Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Amanda Hess asks "Can we now do away with the idea of `separating the art from the artist?'" which seems like an indisputable point but ...

even if Hess raises a point that should seem to be easy to agree with, that we shouldn't keep separating the art from the artist, there will always be some guy who insists we need to keep them separate out of admiration for some artist or another.  Why?
Because in the history of Anglo-American arts discourse someone will always bring up the Puritans as a trump card for why we shouldn't conflate art and artist.  Sure, someone "could" recall that someone said that out of the abundance of the mouth the heart speaks and that the overflow of the heart informs artistic exploration.  Sure, someone could suggest that what you choose to depict in the arts could depict what you think about so regularly it becomes a kind of mental/emotional surplus that reflects who you are, but .... the Puritans.
Still, even keeping that in mind, here's some of what Hess has argued.
Amanda Hess
Can we now do away with the idea of “separating the art from the artist”?
Whenever a creative type (usually a man) is accused of mistreating people (usually women), a call arises to prevent those pesky biographical details from sneaking into our assessments of the artist’s work. But the Hollywood players accused of sexual harassment or worse — Harvey Weinstein, James Toback, Kevin Spacey and Louis C.K., to name a few from the ever-expanding list — have never seemed too interested in separating their art from their misdeeds. We’re learning more every day about how the entertainment industry has been shaped by their abuses of power. It’s time to consider how their art has been, too.
These men stand accused of using their creative positions to offend — turning film sets into hunting grounds; grooming young victims in acting classes; and luring female colleagues close on the pretext of networking, only to trap them in uninvited sexual situations. The performances we watch onscreen have been shaped by those actions. And their offenses have affected the paths of other artists, determining which rise to prominence and which are harassed or shamed out of work. In turn, the critical acclaim and economic clout afforded their projects have worked to insulate them from the consequences of their behavior.
This idea of assessing an artist’s work in light of his biography is, to some critics, blasphemous. Roman Polanski’s 2009 arrest inspired a New York Times round table on whether we ought to “separate the work of artists from the artists themselves, despite evidence of reprehensible or even criminal behavior.” It stands as a useful artifact of the prevailing attitude on the question in the early 21st century. The screenwriter and critic Jay Parini wrote, “Being an artist has absolutely nothing — nothing — to do with one’s personal behavior.” Mark Anthony Neal, an African-American studies scholar at Duke University, put it this way: “Let the art stand for itself, and these men stand in judgment, and never the twain shall meet.”
But Mr. Polanski stood charged of inviting a 13-year-old girl into Jack Nicholson’s hot tub on the pretext of photographing her as a model, and then drugging and raping her. The twain have met.
That tradition lives on today. Recently, the New Yorker film critic Richard Brody responded to sexual assault accusations against Mr. Weinstein by suggesting that while outside information about filmmakers “can be illuminating,” the “better a film is, the likelier that the biography only fills in details regarding what should already have been apparent to a cleareyed viewing.” That’s a bizarre calculation that dismisses discussions of bad deeds based on the talent of the person performing them. The journalist Gay Talese was blunter in his dismissal of Anthony Rapp, the “Rent” star who accused Kevin Spacey of preying on him when he was 14. “I hate that actor that ruined that guy’s career,” he said.
Over at IndieWire there's a battery of film critics who, perhaps predictably, say that things may be murkier than they appear.  The question asked was, "How should the backstory of a film and / or its makers impact the way we receive it?"  The question was not Hess' question, can we finally set aside the assumption that art must be separated from artist, obviously.  There's an explicit, if still subtextual to the text of the question itself, backdoor kept open in the question of "how should ... ?"  With that established, answers.
Kate Erbland (@katerbland), IndieWire

When horrifying accusations like the ones waged against Harvey Weinstein come to light, it’s very easy to scream for a boycott and move on (and, as we often see in cases like these, then actually ignoring it and not even holding fast to such public pronouncements), but when it comes to the question of what to actually do and how to really proceed, it gets murkier. And when it comes to cases like this, where years and years of art and cinema, mostly made by other people, are liable to be effected, it’s even trickier.

