Art and artist. Two separate entities that are, to many, often inseparable. Can you, in fact, separate the two and appreciate the art as wholly divorced from the artist? For some (like me) it’s easy: YES. For others, not so much. It’s the latter group that can give me pause.
Before going further, I acknowledge that this can-of-worms topic is nothing that can be tackled in a single blog post, but its surface is worthy of scratching nonetheless.
To quickly take an extreme example from recent headlines, consider Bill Cosby. He’s a comedic legend who’s been adored and respected by millions for decades. It turns out, however, that the lovable Dr. Huxtable was portrayed by a man who is (and has long been) allegedly nothing short of a sexually predacious monster. With dozens of accusers taking to the media, there’s the primary concern of the law and whether any (or how many) trials will take place. A secondary concern, however, particularly among practitioners and fans of stand-up comedy, has been the extent to which Cosby’s artistic output has been affected by such allegations. (There’s one specific Spanish Fly bit that really brings the conundrum into sharp relief.) If the allegations are true, then can any part of his catalogue be enjoyed by someone who knows “the real Cosby”? Or should it all be thrown out? (For an interesting take on this, see Greg Fitzsimmons’s shameless plundering of Cosby’s material to save the jokes and personally discredit him.) Also, as for Cosby specifically, it’s notable that he’s still alive and working (or at least trying to). I do think there’s a difference between boycotting concerts to make a financial statement/protest and wholly discounting decades of written and recorded material as if they never existed. I should also mention that, while I like some of Cosby’s comedy, I’m not the biggest fan of his work, so I’m not writing as a champion of his output.
But back to the original point without getting lost further down the Cosby rabbit hole: I believe an artist can be separated from his or her art. (I do admit to having some occasional odd biases, but I’m always trying to police myself.) Of course, I kind of have to. For one, I’m a Wagnerian. Additionally, I’m a deep Miles Davis fan. (More on that later.) Beyond them, I know that many of the artists whose music, etc. I — and many of you — connect with are flawed at best and, for some, downright repellent at worst.
Take the aforementioned Wagner, arguably one of the easiest targets as far as this is concerned. As often happens, in the last several months I’ve had a couple of folks rebut my discussing his music with the standard response that’s a variation of, “Well, he was an anti-Semite.” Yes. No argument here. (However, I highly recommend Think Classical for detailed discussion and dismantling of much of the anti-Semitic lore.) Though, it’s also true that he died a mere half-century before Adolf Hitler was made German Chancellor. While Cosima Wagner, his young widow (and by many accounts a more virulent anti-Semite than he), along with their children, took it upon themselves to pal around with members of the Third Reich, this happened decades after his death. That his music was held up by Nazi party officialdom isn’t itself necessarily a comment on Richard’s own views in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. And, yes, although the composer’s great-granddaughter (and current Bayreuth intendant) Katharina Wagner has said that her ancestor’s anti-Semitism is likely present in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the same can hardly be attributed to the whole ouvre (though many try). Does Siegfried Idyll *sound* bigoted to you?
[Through this, Wagner also takes the heat for other musicians who lived, comfortably or even at all, under the Third Reich yet don’t receive such admonishment.]
I’m of course not saying that everyone has to dismiss an artist’s sins and adore their artwork. Obviously, in the case of Wagner, someone closely related to Jewish heritage or the Holocaust may detest Wagner’s music on principle. That’s completely understandable. What I don’t understand, however, is the social justice warrior mentality – particularly of those far removed from a given circumstance or cause – of tearing down an artist’s output because of such faults as a way to punish them and right past wrongs. And the reason for my misunderstanding boils down to this: where’s the line? I would think that combating racism (or sexism, etc.) itself would be more important than quibbling over (mostly neutral) works of art by creators who may have been racist or sexist.
Such a mentality when put into action often leads to censorship. I think back to 2003 and the Dixie Chicks. Natalie Maines derided President Bush and the Iraq War run-up when performing overseas, and the group quickly became the target of a shocking campaign to silence their music and (hopefully, for the critics) their voices. I’m no Dixie Chicks scholar, but I believe much of their music before this incident was apoltical, meaning that the boycotting and censoring of their work was purely a reaction to their personal actions.
I’m sure that, on principle, many of the aforementioned SJWs sympathized with the Chicks, and that’s certainly understandable. But now let’s replace Dixie Chicks with Richard Wagner or Chuck Berry or Paula Poundstone or R. Kelly. The list goes on and on.
Such dismissals are a cousin of the trigger warning: don’t listen to/read/watch _____ because it’s by a _____ist; in doing so, you’re supporting _______ism.
This is a tricky topic, as I can easily be perceived as being either a defender of horrible behavior or a regressive reactionary. Neither are remotely true. It comes down to a question of whether a piece of music, a book, or a film automatically reflects the worldview and/or behavior of the creator. It surely can happen, but it’s not always the case.
