Sunday, July 28, 2019

Richard Brody on Woody Allen and Louis C. K. as Artist and not-Artist: the #metoo era as a Donatist controversy for Art as religion

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/watching-myself-watch-woody-allen-films

It would make life easier if Woody Allen’s movies were as easy and as right to condemn as his behavior. But that’s not my experience of his movies, and this makes it difficult both to watch and to write about them. In 2014, Allen’s daughter Dylan Farrow wrote an open letter, published in the Times, detailing her claims that Allen sexually molested her, on multiple occasions, when she was a child. Allen has denied wrongdoing. We cannot say for sure what happened. I can say what I believe: I believe Dylan Farrow. With considered queasiness, I have continued to watch Allen’s films as they’re released, including his new one, “Wonder Wheel,” which opens this weekend. It is strange and unpleasant to admit that I have found many of them to be substantial experiences—and that much of their power is inseparable from the accusations that have been made against Allen. ...


... It’s worth observing and lamenting the litany of victims in Allen’s work—the Carolinas and the Nolas, the mistresses and the wives, the girls getting undue attention and the lost, troubled boys. It’s a distressing measure of Allen’s achievement that his films are a record of their experience, as well—another measure of the inseparability of the artist and the art. In the bleak realm of amoral horror and troubled conscience that Allen depicts, he isn’t just a virtual character or participant—he’s also an observer. He has been working in the movies for half a century, and in entertainment even longer. The world that he depicts in his films is one in which the powerful abuse their power to prey upon the vulnerable and, until now, have, for the most part, gotten away with it. It’s also a world that, because of the courageous testimony of women including, crucially, Dylan Farrow, is now coming to light and, perhaps, to change.


Granting the inseparability of the artist and the art, Brody explained that he was going to keep watching Woody Allen films because ... Woody Allen is Woody Allen.  Brody was just as plain in declaring that if there is one standard for a master that standard does not necessarily apply to disciples.

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/why-louis-cks-i-love-you-daddy-should-never-have-been-distributed-in-the-first-place

...

“I Love You, Daddy” does all this without any complex or self-questioning artistry; with merely functional craft, it dispenses character traits, embodies messages, underlines every intention. Though two hours long and closed-ended, it is only a simulacrum of a movie. There is no ambiguity, no ambivalence, no second level of meaning, no irony, no glimmer of self-doubt—nothing but the channelling of a revolting sense of entitlement, of rights exercised without responsibilities. Louis C.K. has, and should have, the absolute right to make this movie and show it any way he can; but no responsible distributor should ever have decided to buy the rights to the movie from him (as The Orchard did, for five million dollars) or to promote it and release it. It’s good that the release of the movie has been cancelled—but it’s lamentable that it took the outing of Louis C.K.’s actual misconduct, rather than the movie’s own demerits, to get it off the calendar.


If you're good enough an artist in the eyes of a Richard Brody then it seems you can be a very bad person whose work is nonetheless substantial enough that a Richard Brody will keep track of what you do.  Perhaps this best distills a case I've struggled to take seriously, a case that art has some kind of sanctifying sacramental function so powerful that if "it" happens then the sacramental experience of real art, however it may be defined, must be taken seriously over against the alleged or proven misdeeds and evils of the artist whose work has somehow attained canonical and sacramental status.


Of course one of the most explicit manifestos written proposing that art could take up the role of religion was given to the world by Richard Wagner:


RELIGION AND ART
Richard Wagner 
Prose Works, Volume 6
translated by William Ashton Ellis
Second Edition
Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd.
1897

page 213

One might say that where Religion becomes artificial, it is reserved for Art to save the spirit of religion by recognising the figurative value of the mythic symbols which the former would have us believe in their literal sense, and revealing their deep and hidden truth through an ideal presentation. Whilst the priest stakes everything" on the religious allegories being accepted as matters of fact, the artist has no concern at all with such a thing, since he freely and openly gives out his work as his own invention. But Religion has sunk into an artificial life, when she finds herself compelled to keep on adding to the edifice of her dogmatic symbols, and thus conceals the one divinely True in her beneath an ever growing heap of incredibilities commended to belief. Feeling this, she has always sought the aid of Art ; who on her side has remained incapable of higher evolution so long as she must present that alleged reality of the symbol to the senses of the worshipper in form of fetishes and idols,— whereas she could only, fulfil her true vocation when, by an ideal presentment of the allegoric figure, she led to apprehension of its inner kernel, the truth ineffably divine. To see our way clear in this, we should have most carefully to test the origin of religions. These we must certainly deem the more divine, the simpler proves to be their inmost kernel. ...


