Sunday, October 28, 2018

the post-Weinstein #MeToo era as a Donatist controversy for Western art religion

In the wake of allegations made against Harvey Weinstein; in the wake of allegations made against Sherman Alexie; in the wake of allegations made about a variety of other artists and producers of art ... I've been mulling over an old quote from Richard Wagner.

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

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. ...

If in a post Wagnerian conception of Art we could say that Art is the real or true religion then could it be said that what we've witnessed in the post-Weinstein moment or even a pre-Weinstein moment with someone like Woody Allen, what have we been looking at?  

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....

And if Woody Allen's films did not pass muster with Richard Brody as art in the way that a film by Louis C. K. did not pass muster with Brody as art (in the limited sense that Brody claimed no distributor should have picked up the film to begin with even if C. K. had every right to make the sort of film he wanted to make), what would the verdict be?  As Brody put 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."

But to declare that the movie's own demerits should have been held against it begs a question at the heart of why a Woody Allen film is sacred and a C. K. film isn't.  

If there has been in the West since Richard Wagner's "Art and Religion" a Western liberal art religion, the controversies that have swirled around filmmakers and comedians or filmmaker comedians seems to be ... some kind of Donatist controversy.  Brody can, with the proverbial wave of a hand, dismiss C. K. as making films that are bereft of art and not worthy of distribution while Woody Allen, about whom Brody is willing to believe the allegations made against Allen, nevertheless has made films with some kind of sacramental power sufficient enough that allegations made about Allen, even if proven true, cannot detract from the artistry of Allen's filmography.

Not that Brody is having a Donatist controversy style moment because, for Brody, the alleged misdeeds of Woody Allen are more or less inseparable from his artistry.  But for those in the entertainment industries who would like artists to actually be good people in addition to making good art there could be a Donatist controversy, a question as to whether the art experience as a sacramental rite is vitiated in some way by the moral failures of heresies of artists.  

Now what I don't think this would necessarily speak to is what some people think is going on, which is that we're somehow being beset by some neo-Puritan ethos or praxis.  The idea that some kind of puritanism is afoot seems improbable because for a man like Louis C. K. to be able to make movies at all would suggest the Puritan legacy has been left far, far behind in the United States.  What's more, it's hard to shake the sense that to even make such a glib accounting of "why" we're at this culture moment in the time after allegations have been made against Harvey Weinstein could just be a residual master narrative about American history as a whole and art history as a subsidiary history within that master narrative--of Americans seeking to divest themselves of the negative impact of Puritanism.  Well, Puritanism isn't as monolithic as it may be presented as being in stories ranging from The Crucible to The Witch.  John Cotton and Roger Williams alone could seem like indicators that there was a spectrum within what we now know of as Puritanism. 

Brody could be considered someone who thinks there is such a thing as a Donatist heresy for a Western religion of art.  There are others who regard the works of artists, authors and filmmakers who have been discovered to have been predatory and exploitive to in some way significantly impinge on the credibility or quality of their art, possibly to the point of questioning whether their works should be part of teaching curriculum.  Sherman Alexie's work has already passed into such a controversy, with a teacher suspended for considering using an Alexie book in a teaching setting this year.

What makes it seem improbable that this is a Puritan moment is simply a matter of considering who has been making what sorts of films and books and whether the films produced by Harvey Weinstein or the books of Sherman Alexie would be praised all that much by any contemporary writers, thinkers or pastors who would regard themselves as in some way positively influenced by the Puritans.

I really enjoyed Alexie's short stories but his film was a tedious chore and I say this as someone who admires the Puritan Richard Sibbes.  So, there, just at a personal level I would say there's a reason to question whether what we've been witnessing has much to do with some perceived negative influence on the arts in the early 21st century that's allegedly connected to Puritanism.

I don't get the sense that most of the names attached to #MeToo and #TimesUp are openly espousing what would be considered views in keeping with Jonathan Edwards or John Owen.

If anything, the calls for a new regime seem to be coming from quarters in which men and women are working who openly hope to be that new regime.  In other words, to tie this to a proposal that we're seeing people propose that there can be a Donatist heresy for Western art religion, this moment could be thought of as a kind of intra-ecclesial battle between artists and critics who believe that art-makers should live lives consistent with the ideals they espouse as artists and even more so the lives they live as people, and a kind of old guard, if you will, committed to a more "catholic" conception of post-Wagnerian art religion  in which very bad men and women who make art that is considered great enough get to have that art within the canon of art religion. 

In the case of a Bill Cosby it could be argued that precisely because he publicly set himself up as a moralist it is to the extent that he did that that his art has been vitiated by the judicial finding against him.  When artists set out to make art that explicitly moralizes then it would seem there's a consistent position staked out in, so to speak, erasing Cosby from the art canon.   There may be more room to forgive the mere hypocrite who fails to live up to his or her highest ideals than for the man or woman who traffics in egregious double standards.  To give examples in the realm of music, we can recognize that Johnny Cash and Aretha Franklin may have fallen far short of the ideals they hoped and prayed to live by without necessarily assuming that because they may have failed to live by the ideals of their respective Christian convictions but still take them seriously as people and as artists.  

