defrog: (life is offensive)
[personal profile] defrog
I recently came across a post on Macrolit – a tumblog specializes in classic literature and used books – in which someone complained that the site owner reblogged a photoset of books by Simone de Beauvoir:

In the wake of all the recent Hollywood sexual assault allegations I would appreciate if you would hold off on reposting a serial child molester.

Macrolit didn't delete the post, but it did acknowledge the complaint and the subsequent issue raised, and – given how many other classic authors were guilty of immoral or criminal behavior (William Golding, William Burroughs, JD Salinger, etc) – posed this question to its followers:
Do we ignore important works by these authors because of the lives they lived and the things they did? Does the fact that most of these authors are now dead make a difference? Does de Beauvoir’s actions negate her important feminist work The Second Sex? Or should we continue to read them but with mental asterisks in our minds?

For me, this is a variation on similar questions raised in the past regarding filmmakers like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, and also regarding authors and actors who have been known for saying things that were racist, anti-Semitic or homophobic – can we separate the art from the artist? Should we? And if not, how far do we want to take that?

Obviously, there’s no easy or universal answer to these questions. This Vox article posed them to literary critics, and the results – while inconclusive – make interesting reading in terms of the history of separating the art from the artist (which wasn’t a thing until the 20th century) in art criticism.

Having thought about this a lot, it occurs to me that there are two levels to this issue – personal and cultural.

The personal level is pretty easy for me. Some people can separate the art from the artist, and some can’t – especially people who are victims of racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, sexual assault et al. So my baseline standard is if you’d rather not read, hear, look at or consume art produced by offensive people – even if the art itself does not expressly convey their offensive views – then by all means don’t. If you want to boycott authors and other artists for moral reasons, then by all means do.

The cultural level is trickier, because some people who cannot separate the art from the artist – and again, that’s a perfectly valid position to hold –also insist that all art created by offensive or immoral people (or includes them – any film with Johnny Depp in it, for example) be banished and stricken from the cultural record, on the grounds that anything short of that is a de facto endorsement or celebration of the artist’s offenses or viewpoints.

That’s the gist of the complaint by the Macrolit reader – it’s not enough for him/her to avoid Simone de Beauvoir’s works, he/she also prefers that Macrolit delete the post and never post anything about de Beauvoir again.

As you might imagine, I’m not cool with this. It’s an absolutist zero-tolerance policy, which is almost never a good idea. And when applied retroactively to art and culture, the result is a sort of moral cleansing of our cultural history to the point where we’d be pretending we were never racist sexist homophobic misogynist jerks in the first place. This is not only dishonest, but dangerous. Even the people at Looney Tunes understand this.

That said, I don’t think the artist’s personal life or terrible deeds are necessarily irrelevant to assessing their art today in a different cultural context, nor do they have to be. I like the “mental asterisks” idea suggested by Macrolit – it’s healthy to assess art both in the context in which it was produced and the context of modern mores and attitudes, if only to provide a benchmark of how far we’ve come (or fallen, as the case may be).

Moreover, this creates an opportunity for education and discussion about sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, etc. In literature classes, for example, we could teach those books in the context of the times and societies in which they were written, discuss how our values have changed (for better or worse), and where we go from here. We could also counter those books with other books with differing perspectives. If nothing else, it could be the springboard for raising awareness of the fact that racial, religious and sexual minorities see such works much differently than (say) straight white guys.

Which is idealistic, simplistic and naïve in these hyper-polarized times. But then so is deleting every piece of art associated with anyone who ever did or said anything bad ever – you simply can’t rid the world of evil by pretending it doesn't exist, especially on the pretext that acknowledging its existence is the same thing as condoning it, which is demonstrably not true. I don’t have the answer, obviously, but I’m pretty sure censorship and revisionist history ain’t it.

Suffering for my art,

This is dF


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