The Politicized Life: Art and Artists

Think of all the unclean thoughts by the authors of those books!

One of the things I’ve never quite understood about the politicized life is the need to hold one’s loves at arm’s length. This comes up most frequently when discussing art with the politicized. "Oh, I do love so and so. I just wish he didn’t believe in such and such." It’s the distant cousin of my least favorite social media tic: "I hate Publication X, but this story is worth reading."

The idea that one can only enjoy a component piece of an artist’s oeuvre if they ascribe wholesale to their belief system is, frankly, bizarre. Almost as bizarre is the idea that one must feel some sense of shame for enjoying an artist who holds intellectual positions with which they disagree. Separating art and artist is a key part of being an intellectually curious person.

Alan Jacobs received a rather interesting comment on his blog the other day. It was attached to a short post by Prof. Jacobs on Rebecca West. Here is "Angela’s" comment, in full:

It’s a shame, and very irritating, to read an article about West’s brilliant novel that spends about half the length discussing her religious views. I also find c’est bizzarre that on a website called "The American Conservative", which I promise I only stumbled upon because I am researching on my PhD dissertation (on new modernist studies), that there are so many avid fans of Rebecca West. You all do realize that she was an ardent socialist, atheist, feminist woman, right? And that all of her work is nuanced with the modification of the bohemian and anti-capitalistic/anti-colonial sentiments, right? I mean don’t get me wrong, I love that you love her, she’s a genius…but I just want to make sure that you’re getting the right message from her work. She would loathe to be misread.

This is a somewhat stunning comment, all the moreso since it comes from a woman claiming to be pursuing a PhD. Read it a second time. Soak it in. What Angela is suggesting here is that one can only appreciate a work of art if one agrees in full with the political ideas it contains and that its author espouses. Furthermore, an outlet should only publish a comment on a piece of art if that magazine has the proper editorial stance. To do otherwise is "a shame, and very irritating."

Look also at the moral positioning Angela engages in. She swears she only "stumbled upon" the American Conservative because of her PhD research. She is disgusted by the fact that her love is shared by the unclean. She is better than you evil, dirty conservatives, and she wants you to know that she only set foot in their cesspool to let them know it.

It’s all quite bizarre.

Anyway, Jacobs’ response is well worth reading. Angela’s comment reminded me of a post by Joanna Robinson over at Pajiba the other day titled "10 Problematic Authors I Have Trouble Separating From Their Work." It is pegged to the Orson Scott Card controversy (something of a hobbyhorse of mine, as you know).

"In this TMZ/fishbowl/celebrity biography world we live in, it requires a huge amount of apathy to not care at all when you discover your favorite author was, say, a massive racist," Robinson writes. "How many foibles and excuses can you stomach before you brush up against your moral limit?"

These sentences are problematic for a pair of reasons. The first is that of the 10 authors she lists, nine were dead long before the "TMZ/fishbowl/celebrity biography world we live in." It’s not like we’re being bombarded with paparazzi pics of Lewis Carroll being creepy around little kids. You have to actively seek out information about Jack London to find out that he was a leftwing racist (or be surrounded by people who think that information is a.) worth sharing, and b.) think it disqualifies one from appreciating his artwork).

The second troubling idea is that an artist’s predilections should add up, slowly crushing your ability to enjoy their work. Even if their work—or at least, the work of theirs that you enjoy—is entirely unobjectionable. As if you are somehow tainted with London’s special brand of progressive racism because you enjoy The Call of the Wild. Robinson admits that she now uses her position of power to damage the livelihood of Orson Scott Card because she disagrees with his beliefs. His accumulated sins were too much for her to bear.

An artist is not his art. And art, though created by an artist, is not the entirety of his being. Those who live the politicized life reject this distinction. It is a sad way to stumble through existence.

Photo Credit: gadl via Compfight cc