Can art as a religious experience still be sublime and life-affirming and give you a memorably abreactive experience if you know the art was made by someone who was an alcoholic who was physically abusive?  Can you listen to, say, John Lennon songs and feel moved by their aspirations for love, peace and harmony despite knowing anything about his drinking or temper?  What has been said time and again in the present is that if we judge artists of the past by the scruples of the present there might be no room left for any art.  I.e. if we get rid of all the art made by monsters will any art be left?

Well, that is to formulate the question in so rhetorical a fashion as to highlight why it seems like we're in a moment in which there may be a Donatist controversy about Western art as a religion.   Colloquially the Donatists were those who proposed that there were sins bad enough that a priest committing them could lose the capacity to confer sacraments.  That's a terribly simplified version of what the controversy was and its nature but I'm using Donatism as an analogy for what seems to have been going on in the post-Harvey Weinstein allegations moment we've been in.  
All of that is to say that I don't think you can have a Donatist controversy regarding art and artists if art isn't your religion.  To take things back to Johnny Cash, for instance, there isn't a Donatist controversy style question for Cash because he wasn't exactly an ordained Baptist minister for one, and for another as a layperson he was not administering any sacraments as a Christian would define them, not even when performing songs or reading the Bible for an audio book recording (although ... anyway, let's set that off to one side). 

But for those to whom art is a religion it absolutely can be a controversy and perhaps even SHOULD be a controversy.  It should be controversial that so many men who made art and literature and film that has been canonized as Art turn out to have been moderately bad men to legendarily evil men in their personal relationships.  Perhaps there should be a Donatist controversy about Western art religion so as to establish what makes Art possess sacramental power at all, or to define what you can do or have to do to vitiate the possibly sacramental power art is expected to have.  Why could a Richard Brody say that Woody Allen's films are still substantial art consumption experiences while a film by C. K. isn't?  

It's worth noting that one person's meat is another person's poison, as a saying has it.  Mendelssohn thought highly of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (as did Mozart), whereas Hector Berlioz was not so thrilled with Bach's work.  

Personally, not that anyone is really asking me what I think ... I'm just writing at my own blog here ... art is not a religion and shouldn't be a religion.  Art can be beautiful and valuable and add a great deal to life as we live it, but to sacralize art seems it has gotten us to a point where there's a perceived crisis in whether artists who make what is regarded as good art who are regarded as terrible people that seems like it's a Donatist controversy for art-as-religion.  People who have actual religious convictions in a more traditional sense don't really need to spend quite as much time in hand-wringing anxiety if they hold that art is actually a pretty lower tier consideration compared to, say, Eucharist or baptism.  It's not that you can't have strong convictions about the arts, by any means, it's that for religiously observant people Art isn't a sacrament, let alone "the" sacrament that confers some aura of holiness on the producers or consumers of art in contemporary society.  As Adorno put it so early in Aesthetic Theory, art shorn of all its last vestiges of ties to cultic practice, religious belief and sympathetic magic has faced a crisis in which the very legitimacy of its existence and basis for being cannot be taken as given.  It's not a foregone conclusion that art has a "right" to exist because Western liberal art religion substituted "Art" for what had previously been the God of Catholicism and Christendom.  

But for those who do ardently and emphatically embrace some kind of Wagnerian style Art as religion perhaps there should always be a Donatist controversy. Perhaps we should always have a Tolstoy style advocacy that the artist to be an actually good artist must also in some way be a good human being.  One of Richard Taruskin's many polemics about the idea that art should be formal and autonomous from personal or ethical or political considerations has been to avoid the recognition in scholarly and historical terms how many daring and innovative artists were fascists or racists or totalitarians ... an observation that doesn't settle well with liberal art religion precisely because it would be so much nicer if we could hear Stravinsky's music without remembering he had anti-Semitic comments ... but then John Lennon wasn't beyond anti-Semitic jokes, was he?  

And that may get us to the "will there be any art left?" It hasn't been clear to me that those who have defended art-as-religion have always been very clear about what would make Art a sacred experience or object.  To ask rhetorically that we might have no art left if we got rid of the art of monsters doesn't answer the question as to what makes it "art" compared to not-art.  The mere fact that Theodore Adorno could declare that on ideological grounds the Soviet Union was a society in which art could not happen doesn't mean the string quartets of Shostakovich actually aren't string quartets or "art". Similar things could be said about the string quartets of Weinberg or the piano music of Shchedrin.  Which may get us to an observation against the idea that whatever we're facing in this possibly Donatist controversy about Western art religion that it has to do with puritanism, it has seemed as though the push against the sacrament of Art being valid if administered by the wrong sorts of people has come from a more progressive and even secularist direction.  It's not to say that a neo-puritan couldn't ALSO argue against the validity of a sacrament administered by a reprobate or evil person ... it's just that the puritan narrative seems to be an off-the-shelf trope when used by those who would cast any and all moral crusades against artists with morally questionable lives that seems ... lazy east coast American boilerplate.  I can't think of a more delicate way to put that and I could have put it less delicately, by far.  

I am still in incubation phase ... but I just had to get these thoughts out of my system by way of writing.  It's been on my mind lately that when I see the points and counterpoints about the arts and men behaving badly ... it seemed that over the last thirty years those men-as-artists were often defended as being against puritan moralizing ... and yet we're in a moment in which it seems people want to (with cause!) walk back the idea that as long as the art is fine enough or transcendent enough or sacramental enough as an art-experience that the man or woman who made the art does or says in the not-acting-as-priest-of-art-as-religion can't have any bearing on how we understand or recognize about their art.  

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