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Generally speaking, the concepts of ‘literature’ and ‘current events’ aren’t very likely to collide. There are exceptions: Harry Potter selling a bajillion copies, Dan Brown getting sued for hack-jobbing someone else’s hack-job, Salman Rushdie pissing off Muslims. But there’s also a new genre of literary news that has proliferated over the last few years, and it’s my least favorite yet.

I came across its most recent iteration in today’s New York Times. The headline reads, New Stage for a Private Family Drama, and the piece is about the revered playwright Arthur Miller’s treatment of his son, Daniel, who was born with Down syndrome. It is a reaction to a recent article in Vanity Fair detailing, and to an extent criticizing, Miller’s having essentially ignored Daniel’s existence after sending him off to a mental institutional. The possible implication that Miller’s work, and his status as a literary titan, should be reevaluated in light of this element of his personal life is teased by the author, and more directly stated by quoted sources.

This is just another outcry in the James Frey vein of literary newsworthiness. Though I do cringe to place Miller’s name so close to that dubious memoirist’s, and there is the added difference that some of the anger over Frey’s case from the fact that the book was marketed as memoir, not fiction. But it’s the same in both cases, really. Readers of a writer’s work feel offended, scandalized, betrayed when it turns out that the author is in some way not what they were supposed to be. It happened with J.T. Leroy, and Günter Grass too. James Frey was publicly scolded by Oprah, a fate I can’t even begin to imagine lameness of. That’s got to be one of those things that makes a guy want to sob and laugh hysterically at the same time.

But the question is, why should anyone care about the life behind the works? Is this just a product of a culture that’s seen too many reruns of VH1’s Behind the Music? Or that wants to make a celebrity out of anybody that does anything noteworthy, and then hold them to some weirdly assumed common moral code? Why the outrage?

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I have no idea. To me, a writer or artist’s prime directive is to make art. Preferably, to make good art, but even that’s not essential. Hence the designation, ‘artist’. It’s what they do, and if they’re good at it, I applaud. I experience their work and I learn to see the world in a more nuanced way; I am made better by their toil. I can’t picture a circumstance under which I would feel this experience diminished if it turned out the writer or artist was a dick.

In fact, thinking back on it now, many of the people who I most respect for their work were probably reprehensible in one way or another in their personal lives. Picasso was a douche, Heidegger a Nazi, Wittgenstein a major a-hole, and Faulkner a faithless and prolific philanderer. And even if I got backstage at a Bob Dylan concert, and found him cuisinarting baby otters, I’d still think John Wesley Harding was a damn fine album.

Somewhere, William James has a quote that what we call ‘genius’ is really just an intensity of focus (he used the metaphor of a light focused to a burning point) on something that excludes everything else as irrelevant. This seems pretty right on to me. I found it amply illustrated when I once tried to read a biography of Borges, getting a couple hundred pages in before I realized I was reading a book about the life of a man who pretty much read during every waking moment in which he wasn’t writing. Not exactly material for a John Le Carré novel, I tell you.

Anyway, in the other direction, what makes Arthur Miller a genius, what makes him great, is his writing, is his sheer mastery of his language and human conditions. His greatness does not care about his ability to dance a jig, and it doesn’t care about his child-rearing sensibilities either. In fact, it seems impossible that there wouldn’t be some fairly glaring deficiencies in a life that was given almost wholly to crafting the written word.

This is not to excuse him, or to deny whatever ill effects his attitude might have had on his son (though, by the given accounts, he’s lived a very happy life without his father’s presence). But it is to say, to anyone who thinks that said attitude should be reflected in treatment of Miller’s work, get over yourself. Go stress out over Shakespeare-authorship conspiracy theories, or something.

Anyhow, let me apologize for this half-baked consideration and get back to the issue raised above: I’m still left wondering what makes people so morally outraged when a work’s author doesn’t live up to their expectations. Any ideas?



  1. This is a great topic, Alex, and I think you chose a perfect example of how this topic can and does get way too muddy for its own good.

    As a quick, half-baked response I would have to say that I think the question you raise is slightly more nuanced than your final statement of it leaves room for. This isn’t to say that I think you don’t see that nuance yourself by any means, I just feel the need to say it a bit more explicitly, if for no other reason than to fine tune the question itself.

    I think there is a fundamental difference between finding out that someone was a Nazi, or even simply a philanderer a few generations ago, and an author misrepresenting themselves through their work for the purpose of profit, whether it be intentional or through neglect, in the current time.