Of course we have writers as formally conservative as Roger Scruton affirming Wagner's observation that the sacred is always within us as an impulse even if we don't subscribe to the dogmas of formal religions.  We can have more liberal writers discussing how because someone makes art, really makes art, they will continue to watch their movies even if everything alleged about the artist is regarded as true.  


To go by what has transpired in arts journalism and editorial writing in the post-Weinstein moment it would seem there is a consensus of some kind, perhaps embodied in Richard Brody's writing at the mainstream writes-for-The-New-Yorker level. This is a position that may not be as obvious in precept as it is in polemic.  Someone like Brody can claim that there is simply no art to C. K.'s work.  That may be but it is here I admit I find it nearly impossible to take Richard Brody seriously when he insists on being taken seriously, and find him least persuasive when, after years of chiding filmmakers for whatever moralism he perceives to be guiding them, nonetheless, cannot resist being a moralist himself.  Brody the film critic keeps watching Woody Allen films despite having a general sense that Allen is probably as much a monster as Brody may fear Allen to be. Why?  Because ... art.  


So in that sense the writings of someone like Richard Brody spell out a kind of mainstream rather than a theory of cinematic #resistance in the age of Trump.  Here's what the axiom seems to be: once an artist has achieved a high enough level of artistic craft you can't expel their work from the canon of the arts, even if there might be reasons to on personal-ethical grounds. What you can try to do is make sure that no one whose work is below "art", and whose personal conduct is also considered despicable, should be allowed even the slightest chance at being in the arts world long enough to potentially gain even a tertiary or secondary, let alone first-rate arts-as-canon place in art history.   


Yet if this is what the gatekeeping role of the arts journalist (or art historian) is then, if we're going to compare "a true artist" like Woody Allen to Louis C. K. then the only thing that is likely to "change" in the era of #MeToo is that perhaps some artists and arts writers may concede that we have a kind of Donatist controversy for art-as-religion that will either lead to "cancel culture" or, to go by what Brody is willing to write about Woody Allen, the affirmation that in Western art-religion there is a Donatist heresy, after all, and it will inform arts criticism and scholarship.  If art is a sacred experience and performs a sacramental function then we have partisans who have made it clear that if they have risen to the level of a Woody Allen the one who performs the sacrament (art) does not invalidate the sacrament or its power for the recipient.  

Jacques Ellul's observation on the sacred in The New Demons about how the sacred is embodied may be useful:

The New Demons
Jacques Ellul
The Seabury Press
English translation (c) 1975
ISBN 0-8164-0266-3

... the sacred implies a person who embodies it, for the sacred must be incarnate. This person is not of the same order as a sacred object, or a sacred idea.  The person in question is one in the group who concentrates in himself all the "virtues" implied by the sacred. He is the living sacred in motion, actualized in the present. He is not in himself the point of reference of the entire world order, but he is the point of reference for all the people  to show them how they should act, how they should appear, and how they should behave toward the sacred.  (page 56)
...
If to an older generation the films of Woody Allen seemed sacrilegious and scandalous for another generation Woody Allen's films have become, by way of being Art, a new sacred.  This could be in keeping with an observation Ellul made:

... the desacralizing agent becomes the center of the new sacred. The power which instigated the transgression of the older order cannot help being sacred itself. It enters the sacral world and finds itself endowed with an unquestioned presumption, which is all the more blinding for having triumphed over the first presumption. J. Brun emphasizes this very mechanism when he writes that the masters of desacralization in our modern era (Marx, Nietzsche, Freud) "are henceforth held to be beyond suspicion. One sacralizes them, consecrates them. They have become the new sacred monsters, so that what we are witnessing is a reinstatement of the very sacred which we claimed to have exorcised." (The New Demons,page 67) 

... Only the sacred can destroy the sacred. ... (page 77)
... 

