Thursday, May 04, 2023

Art and Outrage

I (Donis) have been seeing some discussion on television about this year's Met Gala being a tribute to the late German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld. Some people have taken exception to the choice of Lagerfeld because of some of his unsavory positions in the past and some of the offensive things he said. And they were offensive, for sure. But his designs are beautiful and were quite influential in the fashion world. All of this brings up the eternal question: How do you separate the artist from the art? And should you? Picasso was an egomaniac. Hemingway was a raging misogynist. They were both brilliant.

Several years ago an NPR program held a contest to rank the ten most offensive classical music composers over the last 500 years. They had plenty of nominees. Beethoven never bathed. Mozart gambled away everything he earned and left his family destitute. Vivaldi was a libidinous priest. Whether any of these accusations are true I would never presume to hazard an opinion. However, even if they were all true, would this mean their music was not beautiful or worth listening to? The winner of the contest, by the way, was Wagner, who really was a despicable anti-semite. No orchestra in Israel can play his music without furious opposition. There's even a play about it called "You Will Not Play Wagner". I recently read an article in the Brandeis newsletter about the play, and the author made a good case that  "music itself cannot be antisemitic. But music has memories attached to it, and music moves the soul." (It's an interesting article. Click here if you want to read it.)

Still, does this mean the music is not brilliant? I can understand not buying the works of a living artist who is horrid because you don't want to support them personally. What about after he's been dead for years?

I've pondered this question for decades, but I've been thinking about it more since so many government entities have taken it upon themselves to start banning books. If you don't want to read a book or support the author, then don't. But there's something disturbingly Nazi-like about passing laws to keep anyone at all from reading a book or author because you don't like their point of view.

Many, many years ago - 1961, to be exact - Lawrence Durrell and the Austrian writer Alfred Perles published a book called Art and Outrage, A Correspondence About Henry Miller. It's a collection of their letters to one another over several months in which they wrote about this very subject. The author Henry Miller had no filter and his books contain passages that border on porn, which got him banned in many places at the time. But his writing is beautiful and deep. Is it art, Durrell and Perles wondered (very wittily)? Miller himself had a thing or two to say about it.

I can't help but be influenced by an artist's personal beliefs, if I know what those are. But as an author myself, I also know that when you're in the writing zone (or painting or composing or designing zone), what comes out feels like it has nothing to do with you, but comes from some higher power. I think this is why the ancients believed in the Muses. In the movie "Amadeus", the composer Antonio Salieri was moved to renounce God because his rival Mozart was blessed with genius, and whose music was heavenly, even though Mozart was a totally unworthy sinner and Salieri had spent his life composing only to please God. 

That's the problem with genius. It's like the rain. It falls on the worthy and the unworthy alike.

I'd be very interested to read what you think about Art and the Artist, Dear Readers. Perhaps you can clear things up for me.


carl brookins said...

A useful, appropriate post. I tend to agree with your basic position, one can just artist and art separately. I remember, in a previous century when I was studying music, our professor identified a number of composers and performers whose lives and views were questionable, at best. You identified several. I am unhappy that so many current writers are unwilling to speak out on the most egregious activities and mouthings of some current politicians. Authors, among the best, most effective communicators among us, are worried about the effects on sales if they speak up. We are thus denied some of the best and most useful knowledge that might be directed toward solving society's problems. I for one, certainly do not restrict my reading to those authors whom I know are of similar social views, even though I understand that attitude.

Donis Casey said...

I also separate the art and artist in my mind, Carl. However, I'm afraid I am often guilty of keeping my opinions to myself - or being too controversial in my writing - out of fear of affecting sales. I feel ashamed of myself about it, too.

Eileen said...

I think for the most part, a piece of art, be it music, book, painting, etc. must stand on it’s own. However, if an artist truly offends you then don’t support them. That doesn’t mean banning them. Because what offends one person might not offend another. Tricky topic.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Donis--loved this post. Last year I asked a number of friends the same question. Is a beautiful song not a beautiful song even if we can't stand the composer? I deplore the cowardice of our contemporary society that seeks to ban books that might upset our children. I was deeply upset by Negro spirituals as a child and became an African American historian because of that.