Implying an automatic relation has the effect of making a piece, effectively, “morally programmatic.” As I always tell my students, you can easily make any piece programmatic (i.e., about something) with even the vaguest reference. Simply replace Concerto No. 3 in Eb with Twilight and the job is done. Even with no further discussion, the listener is now implicitly encouraged to hear the piece in relation to “twilight.” Similarly, by relating the work to the composer’s misdeeds, one is implying (Racist) Concerto No. 3 in Eb when the work could be heard as anything but. Is Appalachian Spring promoting homosexuality (or sexuality of any kind), considering the composer’s personal life? (If you find that question ridiculous, then I’ve made my point.) And does this Euro-centric and racist clip by Leonard Bernstein negate his life’s work or merely just complicate his person?:
It’s curious that explicitly racist songs, such as those by Stephen Foster, have managed to remain ubiquitous through considerable sterilizing revisions, whereas non-______ist works by others are shunned simply for associative reasons.
There is, of course, a peculiar inverse of this phenomenon: people liking an artist’s output because of their personal statements or deeds. This is why I largely avoid “message music” (e.g., political and religious music), as the music becomes secondary to the message. It’s a delicate balance that’s difficult to pull off. For me, Rage Against the Machine is one of the few to do this consistently so well. Just ask House Speaker Paul Ryan, a professed fan whose beliefs and policies are diametrically opposed to the band’s message.
I’ll regularly (but not always, depending on the situation) give a quick substantive defense of liking Wagner’s music when confronted with the anti-Semitism proclamation. Sometimes I’ll counter with the following, particularly if I already know the answer: do you like Miles Davis? The Prince of Darkness recorded music adored by millions, and in particular his collaboration with Gil Evans found its way into the mainstream. And though tales of Davis’s narcissism and drug abuse are legion — arguably common characteristics for many high-achieving musicians of the time — perhaps less known are the accounts of his wife-beating, not to mention his general misogyny. To hear Frances Davis, Miles’s first wife and the namesake of “Fran Dance,” discuss it in The Miles Davis Story is chilling. (You can also read discussion of it here.) What’s more, Miles was a trained boxer — not a prizefighter, but his study and practice are well documented. So while domestic abuse is horrible enough, his was that much more lethal considering his strength and training.
Now, if you’re reading this and 1) you like Miles’s music and 2) this is news to you, are you now going to discard all of your Miles recordings and boycott his music going forward? The more likely outcome is that you’ll perhaps give some thought to 1) how horrible he was for that and 2) the cognitive dissonance between your admiration for his music and disgust with his person. And that’s a perfectly natural reaction. And, what’s more, you’ll likely continue to listen to your favorite Davis recordings. (I’m curious to see how the upcoming biopic addresses this, if at all.)
Another reason this has been on my mind more than usual lately is because of River of Fundament. I wrote that many of the reviews have been, to put it kindly, sub-par (i.e., lazy and uninformed). A common thread in a number of the reviews is the charge of misogyny in the work. This review, for example, refers to the work’s sexism without actually providing a supporting example. Similar to others, it relies upon a general notion that, because Barney’s works are generally masculine, they are therefore misogynist, and therefore River of Fundament is no different. A sensational argument, but not a substantive one. (In all transparency, I’ve not seen all of The Cremaster Cycle, so I can’t speak to that work with any authority. As I wrote here, my only real Barney reference is River itself.) In fact, one could easily argue that the female characters in River are held in higher regard than the male ones. (Another topic for another day.)
Of course, Barney aside, there’s the whole discussion of what makes a work “masculine” or “feminine” in the first place. And couldn’t the argument be made that such coded descriptors perpetuate said paradigm? If a woman makes an aggressive work and a man a gentle one, are the works therefore masculine and feminine, respectively? Or only when they align? (And when they align, is it automatically problematic?)
Furthermore, River is (more than) loosely based on Ancient Evenings, whose author, Norman Mailer, is associated with misogyny like Wagner is associated with anti-Semitism. Like Barney, my experience with Mailer is limited to River of Fundament and Ancient Evenings (which I’m currently reading). Now, from the little I’ve read about Mailer’s life and the video interviews I’ve watched, misogynist seems an apt description. (As an example, of his half-dozen wives, he stabbed one.) That being said, I have yet to really interpret Evenings itself as being misogynist. But to many the combination of Barney and Mailer apparently is the artistic equivalent of a local chapter meeting of NO MA’AM.
Back to the the beginning: where is the line? Anti-Semitism is bad. (Duh.) Misogyny is bad. (Duh.) (Well, except when it’s associated with the gentle styling of a muted trumpet, that is…) What other qualities are non-starters? Charlie Parker was a drug addict who stole from his bandmates and, though an artistic asset, was often a personal liability to his friends and associates. (It’s striking that one of his proteges was a young Miles Davis.) What qualities cross said line? And do those qualities negate the artwork? Carlo Gesualdo was a forward-thinking composer in the sixteenth century whose idiosyncratic harmonic approach wouldn’t really be seen nor heard again for centuries. He also committed a double homicide (and kept on composing). Does “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)?” perpetuate misogyny? Its composer, Duke Ellington, was a rampant womanizer. Can it not be true that Ellington was both a cad and also arguably the greatest American composer?
Forgetting art altogether, what about that band of racist and misogynist eighteenth-century philosophers and politicians that so many Americans revere? Oh, sorry, I meant the Founding Fathers. What about them?
It’s easy — and tempting — to throw the baby out with the bathwater in such scenarios. But art, like its creators, is complicated. Virtue isn’t a prerequisite for creating good, meaningful work. Similarly, a good piece of art can be appreciated in spite of the artist’s shortcomings without being seen as a tool to negate or celebrate them.