Saturday, June 12, 2021

Ethan Hein on whether Lorde "ripped off" George Michael and on the inescapability of musical tropes--we can't escape musical tropes [and if we take our cues from the galant era philosophy and practice of music rather than Romanticism we won't have to]

The logic of intellectual property is an awkward fit for the reality of creating the grooves in pop songs. Those grooves come from the vernacular traditions of the African diaspora, which are based on signifying on tropes. The idea of a work of music as an autonomous entity coming from the mind of a single individual is specific to modern Western Europe. The Romantic idea of the lone genius governs our copyright regime, but it’s ideological, not an objective description of how music gets made.

It makes me sad that people are getting sued over vague similarities in grooves, because there are just not that many different grooves or chord progressions that sound good, and all the good ones have been used over and over again. I want creators to be able to protect their livelihoods, but a hyper-litigious environment only benefits the people with the resources to hire lawyers. The law only protects everyone equally in the most abstract and idealistic sense. If you actually want to sue someone, or defend yourself from a lawsuit, it is going to cost you (unless you can find a lawyer who will work on contingency, which… good luck.)

This is a point that I think can be raised from another tradition by way of galant styles in the eighteenth century and what Robert Gjerdingen has called "schemata", which he elaborated on from the concept as developed by Leonard Meyer.  The short version is that in the galant style tropes were recognized and what you did with them as a composer revealed your artistry or lack thereof.  Which tropes did you use and what did you use them for?  That's Gjerdingen's summary position in Music in the Galant Style.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Stephen Goss: South China Sea Peace, recorded by Xuefei Yang
This is off one of Yang's earliest albums, Si Ji, that I picked up years ago. The entire album was devoted to classical guitar music by Chinese composers or composers exploring cultural themes from Chinese regions.  This lovely stand-alone piece calls for a second nut, if memory serves, to be put on the fingerboard to create the timbrel effects you'll hear throughout the piece.  Sadly the score for this has never been published to my knowledge but the music is worth hearing.

Freddie deBoer sounds off on what he regards as a reflexive panic of elite liberals about Trump, mentions "Republicans have always been dangerous monsters". Well, here on the West coast we don't remember Mark Hatfield as being a dangerous monster, okay


The essential point I want to make here is this: elite liberals, as a class used to comfortable and orderly lives, were massively freaked out by the election of Donald Trump, and what they have demanded in turn is not a new and better political movement but for everyone else to be freaked out too. The cries of “this is not normal!” were always quite vulgar as well as wrong - reactionary demagogues have always been a major force in American politics, thank you - and revealed a caste of people for whom political discourse had become indistinguishable from group therapy. And if you declined to participate in the yelling, even if you openly rejected Trump and his party, you were held up as a agent of Trumpism. Feel the way that we feel or you will be exiled.

Conversations about how left critics of Democrats underestimate the danger Trump represents are never really about what we might ordinarily recognize as substantive political disagreements. They are about the fact that many of those left critics refused to devolve into the primal-scream-therapy histrionics that liberal Dems themselves did. Elite liberals are not used to their worlds being shaken by political events, even after Democratic losses, and are deeply habituated to a certain sort of propriety and order in how politics operate. Republicans have always been dangerous monsters, but Trump failed to couch his bigotry in the genteel terms expected in our discourse, and this offended the Ivy League sensibilities of media and political elites. When some people within their orbit were found not to share their same fundamentally psychodramatic relationship to current events, those elites got nasty.

If deBoer wants to stake out a more consistent critique of what he regards as the entitled panic of elite liberals on the east coast he might want to talk back the idea that "Republicans have always been dangerous monsters".  Maybe for as long as deBoer has been alive but I remember growing up hearing about how the Republican Senator Mark Hatfield in Oregon voted against escalation in Vietnam; was against the death penalty as well as abortion; and favored diversifying Oregon's regional economy beyond just chopping down all our trees.  Tom McColl was another Republican who I would not have placed in the "dangerous monster" category.  

