not alter the subjectivity of the art, they merely betray the priorities of the scorekeeper.

***No, they are merely differing ways of categorizing. Quality is just as viable a category as box office, for example. But, because Titanic and Schindler's List were hits at the box office does not mean they are good films, anymore than a great film like The New World was a financial failure. They are different criteria. Simply because you may not understand the criteria is not a justification for dismissing them for others. Because I have no interest in basket weaving of Byulgaria's internal politics does not mean they are not valid areas of inquiry. My priorities have nothing to do with the art. I often argue with some people over what makes anything grat. Is it innate,or a recognition. Ask yourself- is a great poem by, say Emily Dickinson, if never before discovered, only great upon publication? Would Halle Berry any less beautiful if she worked at K-Mart, and was not a celebrity on the cover of magazines? No, of course not. Why? Because there are objective criteria for beauty, as demonstrated by the fact that newborns are drawn to symmetric (beautiful) faces even before acculturation. Similarly, there are dictates that make a great sculpture great, even if hidden with a blanket in an attic. Of course, you are free to prefer velvet clown paintings or sex with Roseanne Barr over Halle Berry. Like is and can only be subjective, but excellence is not so bound, and refusing to acknowledge that fact, or a great piece of art, is nothing but desiderata.***

When we argue that something is great art, or that someone is a great artist, what we are really arguing is that our criteria for establishing what makes great art or artists are correct, and other's criteria are wrong. Whoever wastes their time winning that argument will not change what I feel.

Posted by: Njorl | May 16, 2006 at 10:50 AM

***Your last line betrays you, and it's not mere semantics. Your whole argument is based upon emotion, what you feel. I care not a whit what you or anyone feel, because I cannot argue with it, no more than I can argue with the fact you may love someone who abuses you. But, I can point to the abuse and say, 'That's bad.' Similarly, such things as a well composed photograph, a numerically significant usage of a phrase (cliche), or a perfectly held note vs. a cracked voice, are simply not arguable. Again, you may prefer my horrible warbling to Johnny Mathis's crooning, but Johnny's the better singer, w/o doubt. There are some criteria which are obvious, and others which are not. Again, because you cannot see them, does not obviate them.

Lindsay- Speaking of music. How is James Brown a genius? Dance and song are interpretive arts, not a creative one.

'then it's morally problematic to go to Poland or France to work with Polanski. It's wrong not because he's a sleazy guy, but because your collaboration is actively helping him to evade the consequences of his actions'

This is a ridiculous statement. How did Adrien Brody assist Polanski in his flight? How has he forged documents, etc. Again, if the charges were so just, why has no other contry extradited the man? Polanski's actors are cashing paychecks. That's all. There is no moral quandary because not every action POlanski takes is relevant to the rape. When he shits, is that an act of defiance? When he eats spaghetti, is the waiter culpable for feeding a bad man?

C'mon, Lindsay, you'r at your best when you argue with your head, not your heart.

C'mon, Lindsay, you'r at your best when you argue with your head, not your heart.

Quick, somebody call the Hume-bulance! Someone slept in on the first day of Intro to Ethics.

A month in a country club prison? Not bad soulution from a practical standpoint. It's just that (as you know) I think statuatory rape laws where the age of consent is under 14, are unjust laws. I also think our society (still) robs children of their rightful sexuality. But that's a whole 'nother can o worms.

Since when is "song", ie. music, not a creative art?

How is James Brown a genius?

If you have to ask, then you clearly don't know the first fucking thing about popular music.

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