Feb 25 2014

Art and Artist

Back in September, I had the good fortune to attend a Death In June concert with my wife, in San Francisco. The show was visited by a few misguided AntiFa protesters – I’ve written about it here.

Don't make me get all batrachian on you...

Don’t make me get all batrachian on you…

Twice now, within the last few months, I’ve again had to deal with more self-appointed culture police. This time, the target is H.P. Lovecraft.

The argument usually goes like this: “How do you reconcile your love of Lovecraft with the fact that he was a horrible racist/sexist and the ‘he was a product of his times’ argument doesn’t count – GO!”

This is what’s known as a shit test. It is designed to provoke, and it is also designed to prevent any “correct” answers, because to defend Lovecraft makes you an equally reprehensible person. You should be ashamed for liking such things, because these are “enlightened” times!

Or something.

First and foremost, you should never have to defend art, music, or literature that appeals to you. I may not like what you like, and you may not like what I like. However, I find art that is forced to sanitize itself into some sort of all-inclusive tokenism just to make sure someone somewhere isn’t inadvertantly having their delicate sensibilities shattered by the Big Bad Insensitive Artist to be incredibly dull and boring. Did anyone really actually enjoy “We Are The World”?

Really?

Second, I’m sorry, but nobody has a monopoly on “transgressive” art (whatever that is). So, Douglas P., and H.P.L. are both entitled to use provocative symbols, and have beliefs that don’t sit well with today’s hand-wringers. I will also support your right to create films with topless women making out in university libraries, cracking eggs on each other’s heads, and dancing around chicken carcasses.

will laugh at that, however.

I also find Herrmann Nitsch to be rather fascinating. You should check him out.

I think these days we seem to be running into a convergence of conveniences.

  1. It is convenient to categorize thoughts, feelings, beliefs into two categories: “correct” and “incorrect”
  2. This enables us to instantly decide that anything, or anyone, that does not fall into one of our two convenient categories, must therefore belong to the other category.
  3. It is more convenient to hold people forever accountable for their brief forays into “incorrect” than it is to acknowledge that they are human, may have different beliefs from you, may grow, may change their minds, and may renounce their former beliefs.  Thus it is easier, to forever hold, say, Tony Wakeford, accountable for his brief participation in ultra-right wing political groups and therefore believe he is secretly leading an entire musical genre in promoting crypto-fascism (sometimes so crypto as to be unidentifiable even with a microscope), than it is to acknowledge his own repeated mea culpas. It is more convenient to simply label him and anyone ever seen in the same room with him as fascists. That way, you don’t have to worry about any of them, learn anything about any of them, or worry about tainting your precious little mind with the “dangerous” ideas that you read somewhere they are promoting. Effort is hard.
  4. It is convenient to just have all of the answers handed to you. When reality doesn’t fit your worldview, obviously reality is wrong. The rest of us just need to “do the research!” and we’ll be instantly enlightened as well.

I think some of this is pure laziness.  I think a good chunk of it (at least in the States) is the fault of the educational system. Kids are no longer being taught how to think, but rather provided with lists of things to memorize for The Test.

Before our son was born, my wife decided to take a philosophy of religion course at the local junior college. From what she told me, it sounded more like remedial high school English. The professor spent more time trying to teach the students how to write 5 paragraph themes than being able to effectively discuss philosophy or religion; the students kept demanding to know where the answers were in the book for their discussion topics.

Discussion Topics. Discuss. Philosophy. As in, “What do you think?”

As a former compiler of course and faculty evaluations at a different university, I was saddened by how many professors were getting low marks for “lecturing too much – wouldn’t tell us what was on the exam.”

With convenient categories, of course, comes the lack of a need to recognize complexity and nuance. Instead, you skim for a few indicators and red flags, and you instantly know all you need to know about an artist/author/person and there’s no need to investigate further once you’ve put them in their appropriate box: “Correct” or “Incorrect”

For the record, there’s a third category: “Problematic,” which is usually reserved for people who you want to like, but simply can’t, because they’re in the “Incorrect” box.  “Problematic” puts the categorizer in a bind, because on a level they acknowledge human complexity.  But, since everything has to be a zero-sum game, “Correct”/”Incorrect”, most people prefer to err on the side of caution, and go with “Incorrect”, lest they be tarnished by association, and also labelled “Incorrect.”

This dance is tiresome.

Russell Berman, in his preface to Ernst Jünger’s book On Pain (2008. Telos Press), agrees:

Although conventional political thinking still tries to police a neat separation between left and right, we should not be afraid to explore the gray zone in between without leaping prematurely or unnecessarily to an unwarranted assertion of identity (p. viii).

So, can you separate art and artist? Is it okay to like someone’s creative output, even though you think they may be a bit of an asshole?

There’s a simple solution.

The quick version: Don’t hate the Player, hate the Game.

The not-so-quick version: like what you like. Who, ultimately, gives a fuck?

If you are so caught up in worrying about what other people think of your tastes, then you have bigger issues than “is Dave Sim a misogynist, or might he have a few points?” Nobody has all the answers – especially in these “enlightened” times. If you feel that you suddenly aren’t “allowed” to like something, because the creator has unpopular opinions, or may have put their foot in their mouth in an interview somewhere and is currently being eaten alive by the Internet Outrage Machine, then I have to question the strength of your sense of self-identity.

As Robert Anton Wilson said to me, and I’m fond of repeating: “Read things you disagree with. Otherwise you aren’t exercising your mind.”

Embrace that which scares you and makes you uncomfortable.  That is what art is supposed to do.

This is also good practice for embracing other uncomfortable moments in life.

To quote Aleister Crowley:

There are only two courses open to logic; one can either accept the universe as it is, face every fact frankly and fearlessly, and make one’s soul immune to the influence of any invasion; or abolish the whole thing by administering soporifics to the spirit…The pious pretence that evil does not exist only makes it vague, enormous and menacing. Its overshadowing formlessness obsesses the mind. The way to beat an enemy is to define him clearly, to analyse and measure him. Once an idea is intelligently grasped, it ceases to threaten the mind with the terrors of the unknown.

Quit whining.

Own up to your tastes.

Tell me why you like the things you do, rather than apologize for them.

And enjoy (sidenote:  if you’re worried about your etheric body, wear a condom).

There are no brownie points.

Really.

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