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

Rex McGee Creation for Solo Banjo #4 C minor

A little piece in C minor for solo banjo.  It has a fun quasi-Baroque vibe to it.  

It's part of a larger cycle of 24 Creations for Solo Banjo someone ran by me recently.

I've only had time to listen to about four of the 24 but the ones I've heard so far are fun. I'm gambling on sharing the entire cycle for folks who may be curious. 

Monday, June 07, 2021

Ethan Iverson on jazz, classical music, and Mary Lou Williams' History of Jazz Tree and some thoughts about why I find Nikolai Kapustin's preludes and fugues more compelling than his piano sonatas

I've written about Nikolai Kapustin's music in the past and maybe one day I'll even blog about his preludes and fugues, which I have really enjoyed over the years.  But right now I want to talk about how I have found that I enjoy his piano sonatas okay while I'm listening to them and then can't remember most of them after the fact. 

One of the reasons I suspect Kapustin's piano sonatas go in one ear and out the other for me is a problem of thematic differentiation.  Kapustin would have hated having his sonatas compared to the piano sonatas of Medtner but I think the comparison is apt, at least in the sense that both composers seemed to write one gigantic sonata in an installment plan, as Kyle Gann sort of put it about Medtner years ago

But I think there might be another way to describe the difference between Kapustin's piano sonatas and his preludes and fugues. A fugue is an elaborative process for a riff, or, if you will, the fugue subject often has a groove it can be used to explore and Kapustin's fugues work better than his piano sonatas do for me because the fugal composition process is so inherently open-ended and groove-driven (if you're any good at it) that it is in some ways more compatible with jazz than too many of the post-A. B. Marx approaches to sonata forms in the West.  After all, Russian theorists don't necessarily seem to think about sonata forms the way Germans do.

But let me finally get to Ethan Iverson's old blog post because I found it helpful.

Alan Jacobs on an article at Current Affairs on how Dungeons & Dragons was thought of as a competing mythoi rather than some proposed mythoi vs a logoi in Christian fundamentalist doctrine

Alan Jacobs, like many of us, remember the quackery of Hal Lindsey's The Late, Great Planet Earth and brings it to bear on a recent Current Affairs article:

About that Current Affairs essay … I think it’s pretty much wholly wrong. It’s true that fundamentalist Christianity is insistently literal about anything in the Bible that looks like historical narrative (seven literal days of creation, yes the sun did too stand still in the sky, etc.), but even more dominant than Pentateuchal literalism in the fundamentalist mindest is a fascination with prophecy, and especially with the Book of Revelation (plus parts of Daniel and Ezekiel) as a blueprint for the End Times — but the blueprint is legible only if its symbolism is properly deciphered. And especially in the 70s and 80s, such deciphering involved the most mythologically baroque interpretations imaginable.

 Precisely nobody thought that guys actually named Gog and Magog were going to show up when the parousia was near. When you claim, as Hal Lindsey did, that the the book of Daniel prophesied the European Common Market, your hermeneutical vice is not excessive literalism.  

The problem with things like D&D was not that they were mythoi as opposed to logoi, but rather that they were alternative mythoi — they were scary because they were potentially appealing in the same way that prophecy culture was supposed to be, by involving me as a kind of participant observer in a big coherent story. 

This would take a long time to explain, but I think the mythos/logos contrast is far less useful for describing the pathologies of fundamentalist exegesis in particular and fundamentalist culture more broadly than Kermode’s distinction in The Sense of an Ending between fictions and myths. Not that I would expect fundamentalists (or any other interpreters of Scripture) to see their exegeses as fictive! — but Kermode is brilliant, I think, on the ways that properly provisional narratives or explanations harden, calcify, into fixed myths.
At the risk of merely touching upon Gadamer's comment about how all play is ultimately self-presentation, it might be the dread about D&D was that it was (or is) perceived as a mythos through which the play as self-presentation defines identity in ways that are considered incompatible with Christian life and practice.  I met a few guys (almost invariably guys) who played D&D at Mars Hill and they embraced what most would regard as nothing short of fundamentalist religious beliefs but had no problems at all with role-playing games.  It may be the cultural tides have shifted to such a point that people who act as though fundamentalists in the United States in 2021 are exactly the same as they were in the Reagan years missed a boat.  