If to an earlier generation the films of Woody Allen desacralized the old order of the sacred his films have, for at least one generation of filmmakers, filmgoers and film historians, became a new sacred.   It's probably a whole lot easier to try to accomplish this pre-emptive cancellation of a Louis C.K. if you never liked so-and-so's work rather than being someone who admired so-and-so's work and then had a skin-crawling sensation that so-and-so might be a bad person.  Sacred enough, at least, that a film critic like Richard Brody promised he would keep watching Woody Allen films despite the inseparability of the artist from his art even with allegations that the artist abused children that Brody says he believes.  But whatever it is about Allen's art, it's just sufficiently sacred enough to Brody that he said he'd keep watching the films despite having reason to believe the artist who made those films is a predatory man.   Louis C. K., having failed to meet Woody Allen level standards of Art, is consigned by Brody to the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth and no opportunity, most likely, to be admitted back into the sacred realm of being an Artist.  

If for Brody the man C. K. was never at the level of Artist, for Dana Stevens revelations of the man's behavior was far more troubling.  Stevens described the process through which she stopped being a fan of Louis C. K. in an article published at Slate.

https://slate.com/arts/2017/11/watching-louis-c-k-s-new-movie-and-saying-goodbye.html

...
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.

...
This excerpt from Stevens may suffice to show that there's transgressive humor that performs the role of the kind of sacred it can be perceived as casting out.

Now in writing about responses to Louis C. K. this is a comedian whose work I've never seen or heard that I can recall, and for whom I have no interest, but whose work has been a subject of writing at the media sites I tend to read.  So I've seen a few things written about Louis C. K., enough to get a sense that there's nothing about this guy that sounds the least bit interesting to me. 


By contrast, I was pretty disappointed to read the headlines and coverage about Sherman Alexie's alleged (and possibly actual) sexual conduct.  He was one of my favorite short story authors during the 1990s, even if I have found his poetry to be lackluster compared to his superb short stories.  The point that some writers like to make is we somehow "have to" separate the artist from the art even though some part of us may not really believe it is possible to fully extricate the artist from art.  But even granting that, for instance, we've seen Richard Brody declare that the artist and his art are not separable and yet Brody announced he would keep watching Woody Allen films all the same.  Brody has more or less declared Woody Allen's art to be sacred enough to keep watching.  Why that should be may defy explanation precisely because Allen's films, the work of an Artist, have been transformed into a sacred.  


If in our era the sacred of the individual artist has come under attack, with cause, in light of revelations of misconduct, abuse and exploitation perpetrated by the individual artists, this is no sign that the sacred nature of art has been compromised.  We live, after all, in the age of Marvel films.  The pulp fiction that was beneath consideration by serious people who discussed art seriously has been displaced already. We don't live in the era of Woody Allen any more, we live in the era of Captain America.  We live in an era in which there can be a remake of The Magnificent Seven which was a remake of Seven Samurai.  Film critics may fret that the age of the remake of remakes of classic films is a sign that Hollywood has run out of ideas but if we pause to look at this in terms of revolutions in the sacred, perhaps a remake of a remake that depicts the American West as full of black and Mexican and Asian cowboys alongside white ones is, technically, more historically plausible than the era of classic Westerns. 

If the era of the auteur should fade away it is being displaced by an era in which the brand, the corporately backed art made in a more collaborative fashion, has become a new sacred.  It's not that the new superhero films aren't art (it's not a question whether or not you enjoy them, they constitute cinematic art), the crisis the superhero film presents to an older generation of film fans is to demonstrate how potently antiquated more auteur-based visions of sacred creativity have become.  It may be on the basis of this kind of tectonic shift in art-as-sacred from an auteur basis to a collaborative corporate brand basis that a #metoo moment has become possible.  Perhaps not.