Harvey didn’t make these films, even if he produced them or distributed them or, as so many people know he loves to do, edited them in his own shape, and there’s a tremendous amount of work that went on far beyond his reach. But they do feel tainted now, and likely always will.

How do we watch? With an eye to the good people and talented artists who helped make them, and with a tremendous amount of care and respect when they involve women who have spoken out against Weinstein, who have voiced their own allegations. To ignore the films is to also ignore them, and that’s not something that should make anyone feel good. The key, however, is to watch and remember with respect and care. Think about the women who persevered to make their art, not the man who tried to stop them or change them for his own sick gains.

At the risk of asking an obvious question what is it about the label "producer" that precludes a man like Harvey Weinstein making a film?  Maybe it's just because I've been slogging through Adorno but reading Marxist arts criticism makes it hard to just ignore that any common-sense reading of "producer" would suggest that if a producer didn't decide to produce something it wouldn't get made at all or it would be produced by some other producer, right?  Or does that common-sense reading not apply in the art of cinema or music? 

Joshua Rothkopf (@joshrothkopf), Time Out New York

It’s the flip side to auteurism in a way: When we critics fabricate a connection between a filmmaker’s output — from year to year, project to project — we’re engaging in a kind of pop psychology that desires a coherence that may not exist. But isn’t it equally as valid to suggest that an artist’s actual life (personal indiscretions and all) might be the real skeleton holding a career together? That’s why auteurism only goes so far for me — it often leaves out the dirty stuff. Directors are complicated people. I want to engage with that complexity, for better or worse. So it’s much more exciting for me to think about “mother!” as a massively expensive piece of public therapy made by an egotistical yet honestly self-critical artist, instead of some bullshit allegory about Gaea or Mother Earth.
It's impossible to resist the observation that the new My Little Pony film has higher global box office returns than mother!  The question as to who Aronofsky was ultimately making his movie for and why it was worth making has not really come up among film critics.  It can be easy to grant that maybe an artist's life or interests should be considered a foundation for the art that he or she makes and then the case study is a film that has managed to make budget in global box office terms but that hasn't exactly made a ton of money.  Still, these quoted sentiments are better than what Richard Brody came up with.

Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker

Whatever a viewer knows about a film and a filmmaker can be illuminating. Criticism is a matter of making the useful connections. But the better a film is, the likelier that the biography only fills in details regarding what should already have been apparent to a clear-eyed viewing.
What should have been apparent to a clear-eyed viewing is a film critic who can think Lady Susan Vernon is somehow the sympathetic hero of Love & Friendship isn't nearly as capable of a clear-eyed viewing as he seems to think he is.  What part of a character explicitly saying of Vernon "She's a fiend" did Brody miss?

Slate's Dan Stevens, whose enthusiasm for Louis C. K. has never been difficult to find, sat down and reviewed his latest film in the wake of allegations made against the comedian, allegations the comedian has since confirmed to be true.  Stevens' review is longer than what will be quoted here, but there's a passage that sticks with me.


I was alone on my couch for a reason: My partner, who normally likes the same shows I do, couldn’t get into Louie, nor quite express why. He abandoned it a few episodes in, which I considered a lapse in taste I would generously overlook. But I continued watching on my own, saving up a few episodes to consume in a row as a treat. I’d be teased, on my way to watch “my Louies,” about my crush on Louis C.K., sometimes with variations on the theme of how, the more perverse his humor got, the more I liked him. And here’s the hard part to write now: That characterization wasn’t inaccurate. His willingness to visit what seemed like the darkest places of his own psyche (as it turned out, there were darker places) read as vulnerability. And vulnerability—God damn it, even this observation sounds creepy now—can be sexy.

and then, if you haven't inferred this by now, it stopped being sexy and began to seem repellant, nauseating and gross in light of new information about the character and conduct of the artist.