In this case I would say Jacobs seems more on point than Aisling McCrae, although the McCrae piece was nevertheless still an interesting read. 

Martha Nussbaum on the Romantic legacies of the myth of authenticity and the myth of the artist as transgressive of societal norms; Justin E. H. Smith has a fairly predictable defense of "real literature" by way of invoking Zhdanovian socialist realism

Abusers are often shielded not only by this “myth of authenticity,” but by another myth, which pervades all the performing arts, and indeed all the other arts as well. This is an age-old myth, at least as old as Romanticism. The myth is that the constraint of usual social norms and rules is bad for artists. They have to be permitted to be transgressive, to break the rules, or else their creativity will be stifled. Genius is beyond good and evil. This myth is basically false: there are many artists who are perfectly capable of maintaining a boundary between their inner freedom in the realm of creation and the way they live outside it.

However, the myth is so pervasive that for many it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. An artist who sincerely believes that breaking society’s rules is necessary for success, by long habit actually becomes unable to create without transgressing. It’s revealing that the myth is overwhelmingly about male creativity, used by males for males. And it’s revealing, too, that the myth mainly concerns sexual rules. I can’t think of an artist I’ve known who believed that being creative licensed him to commit theft or burglary. It’s just a handy way, for a small number of talented men, to arrive at a conclusion so often coveted by male pride: I am above sexual laws, and other people aren’t fully real.


There’s another factor: if the arts we love are to thrive, they need star power. Star power generates both ticket sales and donations. Even if we dislike star power and star influence, but just want the art we love to persist and do well, we can ill afford to get rid of the star, however badly behaved. And some people may not care so much about the health of the art, but more about making money on their investments. Hence the fact that some stars whose gifts make money for others are held to account only when they are too old and ill to make money for others any longer.
One of the things that I have noticed in the last decade or so is the extent to which bad behavior in artists is defended on something along the following lines--if we expected our artists to be perfectly morally people there wouldn't be any art left.  But to formulate this axiom in terms of Christian theological terms (as I have seen done) needs to be avoided or, if done at all, put in very careful terms.  The humans are sinners and that very often we sin in ways we don't realize or anticipate is one kind of thing to say.  It's possible to hurt people without realizing you're hurting them. It's another thing to pardon in advance or to pardon retroactively the sins of people because their work has in some way been canonized.  That kind of theology of "grace" can be nothing more than a post hoc pardon granted for the sake of continued consumption, a case that "grace" is provided so that I can keep watching, say, Woody Allen movies because his films are "art" and "art" has a sacramental role in sanctification (i.e. I am a better person in some nebulous way for watching "art" movies).  

Well, okay, I admit that I do actually read Puritans and there are cases to be made that if a person abuses people that "can" be considered a reason to either revoke their "artist" card or, to put it another way, the arts are not sanctifying sacraments to begin with.  What doesn't tend to happen is to define what qualifies as "art" so as to define why the "artist" is able to get away with doing Y or Z but everyone else who isn't an "artist" can't be pardoned in a similar way.  Take Richard Brody, who dubbed Woody Allen an "artist" and Louis C. K. as "not an artist". Apparently the artist  can do or say creepy things so long as the artist has some moment of self-doubt and questioning that finds its way into the finished products that are christened art.  The critic has the power to declare whether or not this has happened and as Richard Brody has declared in the past, the critic has the power to declare that a film is about B no matter how much the filmmaker says the film is about A.  Critics are capable of conferring on whatever they regard as "art" meanings that have nothing much to do with the artworks upon which they confer the status of art.  

The bread is just bread until it is consecrated by the priest, you might be able to say. If the priest does not consecrate the bread it will have no sacramental function, which seems to be the difference between Richard Brody consecrating the bread of Woody Allen's films and not consecrating the bread of Louis CK.  But reasons, of course, are given for the consecration, whether what is consecrated as "art" is a Woody Allen film or songs recorded by Michael Jackson. 

