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May 15, 2006

Art and politics: Introduction

This is the first in a series of posts about the intersection of art and politics. This series is inspired by Amanda's Polanski/Kazan post, Scott's denunciation of aesthetic Stalinism, and the spirited response of my commenters on my Polanski thread (94 comments over the weekend in my thread alone, on a thread about an Oscar awarded four years ago!).

Reading through the comments, it seemed as if there were several parallel discussions going on, all of which deserved to be isolated and analyzed more closely.

Some people were talking about what influence our knowledge of an artist's biography should have on our aesthetic evaluation of his work. For example, is Roman Polanski a lesser director because he's a child rapist and a fugitive from American justice?

Others wanted to talk about the relationship between political messages and aesthetic merit.

Yet another issue raised in the Polanski threads was the ethics of consuming great art created under ethically suspect conditions. Assuming that Polanski is a brilliant director and that he's evading a just sentence for a terrible crime, is it right for actors and other talent to travel to Poland and France to work with Polanski? Is it right for viewers who love his art but disapprove of his flight from justice to pay to see his movies? The issue here is competing goods: Is making art more important than serving justice in this case? An implicit premise in many of the comments was that if a work of art is great, then you are morally entitled to consume it, regardless of its dubious provenance. That's a plausible position. However, it's a substantive thesis that has to be argued for. A countervailing view is that the principles of socially responsible consumption apply to cultural products as well as ordinary goods and services.

Obviously, there's a lot to talk about. So, I'm going to break this down into a multi-part series. The first post is about whether an artist's personal life has any bearing on the aesthetic quality of their work. Next up, a post on the relationship between the political content of a work of art and its aesthetic merits. Finally, a post on the ethics of art consumption.


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oooh. great questions.

I I think that understanding an artist's personal life does help to understand the work, at least. i do think that. I *also* think placing it in a more general social/cultural context makes sense. well, perhaps more in some artistic genres than others. I was gonna say, anything involving text and especially *narrative* is more directly related to the artist's actual beliefs and so on than is, say, music or abstract art; but it occurred to me it's also possible I'm saying that because I just don't understand those fields as well.

That said, I also think that the viewer brings a lot to the table as well, inevitably; and, too, the artist's conscious intent with a piece of work may be undercut by less conscious impulses, and sometimes I do think that the viewer may be picking up on this.

I'm not sure if that directly answers your question or not, though. wrt Polanski at least: I mean, I think the fact that the man was the type of person he was doesn't make "Rosemary's Baby," say, or "Chinatown," any less "good" of a movie; and no, it wouldn't stop me from seeing either of them. I do however think that one can pick up suggestions of a certain, ummm...worldview from the body of his work ("Rosemary's Baby," "Repulsion," "Chinatown," "Bitter Moon," "Fearless Vampire Killers," "Knife in the Water," "Oliver Twist," "The Pianist," "The Ninth Gate...") It's not like I'd immediately go "aha! this is the work of a child molester!," or that that in particular would change the way I looked at those particular films, especially.

But knowing his life story as a whole, more or less--orphaned child of parents who were sent to the camps, mother who died there, Sharon Tate's murder by the Manson gang--that to me puts the general themes of his work and later life in better perspective. I'm not sure where "morality" fits in there, though, especially.

anyway, I like this take on Polanski:

>...Polanski, as he retells these traumatic years, stresses not only the dislocation and oppression forced upon innocent people, but also the ways in which victims could themselves become victimisers - a treacherous dynamic evident in many of his films. As a result of these formative experiences, and of his subsequent exposure to Poland under Soviet domination post 1956 and the ensuing Stalinist purges, Polanski learnt to be forever sceptical of the "feverish and futile rhetoric" of political ideology. (4) Lacking religious convictions, he professes only a "faith in the absurd". (5) Later tragedies and mishaps that befell him - the brutal, senseless murder of his then-pregnant wife, actor Sharon Tate, by members of Charles Manson's sect in 1969, and his flight from America in 1979 during criminal proceedings on a charge of unlawful sexual intercourse with a teenage girl - only strengthened his cynical, disenchanted faith.

In this context, Polanski's work as a filmmaker seemed to blur reality and fantasy in many ways and directions at once. On the one hand, he was able to escape his impoverished past by entering the glamorous, jet-setting, sensation-driven world of international cinema; and on the other hand, his grisliest visions seemed to call forth worse terrors in reality, as a kind of malign reprisal. His films court fantastic extremes of sexuality and violence, sometimes celebrating such giddy excess, at other times standing back as a social moralist and judging it. Perversity, of all kinds, is a double-edged sword in his career. Polanski fed off mass media fantasy and, increasingly, it fed off him; in a twist familiar from many of his movies, it is hard to decide who is the vampire and who is the vampire killer...