    To step back and qualify my statements, I totally agree that I can see no valid reason within the realm of art criticism to change our opinion of Arthur Miller’s talent. And yes, blah blah blah, I get the contradictory logical argument: if we agree that art is to some degree autobiographical, and if we agree that Miller was a shitty father, then therefore we must agree that his work must reflect his shittiness and this new information should be incorporated into any critical analysis of his work. Fine. To a certain extent I must concur to that. But thats only valid if the analysis is done as a way to, say, find additional relationships, etc. between characters based on life experiences of the author. In simpler terms this is also known as an objective analysis.

    But now for Alex’s point, we can break it down to its most simple structure: just because someone is an asshole, it does not follow that they also are a bad writer. That, ladies and gentleman, is the most basic logical fallacy; its simply an ugly ad hominem attack, and really its just boring. In the case of the Miller story this ad hominem is pretty darn obvious (and also darn boring) when looking at the quotes in the article. The very first quote used to argue for Miller’s demonization is in this paragraph, emphasis mine:

    Other observers have been less forgiving. In a scathing post last week on the blog for the neoconservative Commentary magazine, James Kirchick suggests that this story “ought to damage permanently Miller’s reputation, if not as a writer, then as a humanitarian.”

    For the sake of context, which the NYT article only hints at, James Kirchick not only writes for Commentary magazine but is “on the editorial staff of The New Republic and is a columnist for the Washington Blade. (link)” C’mon, even a two-year old could hide its hand better than that. A major literary and historical figure who, for example, spoke out against the Vietnam War is having his reputation “permanently” determined by those who would have something to gain from seeing him brought down a few pegs? Hm. That’s certainly coincidental.

    Anywhoo, getting back to the question, I think the issue is more relevant when talking about artists in the current time frame because we are more able to judge their mistakes or poor character because we share their cultural moral compasses, or at least are better equipped to understand them. In the NYT article we find this quote:

    Professor Dickstein cautions, however, against judging Miller too quickly. “How do we know what we would have done?” he asked. “The birth of a child with Down syndrome can be a tremendous trauma, to say nothing of a strain on a marriage.” And it was more common in the ’60s to institutionalize a child with Down syndrome than it is today.

    I think Professor Dickstein hits the nail on the head here and its something that has been proven time and time again. By now, for example, we all accept that Benjamin Franklin owned slaves. And we have all (finally) decided that we don’t care. Why? Because we all know deep down that if we were in his position at that time in history we, too, would own slaves. Its only the most self-important (and self-delusional) type of person who believes that they would be a towering voice against slavery all through the 1700’s. (Even Ben Franklin wasn’t that pure of moral standing.)

    That, I think, is why historical figures get a pass (as they should) when it comes to their misgivings. As far as current figures, though, I think there is a balance being struck between a cultural tendency to idolize artists as authors (aka, superstars!) and an attempt to relate to them as people, or possibly even friends. I would go a step further and say that these two tendencies most likely feed off off each other because of larger cultural tendencies and mechanisms such as the press (magazine reviews, interviews, talk shows). These mechanisms counteract any attempt at anonymizing a work of art by thrusting the author in our collective face and forcing their personality to be forever attached to the work.

    But to be fair, I will take the devil’s advocate position here: I think it is totally natural to do just that. I think that once the human condition switched from the ‘passed down story telling through generations’ nature of expression into our current ‘author as original story teller and owner’ we have to deal with the fact that it is deeply embedded in our culture that ‘the author is the art is the author.’

    As modern humans, this is just the way our culture has evolved. It is emphasized and encouraged in our more modern creations, such as the media, and is made to look ridiculous when other modern inventions, such as politics, are brought in to the picture as a way to inform something they have no right informing. But the fact remains that this is the result of hundreds (maybe thousands) of years of cultural evolution. And my pointing out any logical fallacies inherent in this process is not going to change anything…

  2. On some level, I agree with both of you. But, also, of course, I disagree with both of you — that’s the way this works, right? I don’t think what critics of Miller are doing is drawing a 1:1 “worse person than we thought, therefore worse artist than we thought” relationship — Chris, you mention political polemics, which is fair if somebody is actually trying to devalue war protest (debatable), but in terms of “literary merit,” this is just a wash.