The conundrum doesn't go away if something is designated as "not art" by critics B or E because history is full of self-designated artists whose work aggravated critics.  But let's not pretend that merely self-designating the status of "artist" is more than that.  Any bro can self-identify as an artist and then proceed to act as though the license of being an artist is part of the life of being an artist.

If all that is necessary is to claim to be an artist and then transgressiveness is permitted would people go back to 2012 and conclude that, say, Terry Richardson could be called an artist and therefore what he reportedly did was not so bad as to preclude his being considered an artist?  But was he an artist?  The allegations about his conduct came during a time in my life when I knew someone who worked from time to time as a model and she shared that photographers like Richardson were known in the industry and that women who wanted to avoid certain types of situations had best categorically refuse to work with certain photographers.  To put the matter delicately, if you were a woman working in modeling and you didn't want X to happen you made a point of never working with photographers Y or Z.  To put the matter discreetly, Terry Richardson didn't get a reputation in the fashion industry for taking the kinds of photographs that would be considered "art".  If you've never heard of him you are probably better off.  

I can make my point in a still different way.  The kind of "grace" that some people want for the artist who takes advantage of people, even particularly women, is not necessarily extended to athletics. There are things people are still willing to overlook or pardon in an "artist" like Woody Allen or Philip Roth or Richard Wagner or the proverbial Lord Byron that they aren't willing to pardon in a Larry Nassar or a Sandunsky or maybe a Lance Armstrong.  Nussbaum's book, of course, zeroes in on precisely how athletics is precisely another arena of activity where men are allowed to get away with a great deal but within the realm of defenses of "art" it is not that common to see those who would defend the license exercised by athletes or the coaches or trainers of athletes as being as defensible as the license exercised by artists.  If that's the case, why is that the case?

With Richard Brody's defense of his watching Woody Allen's films and refusing to grant that there is any "art" to Louis CK, he is arguably taking the stance of favoring survivorship bias.  It's easy to defend the already canonized on the grounds that the canonized art and the canonized artist was artful enough to retain canonicity.  In pop music John Lennon may have been a domestic abuser but his being a domestic abuser won't disqualify him from "Give Peace a Chance" at a larger cultural level.  To put the matter bluntly, Lennon may have been a hypocrite about giving peace a chance in the domestic sphere but he wasn't a hypocrite about giving peace a chance within the realm in which he made his plea.  Bill Cosby's hectoring moralizing ran aground so brutally on what turned out to be his personally exploitive relations to women he revealed a double standard that many feel vitiates his claims to being an artist.  

Mere hypocrisy, failing to live up to your ethical ideals, seems to be something we can pardon in artists because we can pardon that in people.  Double standards are different. When Jesus condemned the Pharisees and legal experts for judging people by standards they would not help people live up to it was arguably the double-standardized method of moral judgment Jesus was condemning.  If they were merely blind they would not be guilty but because they claimed to see their guilt remained.  In the epistle of James there's a warning "not many of you should aspire to be teachers" because teachers will be judged by a sterner standard.  If art religion remains with us it may not be a bad thing to decide that the priests of art religion really ought to be judged by higher standards than those who are not so consecrated. Arguing that celebrity or the conferred status of "artist" does not bring with it the kinds of things that are repeatedly reported as being done by artists doesn't have to be construed as an argument against "grace", if "grace" is a theological shibboleth that is defined in such a way that "I" get to keep consuming the "art" I want to consume.  

But it's just as easy to reframe all of this in non-religious terms or, taking a page from Wagner, to recognize that there is a concept of "sacred" that doesn't require religious belief.  What is sacred enough to people that they will still venerate the music of Michael Jackson even if all the things alleged about him were proven true?  Racial conciliation is one significant possibility.  I'm alive because of an interracial marriage so I don't have a problem proposing that Michael Jackson's music is still worth studying and that his vision of racial conciliation is worth considering despite what he may have done in other realms of life.  I still vastly prefer Stevie Wonder but at the moment I trust it's clear that my point is that there "are" cases to be made that values found in or imputed to artists and entertainers and their works make them worth visiting and revisiting even if they had more than mere feet of clay and had some well-known vices.  

