Friday, January 18, 2008

Question Time: Enjoying art despite the artist...

Bobby Fischer is dead.

For a lot of people, the name Bobby Fischer probably doesn't mean a whole lot. But, if you're a big chess fan, you probably have some feelings about the man. Bobby Fischer was an American chess prodigy at a time when Americans weren't seen as "real" chess players. He reached the rank of Grand Master- the highest title you can get in chess- at only 15. In '72 he became the first American to win the World Chess Championship. He wasn't just an amazing player, he was one of the greatest players of all time, and- when I was growing up and learning the game- was a huge inspiration.

He was also, as it turns out, a huge antisemite. He denied the holocaust, and said, in radio interviews, that he was the victim of an "international Jewish conspiracy" and that the United States was "a farce controlled by dirty, hook-nosed, circumcised Jew bastards."

When I was growing up, studying Fischer's endgames, and learning about his theories, these aspects of his personality were completely unknown to me. Bobby Fischer was the greatest. Now, as an adult, I'm forced to reconcile my love for the man's talant on the board with what a horrible person he was off the board. How do you do that, though?

And it's not like it's just Bobby Fischer, either. I love H.P. Lovecraft. I think that his contributions to horror writing are remarkable- the man was a genius. Also a huge racist and antisemite. Ian Flemming's writings are filled with blatant sexism and racism.

I've been sitting here thinking about whether I can still respect someone like Fischer, now that I know more about him. Can I enjoy and respect the work, knowing where it comes from? I think that I can still recognize the great things that Fischer did for the game and his genius on the board while recognizing that he was a horrible person in a lot of other ways.

I think that with Fischer it's a little easier, though, because the game doesn't reflect his views in the way that, say, a movie or a song might. I can't watch Falling Down because of the troubling racism it's filled with, but you can't see antisemitism on a chess board. Then again, James Bond books are, as I noted, filled with racist and sexist imagery, but my reaction to them isn't the same as my reaction to something like Grand Theft Auto.

So, what do you do when that happens? What do you do when a person that you love or respect for some talant they have or some contribution they've made to a field you're interested in turns out to be... well... an asshole? And not just a run-of-the-mill "I'm a jerk" asshole, but a racist/sexist/homophobic asshole? Can you seperate the contribution from the contributor, or are they forever linked? Or maybe it depends on the circumstances?


Feminist Gal said...

I struggle with this ALL the time. One consequence of being a critical thinker or examining things past their intent is sometimes the joy becomes lost. For example, I have a hard time with half of the movies (comedies esp) that mainstream media loves... Can i enjoy a comedy or think something is funny when i see the blatant sexism/racism/etc in it? Do i look past the discrimination and just try to enjoy the "art?" i don't know, i can't usually because to me there are ways around it. There are enough actually good and non-discriminatory things out there that i often have a choice. But i definitely see your dilema - it is very difficult to look past the person or the intent to the product, esp when you know better ;)

Cara said...

So, what do you do when that happens? What do you do when a person that you love or respect for some talant they have or some contribution they've made to a field you're interested in turns out to be... well... an asshole? And not just a run-of-the-mill "I'm a jerk" asshole, but a racist/sexist/homophobic asshole?

The same way that I still love Jack Kerouac :) He was a misogynist, racist (though compatible with views at the time), deadbeat dad, alcoholic, thief and gay-hating man who slept with men. He was also a fucking brilliant writer. I love Jack Kerouac the writer. I can't stand Jack Kerouac the person.

The question, of course, is whether or not I would have this feeling if I had known before I fell in love with his work that he was a rather shitty person. I can't say for sure. I just know that On the Road is still one of my all-time favorite books and that he can be attributed with my passion for writing. I think that it somewhat comes down to honesty; once I learned to be honest with myself and admit to the person he truly was, rather than clinging onto some fantasy that he was the person I wanted him to be, I stopped feeling guilty and angry about it.

EG said...

For me, it just depends on my visceral reaction to the work. If I love it, I love it, and that's that. I adore The Odyssey. It is deeply sexist, of course, but I adore it nonetheless. And I love the Rolling Stones. There's a world of misogyny in their music, but that doesn't change the visceral effect it has on me. On the other hand, I have no interest whatsoever in ever seeing or reading Gone With the Wind, because I have no sympathy for slaveowners. That's crossed a certain visceral line for me. I know people who love that movie/book, perfectly decent anti-racist people, and I don't think it makes them bad people, or even racist people. I think it means that they have different artistic limits than I do.

But it almost sounds like you're asking two different questions. One is, what do you do when a piece of art is racist/misogynist/homophobic. And the other is what do you do when you find an artist himself is a shithead. The above examples have to do with the piece of art itself. Picasso was a terrible person, but I've seen Guernica in person, and it is a powerful piece of work without any misogyny in it that I can see, so what would be gained by me cutting myself off from the potential of experiencing it? On the other hand, I find Orson Scott Card's views so repellant that despite having enjoyed Ender's Game when I was 14, I will never pick up another of his books or even re-read the ones I liked. Again, it's a personal, visceral reaction. I know people who find Card's views repulsive and continue to enjoy his gifts as a storyteller.

This is a situation in which I think that the visceral, emotional reaction matters more than the intellectual one. Pirates of the Carribean 2 was a racist piece of shit, and the racism interfered viscerally with my ability to enjoy it as a movie, but that wasn't a conscious political decision on my part--it wasn't like I said "I'm enjoying this movie but because of the racism I will never see it again"--and it doesn't necessarily make me a better person.