The countervailing view is that the principles of socially responsible consumption apply to cultural products as well as ordinary goods and services.

There is a third position-not exhausting positions thereby. Art is also a work of thought or intellect. No one argues that John Locke shouldn't be read because he was a financeer of the slave trade or that we should ignore Aristotle because he defended slavery or that no one should read the Little Red Book because Mao killed tens of millions. Consumption here has an odd standing. The fact that works of art are also works of thought places them in a different category than products made by Chinese prison labor. Think of an exhibit, entitled "death of a Chinese dissident" and consisting of some article of clothing made by Chinese prison labor and sold in Wal-Mart. The artist may well have paid Wal-Mart for the article of clothing, but the ethics of buying the product change in viture of the fact that it's used to make an argument.

Robin, I think I agree. I didn't mean to suggest that buying a movie ticket is exactly the same as buying sweat-shop clothing.

My point was simply that the mere fact that something is great art doesn't preempt ethical questions about consuming it.

Polanski's case is unusual because buying his work helps perpetuate and legitimize a specific ongoing injustice. If he were simply a guy who went to jail for rape, I wouldn't see any reason not to consume his work. But he's actually a felon who decided that the rules didn't apply to him. By working with him, or going to see his movies, we're basically agreeing that the rules really don't apply to Polanski.

i keep getting stuck with the impression that it's more upsetting for many that he fled justice then committed rape. if he had done time, you are still watching a film made by a rapist. and again this coming from someone who adamantly believes the work and the person need be ultimately seperated.

also the issue of consumerism, while applicable to music, books, movies aren't the same for say painting and sculpture where you may be supporting the institution displaying the work, you're not purchasing it and not very directly supporting the artist.

To me, the issue is that he fled justice for rape and has yet to pay his debt to society. This is a big deal because I think that people ought to be punished for statutory rape, and because as citizens of a civil society we have a duty to submit to the rule of legitimate law and to expect the same of our fellow citizens. (I also believe that we have a duty to resist laws that we regard as unjust and to help others do the same, but that's a discussion for another day.) As far as I know, Polanski never claimed to be practicing any kind of civil disobedience. He just didn't feel like doing time for his infraction. I don't think that's acceptable behavior, regardless of the crime. By working with Polanski, other artists are legitimizing his decision. By paying to see his movies, viewers are in some small way complicit in his bid to evade justice.

But its not so cut and dry, in a plea bargain he agreed to accept a guilty judgement with the stipulation of no jail time.

Then he heard the judge was going to throw out his deal after his conviction.

Thats not quite the same in my mind as being convicted on the evidence by a jury of your peers. Whatever his crime, it looks like he didn't get his day in court.

And I can honestly say if I was in a foreign country and had been lied to by the court... I wouldn't see the result as justice. If the issue is, fleeing justice, one has to ask was it justice?

I still don't know enough about the case to say, but the more I read about it the less clear it seems.

As to the dubious origins of art. I think ultimately its a personal decision. Its not about 'being immoral' by proxie, its simply a question of what issues a person chooses to take a stand on. The consequences of injustice (or any action) are too numerous for our puny minds to properly assess.

"Art consumption"? I'd make a little more of Robin's insight above. Commodities are consumed; works of art are consumed only insofar as they are commodities, the objects themselves or access to them exchanged for money. Shouldn't this distinction in the art lead us to distinguish, say, consuming from appreciating art? We should also distinguish, I think, between fine art, longhair highfalutin The Best That Has Been Thought and Written (and Assembled and Decoup'd etc.) that is made in the first place to be appreciated, and the artefacts of mass culture, made in the first place to be sold as amusement -- with the understanding that the line cannot be drawn in some cases, e.g. your most admired Hollywood movie that is also a "film," or the poster art of Toulouse Lautrec.

Yes, it's simply a mistake to expect either wisdom or justice from the maker of even an artwork that makes us think about both. Ezra Pound penned some fine lines of vers libre, but couldn't do better as a sage than crackpottery and fascism, while Gary Snyder succeeds in both poetry and sagesse. Rembrandt was not the kindest
or most prudent man (he sent a servant to a brideswell and spent his household into bankruptcy); I have wondered if we don't see in his later self-portraits signs of the insight that he was not the man he could have been. Whther he could see it, we can: it's the paintings that matter. We can savor eggs without exaggerating the moral merits of hens, admire the man singing an aria on stage without admiring the airs he puts on at the stage door.