The problem seems to be that a good deal of the "theology" of art religion expounds a doctrine of "grace" that is more focused on the liberty of the consumer to keep consuming than the responsibilities of art-religion clergy (however they attain that status) to, if you will, live in a manner worthy of their "calling".  

Another problem is that, well, it's one thing to say that writers are engineers of the human soul as a stand-in for what artists are expected to do and another thing to consider that the idea that artists (writers, but artists of all sorts) have such a role can just as easily be something besides Romantic Western liberalism.  It can also come about through Zhdanov style socialist realism, as Justin E. H. Smith lately expounded upon at moderate length:

In a speech to the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers in Moscow in 1934, Central Committee secretary Andreï Zhdanov reminded those assembled of Comrade Stalin’s recent declaration that, in the Soviet Union, writers are now “the engineers of the human soul”.


What obligations does this appellation entail? Most importantly, Zhdanov says, reality must be depicted “neither ‘scholastically’ nor lifelessly, nor simply as ‘objective reality’, but rather as reality in its revolutionary development. The truthfulness and historical exactitude of the artistic image must be linked with the task of ideological transformation, of the education of the working people in the spirit of socialism. This method in fiction and literary criticism is what we call the method of socialist realism.”

It's absolutely no surprise he tipped his hat to the proverbial devil and made a case for why artists can be bad people who make compelling art.  An American expat to Paris might almost be expected to default to such a position. Someone who approvingly cites Adorno against pop culture might also default, as Adorno did, to the assumption that anything from the Soviet bloc by way of the arts was precluded from even being art but that's not actually where Smith lands.

Smith may have a stronger case that philosophy is not art and significant philosophers could be literal Nazis and still remain important to study:
I understand that Roth’s posthumous legacy has met with some bumps recently, and it is hard not to suppose that the biographer who was responsible for seeing to it is now being punished in a sort of twofer deal: for his own real crimes, and for his deceased subject’s crimes of imagination. I don’t have much to add to the Roth/Bailey “discourse”. I don’t really know why people read literary biographies, let alone treat their authors as persons of public interest. For years I have struggled to come up with something interesting to say about the question of “moral luck” — interesting, that is, beyond the sort of hack position-taking that one is required to engage in for, say, a “Guest Essay” in the Times. I will say that I do not support anything so simplistic as “distinguishing between the artist and the work”, since it is fairly plain to me that often the moral rottenness of the artist is constitutive of the work. This extends even to philosophy, where any honest person will concede that Martin Heidegger was not “a great philosopher” who was “also a Nazi”, and that the whole challenge of dealing with Heidegger and his legacy is to figure out how Western philosophy developed in such a way that when Nazism emerged it made sense for at least one of its greatest expositors to offer his services as a handmaiden to this ideology. It is precisely for this reason that reading and understanding Heidegger is so urgent. There is nothing “honorific” about doing this; philosophy is not a fan club, and if you are treating it as one, this is because you do not really understand what philosophy is.
I have already confessed in this space to a certain sympathy for the devil in my musical taste, and it should not be surprising to learn that this sympathy extends into literature as well. I have been through hell, aesthetically speaking. I was “brought up” on tales of lowlife criminality from Jean Genet and William S. Burroughs (another red flag, apparently), and all sorts of “hardcore shit” I won’t even bother to describe. I think I turned out alright, as did the great majority of those in my cohort of bourgeois decadent romantics.