    It’s silly to assume that art exists in a bubble, especially language art, which is somehow thought to be demarcated from the rest of language. I don’t think anybody is fundamentally changing their opinion of Miller’s talent, like “oh shit, he was great yesterday but he sucks today!” It certainly won’t affect his long-term reputation as an artist. If anything, it will make him more read and more respected, because he’ll become more interesting in retrospect (see also: any English poet retrospectively suspected of being a spy in the 1500s). Authors with good bios make for more interesting reading. Call it cult of personality if you want, but it’s just another facet in the gem of context. There’s no cognitive way to separate language from language. You can’t compartmentalize distaste. It turns out Arthur Miller treated his disabled son like shit. You don’t necessarily have to dislike his literature — not at all — but you do have to, at some level, take into account the fact that, this literature was written by a man who treated his disabled son like shit. If anything, it makes it more interesting as a revelation of humanity. But you can’t just throw away the knee-jerk distaste necessarily engendered here. You guys are talking entirely in terms of value judgments. Like, “If Arthur Miller’s books are a 10, I won’t let this incident make them a 9!” But what on earth does that mean? It’s not that we don’t CARE that Ben Franklin owned slaves. It’s that, it makes him even more tortuous a subject for consideration. We don’t forgive him. We just acknowledge that we can’t really understand what contributed to his life that made him turn out that way.

    Chris, your Foucault-ified reading of artists as owners / not as owners is, I think, important. But look. Nobody with any non-idealized worldview is ever going to say, “who said X doesn’t matter, and the other things they said do not affect X. It is under my purview as an interpreter to allocate all meaning.” It’s true, the author doesn’t own the art or its interpretation. But of course X is affected by Y. Not to get all theory 101 here, but if I tell you, “I love REM,” and then the next day I tell you, “I hate ‘Shiny Happy People,'” I hope that you will keep in mind that I said “I love REM” the day before. Otherwise you’re doing me a disservice in our attempt to have a “just discourse.” Jacques Derrida spent the last 30 years of his life trying to convince people that this shit matters. “There is nothing outside the text” means, everything is a text.

    Alex, you make it sound like “crafting the written word” is, I dunno, woodcarving or glassblowing. And it’s true, somebody can be an asshole and still blow some pretty good glass. But I just fundamentally disagree with the assertion that you can hate somebody and still respect their art in the same way you would have if you didn’t know anything about them. People can’t compartmentalize like that. They can’t do it with sports teams — when it turns out that guy on the Titans shot seven people, you just can’t think of him as being quite as likable an athlete. Which, of course, is not to say he’s any worse an athlete. But you can measure how fast somebody runs the 40. It’s much harder to gauge how perfectly somebody writes a sonnet.

    “And even if I got backstage at a Bob Dylan concert, and found him cuisinarting baby otters, I’d still think John Wesley Harding was a damn fine album.” Sure, you probably would, because that’s already a part of your conditioning. But you wouldn’t be able to dissociate the cuisinarting of baby otters from the album. That’s just the way you’re built, physiologically. You’d hear JWH, and you’d think cuisinarted seals, and that would be distasteful to you, which, really, is the way we develop our personal systems of aesthetic taste. Good = good feelings. You think John Wesley Harding and then you think “pretty good album.” If, on the other hand, Bob Dylan beat your mom up — beat her up bad — you’d have a qualitatively different reaction to the opening chords. If you ran across a guy who was, you know, wandering the streets shoving bamboo shoots under the fingernail of every Jew in sight and then he said, “hey man, want to hear my avant-pop album?” you would be far, far more averse to thinking it was good as a pure expression of aesthetics.

    Everything else you cite is, anyway, actually a chic kind of “cool” dickism. People love philanderers and wifebeaters and drunks and whoremongers. They make for good copy. Even being a Nazi, which, in Heidegger’s case is only half the story, is kind of fucking cool in a Ramones-shaving-swastikas-into-their-girlfriends’-pubes kind of way. Nazis were badass, and Heidegger is a badass philosopher. Besides, Heidegger wasn’t an artist per se. If you’re going to contend that philosophy and art share a mode of existence, I don’t see how it’s defensible to say that literature and gossip are mutually exclusive, since they’re both always affecting each other. Yours seems a very old-world reactionary stance parading as liberal deference to the primacy of the author.

    All that said, here’s a factor to consider. If Miller had written an incredibly empathetic, moving, insightful, heartbreaking book about having a handicapped son — and if it turned out to be historically accurate — nobody would judge him the worse as an artist. It would, if anything, add to an already impressive oeuvre. People, by nature, have an overwhelming desire to resent being kept in the dark even as they revel in illuminating the dirty bedroom machinations of the heroes who came before, all of whom turn out to be — gasp! — real people. But not really. Because they’re “artists.” If, on the other hand, it had been common knowledge that Miller treated his son like shit, it’s hard to think he ever would have got his foot in the literary door. That’s just the swings. That’s the way it’s always been, and the way it will always be. Unless you want to listen to that anti-semite’s album.