See, at the risk of pointing out the obvious I've documented the peak and decline of the Mars Hill Church era in Puget Sound without necessarily setting out to do so in the roughly eleven years I've done blogging.  I started off as someone who was frustrated with things I considered bad about the culture of Mars Hill but felt the positives outweighed the negatives.  Over the course of ten years I began to regard the negatives as dramatically, even exponentially outweighing the positives I thought I saw in the corporate culture.  But I also came to a realization that there's always a cult in every culture, and it's a lot easier to label something a cult if it's a culture you don't relate to while regarding the cult of your own culture as essentially, if not comprehensively, inviolate.  I haven't seen what Louis C. K. is known for but I can't help but wonder whether those people who have admired his work and enjoyed what he's done up until very, very recently, couldn't do a comparison contrast to a couple of sermons by Mark Driscoll and ask themselves what the differences are when it comes to bros being bros. 

It seems fair to ask, admittedly as a rhetorical question, whether the reason we want to separate the art from the artist is precisely because we know the artist has said and done things that we don't think a moral and socially well-adjusted person should ever do.  But it's not just Christians of the most conservative sort who have a pious bias.  Stevens tipped us off to something sacred, something sexy, a kind of vulnerability that is perceived (or perhaps simply read into) some kind of art that is venerated.  It may be that even among arts critics there's always a temptation to transpose ourselves on to the art we admire and in that sense Adorno was probably wrong, every arts critic has a philistine, if by philistine we take Adorno's definition of the person who only enjoys or admires work to the extent that he can find himself in the artwork.  There's no reason to assume Adorno himself didn't have his own philistine, though.  And the philistine in Adorno disliked jazz but that's another topic for another time.

The more challenging process in art interpretation might not be separating the artist from the art but learning to separate your admiration for some quality about the art you admire from your understanding if who you are and what your convictions are.  The propensity to read yourself onto work you admire is inescapable in the end but you can step back and ask yourself what you admire about an artist or a realm of art.  I admire the visual inventiveness and beauty of Hayao Miyazaki's films without subscribing to pantheism, which I fundamentally disagree with.  I can admire what, in Christian terms, could be construed as Miyazaki presenting humanity as broken yet bearing within it a divine spark.  Miyazaki regards that spark as a sign of pantheism and as a Christian I regard that as being made in the image of God, while an atheist would perhaps see some kind of general human dignity if they're into Miyazaki's films. 

What this process entails is respecting the metaphysical differences between yourself as a person and the artist as a person.  It's possible to admire the work of artists you regard as fundamentally wrong about the most essential metaphysical questions in life or even as morally terrible people on some issue while admiring their best traits in some other field of activity. I adore the music of Haydn and admire him in many respects as a man while regarding him as having been a terrible husband.  Bad people can be brilliant artists and remarkably decent people can be terrible artists but I don't really go in for the Lord Byron Romantic era garbage about how artists who are great enough can be however bad they want.  People who seriously endorse that sort of view don't understand that, at the most essential level, they've had to endorse a view that allowed thousands of people to say that Mark Driscoll had his flaws but he was still ultimately a great guy.

If the Puritans seem bad to so many Americans for declining to separate art from artists our very critique of them depends upon taking the refusal to completely separate art from artist seriously.  In other words, Americans will always be stuck in the double bind of wanting to condemn the Puritans for ultimately failing to fully live out the very criteria by which we're stuck finding them wanting.  They failed in several ways to grasp that they could one day perpetrate and perpetuate themselves the kinds of injustices they saw the institutions of their day perpetrating and perpetuating.  We all face that problem whether we want to admit to it or not.