These days I am more sensitive, and a convert to the Good. But I can’t help but think that this conversion is also a continuation, just as J.-K. Huysmans’ arch-Catholic En route completes the trilogy that begins with the satanic Là-bas, and that the journey through that valley has been a key element of my own moral education. Nor does it seem to me that the two are so easy to separate out from one another, no matter what Zhdanovism —which is also a Manicheanism— would have us believe. There is nothing more transgressive than St. Julien’s massacre of the animals, not to mention his subsequent massacre of his parents. In the end what elevates him to the status of a saint is not his anchorite retreat from the world in repentance for his sins, but rather his hallucinatory erotic tryst with a dying scabrous leper. This is something Flaubert is in part spinning out of his imagination, but if Lolita is spun out from the stories of “detectives, pimps, and prostitutes” that Zhdanov sees as populating bourgeois imperialist arts and culture, Flaubert is rather drawing on the source material of the medieval “legends of the saints” genre, notably the Genoese archbishop Jacques de Voragine’s thirteenth-century Légende dorée. Christian tradition, and the literatures it has produced, has generally been sensitive, in a way that Zhdanovism cannot be, to the fact that we human beings, qua human beings, have always been doing hardcore shit, and it is a purpose of art to lay this bare, and compel us to meditate on it 

Hand waving concerns about the scruples of "artists" or lack thereof as some neo-Zhdanov activity can be easy for academics in Paris to do.

I am currently translating one of the legends of the Sakha oral epic tradition known as Olonkho (I’ve written extensively about my work on this project here). A common narrative sequence in this tradition features an ogre, far more beastly than Humbert Humbert, spying on girls in the forest. The girls pee in turn, and the ogre observes to see which of them produces the urine with the most bubbles in it. This is taken to be a sign of fertility. When he determines which of the girls it is, he kidnaps her, and takes her off as his “wife”.

In the prenuptial ritual traditions of several Eurasian cultures, extending broadly from the western coast of the Black Sea all the way to the north of Lake Baikal and the Lena River basin, there is a moment where the groom’s family and friends simulate a kidnapping of the bride. The simulated quality of the ritual is generally obvious in more bourgeois and urban settings; as one moves out into the countryside, it becomes more difficult to say whether one is witnessing a sublimation, or indeed the real thing. The Olonkho motif with the ogre and the maiden is itself a more distant sublimation — correctly discerning the true monstrous nature of the men who perpetuate this tradition. It’s an evil tradition. Engineers of the human soul would wish to deal with this evil by suppression; literature, real literature, deals with it through the power of imaginative sublimation. It is dark and wrong, to speak with Moshfegh, and we understand ourselves through it. ...

We have, today, a Zhdanovshchina suited to the particularities of our times, one that promotes not so much an “engineering of souls” as a “human-resources management of souls”. The abrupt ascendancy of HR as the central organizing power of society extends far beyond literature, of course. It has certainly overtaken philosophy, the academic discipline I know best. In the middle ages philosophy was said to be the “handmaiden” [ancillaris] of theology; in the modern period it became the handmaiden of science. Today philosophy is in many respects an ancillary of human resources (as here, for example).

In literature as in philosophy, we may at least comfort ourselves with the enduring existence of the treasures of the past, to which at least for the moment our information technologies continue to provide us access. 

Then again, another variation on the Zhanovschina could be guys in Paris pontificating about how nobody over the age of forty should even know who Spider-man is.  Yes, well, since I had fun watching Alfred Molina play Otto Octavius I won't mind that he's reportedly coming back for the next Spider-man movie and I really hope Kathryn Hahn reprises her funny take on Doc Ock in the next Into the Spider-verse film.  The paradox of Zhdanov style socialist realism as a mentality is that it can manifest as readily as a fixation in those who oppose it as those who advocate it.  If we treat it as another variation in a post-Tolstoy conception that artists, if we are too admire them, should in some sense have earned that admiration, this is not that unusual or shocking.  If Nabakov can draw upon pulp what's the case that pulp is off-limits?  Smith doesn't take that view about Paula Abdul in contrast to opera, so why take that kind of stance in cinema and literature?  What's the case for studying Nabakov rather than Hammett? 