Yet it does seem that as we have opportunity to go back and look more closely at the lives and works of the men who were thought of as singular geniuses we can discover they had platoons or even armies of help, often by way of contributions made by men and women who were rarely mentioned.  Terry Teachout's biography of Duke Ellington seemed to anger jazz fans for seeming too scabrous in its presentation of Edward Ellington as a man willing to take credit for composing works founded on riffs composed by his brilliant musicians.  Sometimes there are cases to be made that jazz has a more collective than singular approach to composition but Teachout made a more practical and blunt observation, Ellington paid his musicians so well and kept them so steadily employed that while they could rightly complain of being denied higher royalties they would be due as co-authors, they rarely ever felt compelled to leave the band.  Ellington's genius as a musical collaborator rather than as a singular musical genius in an older conception of genius can still be an inspiration to us in the twenty-first century.  Ellington, after all, was living and working in a cultural milieu in which it was far better to market yourself and let yourself be marketed as a singular musical genius than as a brilliant collaborator.  Fortunately for Ellington's reputation, the music he worked on is remarkable enough that his reputational shift from singular musical genius to brilliant collaborator can survive.  

When we live in a time wherein we can learn that Charlie Chaplin took pains to make sure his musical collaborators could not be considered co-composers of music, then it may be for the best we regard men like Charlie Chaplin or Duke Ellington as geniuses of collaboration even if they may have aspired to be perceived and understood as geniuses in some more singular, Romantic 19th century understanding of the term genius.  The temptation for this seems to be equally distributed among critics and performers.  A whole lot of people made the Beatles about Lennon and McCartney, or Lennon, or McCartney rather than embrace the possibility that the Fab Four were as fab as they were because a gigantic corporate superstructure and foundation allowed them to become what they became.  Ideological commitments to romantic style genius may have been the most appealing and convenient move to make so as to avoid recognizing that many of the cultural touchstones of the last century have been more assembly team-driven committee-reviewed and corporately-funded products than we would like our life-changing art to be.  Once placed within the realm of sacred art (if not exactly what some would call highbrow art) the Beatles had a firm place in the realm of art-as-religion.


Louis C. K. continues to be instructive for the ways in which he has, since controversy emerged about his conduct, been thwarted in his bid at a comeback.  The Secret Life of Pets 2 came out in 2019, after all, and there was no sign of him in the cast.  I didn't watch the first one and have no plans to see the second one, but the message has been clear, this guy's attempt to come back after what was published about him has not been very successful.  

https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2018/08/what-does-redemption-actually-mean/568768/


On Sunday night, Louis C.K. performed an unexpected set at the Comedy Cellar, a famed club in New York’s Greenwich Village. The appearance was the comedian’s first since he admitted last year to sexual misconduct—most notably, exposing himself to (and masturbating in front of) multiple women in the comedy world. “I have spent my long and lucky career talking and saying anything I want,” C.K. said in his November 2017 statement. “I will now step back and take a long time to listen.”

...

https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/11/louis-ck-sexual-misconduct-allegations/545489/


...