But arts critics are going to have to face it in a unique way since while many people choose to overlook what they regard as moral failures on account of productive results the entertainment industry has tried to have it both ways on moral condemnation of others while hiding its own venality, much like any number of people associated with Religious Right causes turn out to have been doing for a generation, too.  We can't admit that we're turning out to be bad people but we can admit that we think those other people are bad, even if it's turning out that their team has been doing more or less the same terrible stuff our team has been doing. 

Here's an idea to mull over, for whatever little it may be worth, when scandals about the conduct of powerful people emerge the temptation to impute that conduct to the ideals or politics espoused by the person is overwhelming and the kinds of people who take to social media to say so are swift to equate the conduct with the ideology or dogmas expressed by whoever has turned out to be on the baddest behavior.  Christopher Hitchens could snipe that moral crusaders would turn out to have been immoral.  Fair enough, so long as Hitchens himself isn't exempted from dreading "Islamo-fascism" on the one hand and advocating pre-emptive war on the part of the United States against threats the validity and viability of which is still subject to at least some debate. When the best an atheist can do is formulate a "no true Scotsman" fallacy to exempt men from being atheists who played a role in totalitarian regimes on account of the "as if it were a religion" then the bad faith of the case should be obvious to anyone who can extricate themselves from motivated reasoning long enough to see that there's no inherent reason being an atheist or a theist in and of itself makes you a good or bad person.  Even Christians have a sacred text that admonishes us to watch our life and doctrine closely because the doctrine by itself can be affirmed by even demons. 

And if artists behave like demons but their art is considered admirable enough, well, we'll always have people attempting to separate art from the artist. It's easier to do that than to have a reckoning with ourselves for why we enjoy and admire art by people we regard as actually bad people on one issue or another. I have not really bothered to read A. O. Scott's Better Living Through Criticism (yet) because the title embodies and distills an error I think has been permeating Anglo-American arts journalism for probably a generation--to borrow the useful phrases, the bourgeois art religion has become meta in the era of post-modernism, so the art religion has shifted from art itself to arts criticism.  In a way it's all too easy to invoke the Frankfurt school without quoting Adorno at the start of Aesthetic Theory:

Aesthetic Theory
Theodore Adorno
Copyright (c) 1997 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota

ISBN 0-8264-6757-1

page 1
It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist. ...

page 2
As a result of its inevitable withdrawal from theology, from the unqualified claim to the truth of salvation, a secularization without which art would never have developed, art is condemned to provide the world as it exists with a consolation that—shorn of any hope of a world beyond—strengthens the spell of that from which the autonomy of art wants to free itself. ...

And yet here we are in the 21st century and A. O. Scott has a book called Better Living Through Criticism.  The unqualified claim to the truth of salvation moved from art to criticism.  And, depending on your mileage, some might include blogging in criticism.  That's too insider a joke, but I finished reading a book about public relations and church where the author says that no less than the Gospel is involved in whether your church decides to blog about it.  That's best saved for some other time, but I mention it because the trope of salvation through judicious media use is something professional Christians can say in all seriousness, so it's hardly something we can't find implicitly said in the realm of arts criticism.  A. O. Scott just happened to make that the official title of a book he wrote, maybe the rest just hope it can be implied.

Arts critics seem to want to run with the assumption that the necessity as well as the right of art to exist is so self-evident that any questions as to its why and what is beyond consideration. It's easier to debate whether mother! is an ecological parable than to ask why anyone would spend close to forty million dollars making such a parable when not making any movies might be a faster way to reduce the use of fossil fuels and associated products. This transforms into a claim that religion won't save the world but art will, even if the means of producing art depends on the very technologies and resource consumption processes that may do more to imperil the long-term health of the biosphere than just about anything else.  But American studios would rather make blockbuster movies about how our way of life will imperil the planet than ... just stop making new movies.

On the whole the responses published at IndieWire reminded me why I felt inspired to write a haiku a few years back that goes as follows.

every arts critic
must consecrate consumption
to live with their craft.

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