I consider a movie ticket a form of consumption. I admire Polanski's art and I consume seats at screenings of his films. If he'd come back and take his lumps (or die, that matter), I'd never have qualms about paying for his art again.

The solution? Consume only cheap pirated copies of Polanski's oeuvre.

Okay, maybe not such a good solution. I wanna have my art and watch it too.

How much longer do you figure he's got to live?

Joe: Polanski was not lied to by the court. The judicial discretion exercised was and is openly part of the pleading process. If his lawyers did not make that abundantly clear to him, they committed malpractice, and he could have appealed based on ineffective assistance of counsel.

Is it OK to watch a film that was made prior to his action? Or does his action invalidate consuming any of his work?

Do I find myself having to do searches on artists (living only, I guess), to evaluate what they have done prior to viewing their material? Or is it only
those infamous, publically-known actions where we have an obligation? And what actions initiate our boycott?

Is the ethical position that support (via consumption) of the artist's work is tantamount to supporting the artist's actions? Is this applicable to other forms of consumption/participation? It seems more of a political stance than ethical - as you implied, once he is dead, the prohibition is lifted? So is the point to punish Polanski via the marketplace since he attempted escape from his judicial punishment? And if this is a political statement, should we consider whether this "punishment" is even effective?

>the issue of consumerism,



>you're not purchasing it

I guess what bothers me about all this is that when we punish criminals by boycotting their artwork, it's a step in the direction of state-approved artwork. In the direction of declaring some art Entartete Kunst ("degenerate art," criminalized by the Nazis). Only non-criminals may create.

Besides which, it's not pertinent: if a criminal has gone free (leaving aside people's certain objections in this case, let's assume for the sake of argument that it was someone certainly guilty of something heinous), that's a job for the justice system, not for the ticket-buying public.

We have laws against prisoners profiting from the books they write in prison. All right, then. Similarly, we sometimes attempt to seize funds or property from criminals that flee. Sometimes the attempt to intercept those funds falls flat, and a Baby Doc or a Captain Mengele goes free and perhaps even lives his life happily to its end. However, again, a failure of justice is a failure of justice; that's really the thing that's offending us, not the criminal's art.

For the families of the victims of the prisoners mentioned, though, it may go even further: the ego gratification, the superstardom, the appreciation of the public for the art of someone who harmed your loved one, may be too much.

Has the question been too perverted by money? We wouldn't be discussing this at all if it didn't seem to some of us that the box office receipts for the films are perpetuating an injustice. Otherwise, we could simply appreciate, enjoy, be challenged by, any piece of art, no matter who creates it. After all, haven't we responded positively for two and a half millenia to the work of a convicted felon, whose life ended with the death penalty? Socrates.

First off, I don't nessesarily believe that Polanski is a child-rapist, and I was a child (techniquely) who was raped. There are a lot of grey areas to the story, which the court record doesn't nessesarily reflect.

Secondly, the difference between Polanski and Picasso is that Polanski was prosecuted (for different crimes, I acknowledge, but is we know for a fact that Picasso commited multiple assaults on women.)

You CAN separate the art from the artist - no question about it. I grew up believeing that art has a special place in this world, and I still believe it. But I also grew up believing that artists were special, and that was total bullshit. Many, many, many, many artists are assholes. And many aren't.

aeroman: My point was simply that he made a deal and held up his end, plead guilty under a set of circumstances. What else he knew or didn't know is not something I'm privy to... doesn't really matter to me either though.

In my non-lawyer opinion, if the judge didn't like the deal then his guilty plea on that basis should also not have been accepted.

If thats the way things work, in terms of 'judicial discretion', I wouldn't trust the legal system with my fate either.

All I know is, in canada plea deals generally are binding on both parties. The case of child murderer Karla Homolka, who got a sweet deal in retrospect, shows this clearly.

The knowledge that I could 'appeal' a 50 year sentence... while rotting in an american prison wouldn't mean diddly to me.

Sorry, I'd prefer the Riviera too. And while there I'd punch Polanski in the mouth.

And if you punched Polanski in the mouth you would be commiting asault, and could be prosecuted for that.

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