More broadly, the C.K. allegations point to a narrative that is reverberating throughout Hollywood as accusations about sexual misbehavior and assault keep emerging—a narrative that is about power consolidated among a select few, usually white men, many of whom may have placed a higher value on their friendship with suspected abusers than on protecting or listening to those who came forward. And it’s one that the comedy world will need to grapple with in the days and weeks to come.
In the immediate wake of the Times story, the fate of C.K.’s upcoming film is unclear. I Love You, Daddy’s distributor, The Orchard, said in a statement released Thursday that it would “give careful consideration to the timing and release of the film,” adding, “There is never a place for the behavior detailed in these allegations.” C.K.’s publicist Lewis Kay told the Times, “Louis is not going to answer any questions”—a silence that C.K. had maintained whenever he’d been asked about the Gawker blind item by various interviewers. But the Timesstory lays bare what many in the comedy community might have called an open secret, and should prompt a real reckoning over how that community regularly silences and fails the people who have been subjected to harassment.
In the year of Leaving Neverland and news about R. Kelly we know that the select few includes more people than white men.  Bill Cosby's sentencing should be sufficient reminder that stars can act like stars in the worst possible ways regardless of demography.  If Bill Cosby has been a subject of "cancel culture" it may serve as a clear explanation of how that can work and, frankly, why it should be able to work--the contradiction between Cosby's moralizing message about responsibility and what he was convicted of having done is too great to ignore.  Perhaps those who admire Woody Allen's films sincerely believe that whatever terrible things he's done he's never been a moralizing crusader and, therefore, his Art is still Art that cannot be harmed by any revelations about how he has treated girls.  This does not do anything to explain why his work, as Art, is regarded as sacred but there may be no explanation as to why anyone regards any art as sacred.  

Louis C. K. clearly did not reach Woody Allen level Artist status and even his attempt at some kind of comeback to the level he had achieved inspired a leaked tape that was more a topic for discussion and analysis in arts and entertainment journalism than who leaked the tape.  

https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2018/12/louis-ck-leaked-tape/579220/

A little over a year ago, Louis C.K. published a statement in The New York Times, after several women had come forward to confirm the rumors that had, for years, been swirling around him. “These stories are true,” he wrote, expressing regret for several instances of sexual misconduct and suggesting that the acts being made public would be a turning point for him. His confession concluded with contrition: “I have spent my long and lucky career talking and saying anything I want,” C.K. wrote. “I will now step back and take a long time to listen.”



The statement was, for all its labored hand-wringing—a literary critic might think of it as foreshadowing—not an apology. It was instead, like so much of C.K.’s comedy, notably self-centered. In its nods toward introspection, though, the statement was marginally better than the half-hearted defenses offered by many other men of #MeToo, and so it was accommodated, in many quarters, with relief and a great deal of patience: Maybe he could learn. Maybe he could do better. Maybe he could find a way to make amends to the women whose persons he had disrespected and whose careers he had compromised. C.K., with more TK: Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.
But 2018 has been a year of hard truths, and here, just before the calendar turns its page to whatever fresh hell might lie in wait, is one more: C.K.’s promise to listen and learn, it seems, was itself a lie. On Sunday evening, instead, an audio recording of a recent appearance C.K. made, reportedly, at Governor’s comedy club on Long Island, New York, leaked on YouTube. The set suggests that while C.K. may have been up to a lot of activities over the past year, listening and learning have not been among them.
...

It’s the kind of comedy that is so lacking in depth or insight that it’s not worth examining, on its own, in any more detail. What’s notable, though, is the broader implication the new jokes represent for C.K.’s alleged efforts at redemption. Over the years, C.K.’s comedy evolved, as any comic’s will, but at their best and most well known, his jokes were about interrogating himself as a means of interrogating American culture. As C.K. shuffled uncomfortably on stages and sets, clad in rumpled T-shirts and slouchy dad jeans, he served as his own act’s useful idiot: C.K., author and character at once, played the privileged guy who—he’d be the first to admit it—didn’t fully deserve his privilege. It was classic observational humor, bending its lens to examine the warped terrain of C.K.’s own psyche, and while it was winking and postmodern and self-hating and self-elevating, it also contained an implied transaction: Hearing C.K.’s confession would offer, for his audience, its own kind of reconciliation. His performed selfishness could seem, in its twisted way, generous.
But while offense, in that sense, has always been an element of C.K.’s comedy—offense as a means of inflicting discomfort, and thus, the promise went, of illuminating awkward realities—offense, now, is all there is. The layer of alleged truth-telling is entirely missing from the new material. C.K.’s new set, according to its leaked version, doesn’t merely punch down; it stomps, pettily, to the bottom. None of it is smart or brave; it is simply cruel. And yet it tries to justify itself by suggesting that C.K. himself has been the recipient of cruelty. One of the key moments of the leaked set comes when someone, either by walking out or by shooting him a look, seems to question C.K. as he complains about being unable to use the word retarded. C.K. responds with a rant:
What’re you gonna take away my birthday? My life is over; I don’t give a shit. You can, you can be offended—it’s okay. You can get mad at me. Anyway.
It’s an old story: The guy who abused others, claiming his own victimhood. The man who has so much, still, complaining about what he has lost, with no seeming interest in or regard for the people he has hurt along the way. It’s not merely a violation of Poe’s law; it’s a much more basic affront. It suggests that empathy itself is a fair-weather attitude, fragile and tenuous and, in the end, inconvenient. Then: I will now step back and take a long time to listen. Now: You can get mad at me. Anyway.

