Thursday, December 14, 2017

Art, Actions, and Morality

Richard Wagner

Like Rick (below), I have been pondering conundrums lately. I don’t usually express my opinions online. I have found that when it comes to the internet one is well advised to keep her private thoughts private. But lately I have been thinking about the implications of recent events,

Many years ago, a local radio program held a contest to determine which classical composer was the most disgusting excuse for a human being. The station played a well-known piece by each composer, counting down to the number one sleazeball. I don’t remember the vices of all the composers they rated, but it was quite a list. I do remember that Mozart was a compulsive gambler who died in debt and left his family destitute, and that Beethoven was a xenophobe who never took a bath. The “winner” was flaming racist Richard Wagner.

All very amusing. And food for thought, as well. Because Wagner was such a poor example of humanity, does this mean that no one should listen to his music? That is exactly what it did mean in Israel for many years until one brave conductor decided that the man’s art stands apart from his morals. If someone is a homophobe does that mean he should condemn Michelangelo’s art? What does it mean if you hate Wagner’s attitude toward Jews, but the beauty of The Ride of the Valkyries inspires you to write a book that changes someone’s life for the better?

Is art different from direct action? Maybe not. A movie can do more than make you cry. A book, a painting, a movie, a piece of music, all can inspire people to action. Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense roused many American colonists to demand independence. Internet videos can rouse young people to shoot up a school, or malcontents to commit acts of terrorism.

You know where I am going with this, Dear Reader. How do we reconcile a person’s creations with her character, good or bad? If a person does good works that help everyone in the world but is a racist/sexist/homophobe at heart, should s/he be banned from public service? Does it depend just on what the person says, paints, or writes, or whether he acted on his unlovely beliefs?

Bill Clinton was a raging horndog, but the economy boomed and the United States was the admired leader of the world during his tenure. We all know what a dichotomy Thomas Jefferson was. He owned slaves, but wrote the Declaration of Independence. He admired the character of Native Americans, but after the Louisiana Purchase he wrote that they should all be driven out of U.S. territory. One can argue that Clinton and Jefferson were men of their own era, and today neither would get away with behavior that was tolerated or overlooked at the time. Or would they? Are we now less willing to overlook unsavory behavior? I wish it were so, but I have my doubts.

I admire my own Arizona senators, Jeff Flake and John McCain, for their honesty, integrity, and strength, but I don’t usually agree with their politics. I didn’t like George W. Bush’s politics at all, but I never thought he was a bad or immoral man. It worries me that there are people who would support someone with dodgy behavior and iffy morals just because of his political beliefs. I liked John Edwards’ politics when he ran for president in 2008, but once I found out about his loathsome behavior I wouldn’t have been able to get past it, even if it hadn’t scuttled his campaign. I could never vote for someone who behaved so abominably.

Where should we draw the line?

8 comments:

Aline Templeton said...

Like you, Donis, I find it hard to shut my mind to character in assessing a person's work. I have always thought Evelyn Waugh one of the most brilliant of writers and have regretted reading his letters and biography; he was such a deeply unpleasant man that I keep hearing his voice in his writing and it spoils it for me.

Marianne Wheelaghan said...

Like you, Donis and Aline, when I learn/discover more about the face behind the mask, I am rightly or wrongly influenced. If the writer/artist has been/is a rotter, I struggle to forget it. Their character pervades said piece of writing/music/art. I argue about this with my artist brother. He says art transcends character. Not for me.

Unknown said...

What a brilliantly timely piece! Two things come to mind, in addition to current events: I've heard that Patrick O'Brian was a reprehensible man, but that doesn't diminish my enjoyment of the Aubrey/Maturin series (although that info sort of lingers around in the back of my head). Going in the opposite direction, from the art to its creator, most of Wagner's music struck me as being manipulative and bombastic even before I became aware of his dreadful views, which reinforce my opinion of the music.

Aline, I have read little of Evelyn Waugh but will continue to sneak a peek and see what happens.

Marianne, your brother is perhaps right, but I think not 100% right, in that we are all a mix of qualities and an artist may be aware of his or her own darkness and consciously wish to go beyond it. In the case of those mentioned here, though, it looks as though they often used their art as propaganda.

Anna

Rick Blechta said...

This is the best post that has been on Type M for a long while, Donis. Thank you.

I'm getting together over the holidays with a number of musician and artist friends. You have provided a great topic to discuss with them.

Wagner was indeed a vile person. Beyond his political and philosophical leanings, personally he was cruel, vindictive and narcissistic.

Gee, that sort of sounds like someone else...

Better stop right there.

As for me, I think art transcends the artist's character, but it does make it difficult for me.

Betty Webb said...

Excellent, Donis!!!

Donis Casey said...

I wrote this on the morning of the Alabama special election. By evening I thought I could see a glimmer of light on the horizon.

Milly said...

Think how we would have cheated ourselves if we had refused to recognize the art of these artists.

Donis Casey said...

I tend to think of art a little differently than politics or religion. I re-watched L.A. Confidential recently and thought "Kevin Spacey is a great actor." Seems he's not much of a person, though.