    Here’s my point — if this revelation doesn’t change the way you read Miller — I mean the man as a phenomenon, who is composed of his texts and his life and all the conditions that created his life and all the factors that led to the creation of his art — then what kind of reading are you really doing? Arthur Miller Appreciation?

  3. (What I meant by the political polemics comment was just that — and I’ll put this as stupidly as I can — all conservatives ever take it as their program to make all liberals look shady. As you say, it’s a boring thing to observe. But in that captivating, infuriating way that conservatives can be. Like a caged monkey. You look at it for a while, and it’s ok. But then you really want it to do something else. But it just sits there and masturbates, and finally it’s not funny anymore. I was not trying to be dismissive of your argument.)

  4. god-damn well played, Doug. I agree completely. and well-stated all around.
    truth-be-told, i had planned on adding this, initially:

    … of course i get your point, Doug, when it come to the political aspect, but I simply couldn’t help but mention it, seeing as the NYT article specifically brought up the issue by using a political hack as their original source when it came to the nay-sayers point-of-view…. needless to say, I felt the need to put that into perspective for perspective’s sake …

    but then on a second read of yr comments, i realized it was kinda pointless. from my side of the issue (as the ‘devil’s advocate’), i think we’ve done a damn good job of 1) making a general point, 2) narrowing it down to specifics, and then finally 3) pointing out our own various generalizations and flushing out the important thoughts of the whole damn issue.

    i look forward to instigating you into commenting further on other issues as time goes on 🙂

  5. I think people can easily compartmentalize — they do it everyday — and more importantly, Doug’s point that written arts are somewhat distinct from, say, visual arts because they convey thoughts and history differently (I’m elaborating on him a bit) is important, but it doesn’t take anything away from Alex’s point — that these people are “creating” texts that are the product of their intense focus, of their craft — an idealized version, often, of the “they” they wish they could be or the life they would live if they could.

    I think philosophy is very relevant here; especially continental philosophy, which at its best is very literary in nature: read Heidegger, Hegel, Wittgenstein, even Derrida, and you get the sense that you are reading thought transformed to art, art transformed to thought. These authors don’t write to posit any pithy moral thing (Like Aristotle, they often contradict themselves, because they often write in a dialectic form, not as moral imperative), but to convey new thoughts and compel the reader to look at the world through new perspectives. This is to a large extent, if somewhat more abstractly, like good literature. It isn’t to argue for anything, to convey some moral thing. It is to foster new thought and, as Jacques Barzun recently said about reading history, an “independence of mind”, and, as art is of course different from history, to create the experience of Kierkegaard’s “up-lifting” art vis-a-vis “up-building” love.

    I think one thing we’ve all overlooked so far is the author’s stated and lived relationship to the written work — the degree to which he or she “stands behind” the work. Rushdie is a good example, because he very explicitly “stands behind” his work. He is there, gleefully red-handed, creating a persona through his works, through the titling of his famous book.

    There are lots of great examples. Joyce was a drunk; he was a drunk as a writer and as a man, and I don’t think there’s really any separating the two. Chris aptly quoted, “the author is the art is the author,” and I think to an extent we see it that way, and we see that as a modern interpretation/process of art. But I also think the idea of the “Tortured artist,” or the artist who struggles with the limitations of the flesh, earthly desires, being “fallen” and in some way participating in self-destruction is something that goes back probably through human history. The Chinese poet Li Po 1200 years ago wrote about rejoicing being a drunk, a bum, a wandering lost soul and it carries all the way through history, to Jack Kerouac, to Gary Snyder. These guys were running around ruining their lives, embarrassing their families, getting women pregnant and dying on train tracks for art, sure, but because they were also Damaged Goods, and that’s part of being impelled to do art — the sense that you are an outsider, that you are irremediably different. I’m not arguing that all artists are in some way tortured or corrupted, but that is a valid point; it doesn’t necessarily rely on the modern, somewhat American conceptualization of the artist as Great Individual.