This is a situation in which the political is personal, but I don't think the personal reaction has much of a political effect.

Opposition said...

The difficulty you describe is actually linked to another trend I dislike, which is the "hero worship" of many celebrities.

If someone has a particular talent (singing, acting, basketball, etc.), then that talent can be admired... but in no way should we generalize from this to assume that these people have opinions that are more worthwhile than the baseline. Celebrities are given airtime (and by implication, credibility) incommensurate to the quality of their rhetoric, which serves to dilute the opinions of actual experts.

Personally, I try to never learn of the personal life or views of creators (artists, scientists, commentators, etc.). Appreciation of art or achievement shouldn't be tied to what the person happens to believe. On the flip side, a person's statements should be judged on whether or not they are sound, irrespective of the person's talents in other domains.

schrödinger's cat said...

Bit of a dilemma. But aren't women doing it all the time? Look at adverts, magazines, movies, TV programs - again and again, there are the sexist bits, sometimes subtle, sometimes disguised as "humourous".

You develop a mental filter. You learn to see things from a male perspective. After all, that's what's presented to you. It takes some work to un-learn all this and to actually SEE the sexism.

Once you've learned it, it's a dilemma. Is it worth getting angry at everything? On the other hand: can I just politely ignore all the sexism AND keep my self-respect?

Case in point for me: Dickens, f.expl. "Martin Chuzzlewit". A great book. Mrs Gamp and Mr Pecksniff are among his best creations ever. The athmosphere is colourful, vivid, OTT, Dickens at his best. There's the optimism of his earlier years and the realism of his later years. Some of the writing is superb. The things this man does with words - amazing.

There's also the sexism. There's one girl called Mercy Pecksniff. At first she's shallow, boisterous, confident and materialistic. She's married off to a rich man she hates, and the marriage is a nightmare for her. He humiliates her and beats her frequently, saying that his goal is to break her spirit. He succeeds too. This experience transforms her. When we meet her again she's meek, mild, utterly devoted to her husband, and grateful for the "troubles" that brought about such a change in her. Even when he beats her up, she merely clings to him and cries "how can you!" She tries to win him over by humming his favourite tune. She obeys his every word. This is seen as positive. Mercy ends up as a sympathetic character. "Her troubles" have been her salvation.

This is one of the most subtly perverse plot developments I know. It's a bit like walking through a beautiful city that's full of horsecrap and modernist eyesores. If you've learned to walk around the crap and ignore the concrete nightmares, there's still some lovely architecture to enjoy.

SarahMC said...

I feel this way about Christopher Hitchens, a great atheist thinker/writer who's also deeply sexist. It's difficult to deal with, but I appreciate him for his writing on religious faith and science and ignore the sexist bullshit.

Natalia said...

What do you do? You don't do anything. You can't. Well, besides talking about it, I think.

Some people are going to say this legitimizes the artist's personal prejudices... But the truth is, there are elements of art in itself that are scary. Hell, even sport can be scary. There's that combination of narcissism and obsession and God-knows-what-else, and that's the way it's always going to be.

Art is just weird. Like the human beings that produce it. The good comes with the bad.

gnaddrig said...

You don't have much choice really, unless you want to ban all art from your life. There is no artist (or writer, musician, scientist, creator of whatever you enjoy) whose views coincide completely with yours. Take any artist that you like or respect, that you think is a sensible, decent, honest person with 'good' views (whatever 'good' is for you). If you take a very close look you are bound to find something that you dislike, something that you find wrong or even outrageous, and that others might be perfectly comfortable with.

(Only you don't get to take this close a look because usually people don't reveal their innermost thoughts to the public. So the artists you like and respect will have a number of skeletons in their cupboards that possibly have an effect on their art and that might put you off their oeuvre.)

So after all, when you enjoy a work of art, it is always despite the artist, at least to some extent. Or rather, despite those bits of the artist's worldview or personal life that you do object to or that you would object to if you knew about them.

I guess you have to draw a line somewhere, and I find it difficult to decide where this line should be. How much asshole-ness do I want to put up with? And would my consuming the output of some asshole be seen as an endorsement of that person's worldview?

I can't give a conclusive answer, but as a tendency I try not to give money to people who propagate views I find wrong or dangerous. If I go to see a Tom Cruise movie, say Rain Man, this contributes to the revenue he creates for Scientology, an organisation that I think should be fought, not supported. If, on the other side, I look at a painting by Adolf Hitler in a museum, I don't create revenue to a neo Nazi organisation, nor do I implicitly support his ideas. (Just supposing... I have no idea whether any museum actually shows Hitler's paintings. Apparently his they were rather bad, so there's no danger of enjoying them anyway.) But then, the Nazis have caused so much more suffering than Scientology will be able to clock up in a hundred years. Where does that leave me?

I'm afraid it's back to square one for me...

EG said...

So after all, when you enjoy a work of art, it is always despite the artist, at least to some extent. Or rather, despite those bits of the artist's worldview or personal life that you do object to or that you would object to if you knew about them.

Or, and this is where it gets interesting, what if you are in part enjoying the art because of those bits of the artist's worldview or personal life that you would object to? What if the Rolling Stones' obnoxious misogyny and objectification is inextricable from, part and parcel of, the raucous counter-culture licentiousness that made them so great?