The learner was evidently not greater than the master, let alone in the same category.  C. K. may have been an admirer of Allen but his own work, the last few years have shown, was decreed to not be art, certainly not art enough for the man to deserve a comeback in the eyes of journalists writing at The Atlantic and Slate.

Comedian Louis C.K., who in November 2017 admitted to repeatedly exposing himself and masturbating in front of unwilling women, said at the time he was going to “step back and take a long time to listen.” Less than a year later, he returned to the stage at the Comedy Cellar to perform an unannounced set. Although the way he came back didn’t inspire much confidence that he’d learned anything during his time in the wilderness, it was still possible, if you leaned way back and squinted, to speculate that his decision to return without any fanfare was a mistake—Slate’s Christina Cauterucci left open the possibility that it was an “ill-advised toe dipped in water too boiling hot for swimming”—and that whatever missteps C.K. had made in returning to the public eye the way he did, he was sincerely engaged in an attempt to wrestle with what he’d done.

It is not possible to believe that anymore. Bootleg audio from one of his shows—it’s labeled as being from Long Island comedy club Governor’s on Dec. 16—has been uploaded to YouTube, giving those of us who weren’t lucky enough to be in the audience for a surprise Louis C.K. appearance a chance to hear what he’s been up to. And what he’s been up to, judging from the material, is bemoaning the money he lost, fuming over young people and political correctness, and writing some really killer jokes about the respective penis sizes of various ethnic groups. It’s not just that it’s not funny: it’s positively sickening. Here, for example, is the way C.K. ends a bit about visiting his doctor (described earlier in the joke as old, and Jewish, and touchy-feely): ...

There was an opportunity to dissect the nature of C. K.'s presentation that's sufficiently informative to quote at some length. 


In his brilliant 2013 special, Oh My God, C.K. does a bit called “of course … but maybe?” He says there are moral stances, or just opinions, that we should all hold for intellectual and ethical reasons. But there is always a demon that whispers to him. That’s the “but maybe?” part. His first example is of children who have nut allergies and need to be protected. He says during the bit:

Of course children who have nut allergies need to be protected. Of course. We need to segregate their food from nuts, have their medication available at all times, and anybody who manufactures or serves food needs to be aware of deadly nut allergies. Of course … but maybe, maybe if touching a nut kills you, you’re supposed to die?

When Matt Zoller Seitz of New York magazine reviewed that routine in 2013, he said it ranked with the best of George Carlin and wrote that “C.K. is a humanist comic who goes Too Far with good reason—to see what he’s capable of thinking and saying, then wonder if it’s just him or if there’s some universal fear or longing or mania there.” To Zoller Seitz, it was the grappling with the badness of the thought that made for an exquisite tension. The humanity was born of thinking a bad thing, knowing it was bad, and then not knowing what to do with it. It should be noted that this week Zoller Seitz vowed to no longer write of Louis C.K. until he’s dead or sentenced in a court of law.
A less high-minded interpretation would be that Louis excelled at creating permission for us to laugh at some horrible thoughts. His brilliance lay not in pointing to a universal fear, longing, or mania, but in establishing a conceit which allowed him to get not just a laugh, but some moral approval by making the fairly rote “these kids and their peanut allergy” jokes.
...