    There is a quote from the 30’s American author William Saroyan that says (something like) “at age 20 when I realized I was either a writer or a bum I left home”. Salinger laments our craving for autobiographical details of depravity….lots of authors do. But every author/artist/whatever has a choice as to how much he or she is going to “stand behind” the art. The art also chooses for the author, I think — a sensationalist author begets sensationalist art begets a sensationalist person, then.

    In the end, this is part of how we gauge the quality and the endpoint of the relevance of a work. If it is shrill, if it is narcissistic, if it relies on the author’s personal force and not the force of the work, it will fade. I sense that as time goes on the force of work by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, even Kierkegaard, fades and becomes more comprehensible to us; we slowly parse its meanings, from historical significances, social ones, and then to their poetic and artistic power. In an opposite way, work by writers like Kafka, Paul Valery and Henry Roth rises, not from personal force but artistic force. I don’t think it matters anymore that Arthur Miller mistreated his son (it seems precious and facile to me to presume that we readers would have done better, so we have a right to judge, especially in this instance and this historical context) — the life is over, the economics are done and the victim is gone from this world, and so how can we judge the idea of this work that remains?

    In the economic sense it is as justifiable to me to boycott a living author’s books as it is to boycott Nike shoes, if for the same reasons. But the author’s work, as Derrida points out, once created, no longer belongs to the author. The source is not the source; the source is always already there and not there. And in the same instinctual way that humans read the world — making the majority of our judgments without being aware of them — we judge art: staying with Derrida, this reading is actually a writing: there is no original source and there can be no corruption, and perhaps we all know, in some abstract way, the place whence came Miller’s carelessness and irresponsibility in the rearing of his son, and his greatest sources of inspiration and feeling.

  6. To be more specific I should say — I don’t think it matters in relation to the quality of Miller’s art that he mistreated his son. Of course it matters historically, socially. It is not an acceptable thing to mistreat someone in that way. But in the context of his art, there is no automatic demarcation. If the art is cruel, or if its cruelty imbalances its form, it will show. (So it would be fair to say that this author’s work needs a reevaluation in light of these new historical events, but it is not automatically less important.) Maybe only for historic and social reasons is this knowledge relevant. I.e., we know that the Nazis were listening to Wagner a lot — there is some connection between Nazism and Wagner. So if a young kid becomes obsessed with Wagner, we can be aware that the music itself may have some dehumanizing affect. It may have no connection to Nazism, but only a physiological affect on the body-mind of the person. Which is kind of interesting — all the things we don’t know we don’t know about the significance of art.

  7. The “quality” of art is an incredibly, fundamentally political judgment that presumes a similarity — a “common humanity” — between all receivers of art, which is itself dehumanizing to all the people who you exclude by their lack of recognition of what you’re talking about. This fact is unavoidable if you want to talk about art at all. But it’s certainly interesting. And it should be reigned in insofar as we are able. It should also be problematized insofar as we are able.

    The “personal” and “artistic” force of an artist is, in my view, a fundamentally false distinction, because you get to cherry-pick which pieces of information you want to put in which camp. “Ooh, I like that writer, and that fact is interesting, so we’ll say that contributes to his ARTISTIC force.” You neglect to mention that there can be a huge amount of overlap between the two — in Wilde, for instance, or Pope, or Beckett, or even Kafka, who you cite as being on the artistic end of the spectrum, and that the two really depend on each other in everybody but Shakespeare, who seems, it is often noted, to have no personality of his own.

    You write, “I sense that as time goes on the force of work by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, even Kierkegaard, fades and becomes more comprehensible to us; we slowly parse its meanings, from historical significances, social ones, and then to their poetic and artistic power. In an opposite way, work by writers like Kafka, Paul Valery and Henry Roth rises, not from personal force but artistic force.”

    We have parsed the meanings of Kierkegaard? His program was a system of ironic complication that sought to rupture the totalizing system of Hegelian philosophy of dialectic progress towards the Idea of Freedom and the end of history. So in what sense the work is fully intelligible to us, without understanding Hegel — like, seven people “understand” Hegel — and without putting it in its proper dialogic context, and without being reductive to the point of dismissal, I’m not sure. You could say that we’ve taken what we want out of Kierkegaard and dismissed the rest because anti-hegelianism doesn’t interest us, but that has nothing to do with his artistic force, since lots of people are still getting a lot more from him. I would argue the same, in different terms, for Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and I would certainly say that the “artistic” force of both is greater than that of Henry Roth. But, I would be cherry-picking what information I want to use to make that judgment.