For those who don't invoke Zhdanov and socialist realism the trendier invocation is the Puritans.  Or Tolstoy comes up, or maybe even Charles Ives with his sentiment that if you are not first a good spouse and/or parent then the idea of being a good artist will be hard to sustain. So, sure, I prefer, where practical, that artists, writers and musicians aspire to be humane and generous.  I remember hearing a tale from my brother about a comic book discussion forum, no less, where when news about Bill Cosby's crimes began to spring up one person declared that he really, really wanted for Mr. Rogers to have actually been the guy he seemed to be on his show.  Mr. Rogers is the kind of person "we" make fun of at a cultural level for being pretty square and squeaky clean.  Fred Rogers would never be anyone's idea of a Byronic hero because he simply wasn't, and thank God for that (I suppose it doesn't contradict our understanding of him as a public figure to recall he was an ordained minister).

But a point raised by the woke and the social justice scene that still doesn't go away is who has defined and who gets to define what "real literature" is and what literature you have to read to get through undergraduate and graduate studies.  It may be that progressive American academics are in a figurative pissing context about what should be canonical and what shouldn't be for what reasons. That the debates can happen. Smith waxed philosophical, fairly literally, but the core question went by with a hand-wave about "real literature" and sublimation and an incessant thread of comparing anyone who might wonder why this or that literary figure has been canonized is on the side of Zhdanov, the formal advocate of socialist realism.

Which  brings me around to the late Nikolai Kapustin and the question of why it was that someone who was born and raised in a Soviet bloc nation that was stuck having to deal with Zhdanov style socialist realism ended up being more successful at synthesizing jazz and classical traditions in his 24 Preludes and Fugues than a bunch of Western European composers.

In almost any field anyone can make a case that bad people can have great accomplishments and we should have "grace" for them.  I'm a Presbyterian so I'm not going to argue against "grace", but I'm going to ask whether the "grace" people want to talk about is common grace or prevenient grace or sanctifying grace because a lot of art-religion seems to propose that the worsts people can make the most beautiful things and that beauty is what redeems us when we consume it.  There is, so to speak, no arguing against the intensity of the experience and palpable results. If the writer is an asshole but attains "art" by changing people's lives do we argue against that?  

Well ... I will admit to a concern. I heard similar arguments on behalf of, oh, Mark Driscoll here in Seattle, over the span of twenty years.  Maybe people will even concede Mark Driscoll is "an asshole" (I know someone who said this, literally) but he's changing lives.  At one point I still thought Mars Hill was capable of making positive contributions to the Seattle scene.  I changed my mind but it was not because I suddenly became progressive or particularly liberal.  I have remained what is probably best described as a kind of Mark Hatfield type Republican (f that exists any longer).  I concluded that the convictions I had not only didn't require me to give Mark Driscoll a pass for doing what he did but that it was also better to go find somewhere else to call church home. 

I admit to being skeptical about the idea, whether on the topic of art-religion or religion-religion, that if someone just gets results that people feel/think are "sublime" that all the other stuff can be forgiven.  There's room to propose that the Harvey Weinstein allegations have re-introduced the possibility of a Donatist controversy in the realm of Western art-religion.  Of course for the non-religious I want to find a way to reformulate this idea in more secularly comprehensible terms, and terms that don't presuppose being immersed in Christian doctrinal debate--well, one incredibly blunt way to reformulate the observation is to ask why Hollywood waited until Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump to have its moment of reckoning with the legacies of Weinstein and Bill Clinton.  If Justin E. H. Smith wanted to make an argument that had more sting he could have asked why that was but he didn't.  The argument that the earnestness of the censorious from the left and the right can often turn out to be in bad faith might be something of an argument ... if Smith had made it.

If the best Smith can do is to argue that social justice types and the woke are like Zhdanov in what they want and how they want to go about it that's a long and only occasionally artful ad hominem.  I'm not even exactly particularly progressive myself and I admit to not being trained in philosophy but I don't see that Smith has successfully pivoted from why philosophers can be jerks but we should study them to why writers can be jerks but we should study them.  It's possible to take that as axiomatic and still regard Smith's variation as having an element of bad faith.