I've been persuaded by a lifetime of observing people that there are ultimately two basic categories of humor.  Humor invites us to laugh with or laugh at and often these categories overlap. Laugh with me. Laugh at me. Laugh with me as I laugh at myself.  Laugh with me as I laugh at you.  Laugh with me as I laugh at them.  Laugh at me as I laugh at you.  Laugh at me as I laugh with them.  Laugh at me as I laugh with you.  It's not especially complicated at the level of core concepts and social relations.  

I've played with a theory that a successful comedian (male, female or other) finds some way to balance the interplay between the dynamics of laughing with and laughing at humor.  I regard Jane Austen as one of the great comedic geniuses of English language writing. Jane Austen laughs at a whole lot of her characters but she laughs with them in the end, and invites us to laugh with them that, in spite of their foibles and challenges, things basically get to work out in the end.  A more strictly "laughing at" kind of humor is summed up on a quip associated with Mel Brooks that tragedy is when he cuts his finger and comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.  But this constitutes a laugh at me as I laugh at you category of humor.  It's the kind of joke that frontloads the cruelty that seems to be inherent to so much humor.  Yet Mel Brooks did produce The Elephant Man. By doing that Brooks showed he knew enough and knew how to flip the script of the joke, to grasp that there is a cruelty to humor that doesn't feel the least bit consoling if you're the punchline.  Lynch ended up directing the film but it was a project Brooks began.  C. K.'s attempt at a comeback may have revealed that when he was put in a position to no longer have a large audience for the "laugh with" aspect of his routine he began to reveal what the real nature of his "laugh at" humor was and entertainment writers who discovered this awoke with horror to what it was they were really enjoying, as distinct from what they thought they were enjoying in the work of Louis C. K. 

Richard Brody's take, of course, is different.  Louis C. K. isn't an artist and even if the man has every right to make whatever film he wants no distributor should have distributed the film.  And yet ... Woody Allen ... .  Whatever is sacred about Woody Allen films to a Richard Brody is sacred enough that it doesn't actually matter that Woody Allen may have done everything he's been alleged to have done, the Richard Brodys of contemporary arts and entertainment journalism have spoken, Allen is an Artist and therefore the Art is worth consuming.  

A few years back I wrote a haiku that summed up a lot of my reading of arts and entertainment journalism and writing on the arts more generally.  

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

For a Richard Brody there is still something sacred about the films of Woody Allen that a Louis C. K. never achieved.  In the era of the superhero film maybe both these men (or all three of these men) are emblematic of an older form of sacralized art. That doesn't mean the new art and associated artists are better, more likely just that, as Ellul pointed out, a sacred can only be successfully displaced by another sacred.  We can live in an era where people say they think we should be less consumeristic and people can say that we should avoid consuming pop culture but they say so through internet publication or through Twitter.   It's possible to say that a Louis C. K. isn't an artist but then turn around and say that Woody Allen is an artist and therefore his films will still be watched.  

The era of #metoo and the post Harvey Weinstein moment may have revealed with a great deal of clarity that if a Wagnerian style art-religion permeates our culture then there has been a Donatist controversy as to whether the Artist can be so bad as to destroy the sacred content of Art, so that the Consumer can no longer feel there is anything divine or life-affirming about the Art because of the evils of the Artist.  The Artist as the Priest of Art-Religion either must or does not have to be sinless for the sacrament of Art to have its effect.  For those who have decided that Woody Allen is still Artist enough the Art is still a sacrament through which they gain life and a sense of the sacred.  For others, what Woody Allen has done is so terrible that if they ever regarded him as an Artist before they do so no longer. 


Maybe the films of Woody Allen presented and exalted a new conception of adulthood and masculinity that was perceived as a tonic, even an antidote, to the mythologies of masculinity formulated by the likes of John Wayne or Carey Grant or Humphrey Bogart or whomever.  A new sacred supplanted an older sacred that defined a sacred masculine, if you will (or if you won't).  If the Woody Allen character was not of these older masculinity types his films could joke that those forms of masculinity were somehow toxic.  If the allegations against Allen can be confirmed, though, it would seem that Allen's form of masculinity as a tonic to the mythological masculinity of a John Wayne is a form that hides toxic elements ... but if enough people like Richard Brody designate Allen's films as Art then, well, what's one to do?