    You’re seeming to want to bracket off the effects of certain artists from each other by way of artistic relevance. If you’re going to do that, though, you have no choice but to do it either in terms of personal taste, in which case, you don’t get to say “we” or “us”; or historically, in which case you’re talking in terms of a genealogy of trends in the way these people have been read over time and are read now (“the history of judgments about Hemingway”), which is merely that — a genealogy of trends, and your own evaluations in regards to those trends. Neither of these positions is ever “RIGHT.” Not wrong, exactly, but not right.

    Especially when you start reading art as a form of escapism — you say, “an idealized version, often, of the ‘they’ they wish they could be or the life they would live if they could” — which is positing a whole slew of artistic primacies to the “intention” of the artist. And I’m not sure what kind of work the word “often” is doing in that sentence, since really it only means, “sometimes.” What does it mean in terms of the fact that Miller mistreated his son to introduce the concept of authorial intention? Because that fact is certainly not PART of Miller’s artistic intention. But to say it doesn’t complicate his intention is to… well… be wrong. It wasn’t the part of the Nazis’ artistic intention to become the bogeyman and arch-villain of the 20th century. But they are. And it WAS an artistic intention, insofar as it was both aesthetic (blond and blue) and political (strong and volk). And now we have to interpret not only their intention, but everything else, too.

    I find it odd that you cite Hegel, Wittgenstein, Derrida, and Kierkegaard, and then introduce a separation between a “historical” and an “artistic” sense — especially when you’ve already introduced a split between the “personal” and the “artistic.” The binary rings false to me. It’s creating a straw man version of all those thinkers in order to justify the point you’re already trying to make — so that you can talk about them as uplifting “artists” without needing to talk about their contributions to the ways in which we think, which were, for all, sort of cynical about the ways in which a person is able to be uplifted. They all had very strong political and metaphysical positions. To talk about them as artists, or as “literary” figures, you need to define art and literature in a far more comprehensive way than something capable of elevating our minds or whatever.

    There is and can be no PURE separation between things like “historical” and “artistic,” and to do a close-reading, or to experience a work for its aesthetic power, is “always already” a politically, philosophically, ideologically-informed act. And, since that’s true — and it’s never not true, because you always exist as a consumer of art in a way that’s irreducible from your position as a political subject (in the broadest sense of the term — something like, “having relationships with and judging people and ideas that are not yourself or your own”) — it ALWAYS gets more interesting to know the Miller mistreated his son. You don’t NEED to know it, and nobody’s arguing that you do need to know it. But once you do, and we do, there’s no way to demarcate this bit of knowledge and set it aside from any other bit of knowledge about Miller. And the fact that Miller DIDN’T, as you say, “stand behind” this fact, but evaded it and left it to be discovered in 2007 is telling. He didn’t want us to read this fact. But now we’ve got the fact, in that context, and we can do one of two things — suppress it so that people don’t know it and try to forget it ourselves, or use it to inform our readings. Those are literally our only two options, and only one of them is responsible. I’m not saying Miller’s texts should be at the mercy of that fact. Far from it. I’m just saying, it’s there, and it’s our responsibility to deal with it as readers in a humane, understanding way.

    Call it what you want — analyzing “historically,” “politically,” “artistically,” “exegetically,” “hermeneutically” — you’re always informing your analysis with bits of what you know. Sure, you HAVE to create a hierarchy of information, and give certain thoughts primacy. But that doesn’t mean you should. I think this applies just as well to any form of art — sure, as you say, they convey their meanings differently. But art is never not interestingly complicated by knowing things about it, as long as you don’t facilely let those things govern the way you interpret it. Finding out an abstract-expressionist painting was done by a child and dismissing it as aesthetically worthless because a child can’t possibly know how to paint doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if you liked the painting before you knew it was painted by a child, except as a political act to cover your ass as a cultivated person of taste. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad to know that it was painted by a child. Derrida is famous for saying “there is nothing outside the text.” Later, when people started reading texts without context, he said — and I’m paraphrasing here — “holy fucking shit, that’s not what I meant at all.” And then he said, and now I’m quoting, “there is nothing outside the context.” Because they’re the same thing.

    Also: “So if a young kid becomes obsessed with Wagner, we can be aware that the music itself may have some dehumanizing affect.” Huh? Shaw, and other radical liberals, championed Wagner. How does Wagner have a dehumanizing effect just because Nazis listened to him? Who is dehumanized by Wagner? Do you just mean, “Nazis dehumanized people, and they also listened to Wagner”? Because that’s a much different point.


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