The Donatist controversy didn't exactly get resolved. Donatism was identified as a heretical stance but it involved arguments that the sacraments were of such a nature that not even the moral impurities of priests could vitiate the sacraments of their power.  Perhaps that's something we need to keep in mind if in a post-Wagnerian world many have Art as their religion.  There can be a Donatist controversy in our own era and if the history of Christianity is any indication then those who hold to the catholic religion of Art can say there is a Donatist heresy in which the Artist who has lived a vile life is said to have destroyed any sanctifying potential for Art.

It would seem, to go by writing that has been done about Artists like Woody Allen and aspiring artists who are fenced out of Artist category like Louis C. K. that a more direct engagement with a Donatist controversy for Art as a religion isn't as easily done as debating which artists have or have not attained Art status.  If that's the case then it makes sense that social justice warriors on the internet can be dismissed as attacking the canon of art made by dead white males for refusing to believe that the dead white males embodied the best and brightest that has been thought and said.  These social justice warriors can be thought of as Donatist heretics for questioning the sacramental power of the art canon that was created and codified by dead white males. If Joseph Campbell's monomyth and cosmogonic cycle reveal a truth about all global folklore and religion then activism for representation of all groups in the priesthood of Art makes sense, in fact it may be the only position that is sensible if one takes Campbell's ideas seriously.  Campbell's ideas, of course, could be terribly wrong but that's another topic for some other time.  That social justice warriors would want the Catholic art religion of Art to take seriously the possibility of the priesthood being open to every nation, language and tribe has reasons enough even if I'm just playing with an analogy in which Art in the West is the new religion that has replaced Catholicism. 

For those who are Christians it's necessary to ask whether there should be a Donatist controversy for art-as-sacred-experience.  Woody Allen films are not baptism or eucharist, they're films.  If you discovered that Woody Allen did terrible things and keep watching his films anyway would you, say, do the same for the work of Bill Cosby?  If not, why not?  Is it possible that the gap between the moralizing aspect of Cosby's work and revelations about his conduct have ensured that he deserves to be one of the primary targets of "cancel culture"?  Maybe so.  Yet Michael Jackson, for instance, is probably not going to be subject to that kind of "cancel culture" and perhaps because the contradiction between messaging and conduct is not quite as direct.  Jackson can still represent the history of a black man becoming one of the most beloved popular entertainers and musicians of our era despite what we have learned about him.  Jackson has become sacred and if Ellul was right then the old sacred can't be dislodged without a new power that is capable of desacralizing the old sacred while becoming the new sacred itself.  That hasn't happened yet. Then again, it may still happen.  It's not as though one can't find in Michael Jackson's music things you could just as easily find in, say, Stevie Wonder.  But the albums of Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder are not baptism or eucharist or any of the other sacraments, are they? 

We might find out after a generation or so that all that may have seemed "sacred" about films by Woody Allen was the way they distilled a range of experiences for people who lived in New York, or who imagined what it might be like to live in New York through the films of people like Woody Allen.  For now, though, writers like Richard Brody have declared Allen's work Art and have explained why they will keep watching his movies even if all the allegations about Allen turn out to be true.  Why?  Because ... Art?

If we are having a Donatist controversy in the religion of Art in the United States (and, of course, someone could say that we're not) where this analogy breaks down is that rather than having an Augustine make arguments as to why the Donatists are wrong about the nature of the sacraments, we have journalists, academics and critics who serve a gatekeeping role that permits them the power of "cancel culture".   It's easier to explain why a Louis C. K. isn't an artist at all than to explain what it is about Art by Woody Allen is so potent and beautiful one should keep watching the movies in spite of what the man may have done.  It's easier to do that than to attempt to explain what the sacramental function of art would be in Art as religion and where it's power, if it has power, comes from ... and who has the power to decide what that power is.   

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