Karol recently posted a blog entry about how great Kanye West’s album, Graduation, is even though Kanye himself is retarded. It got me to thinking about an old dilemma I was wrestling with many years ago which I have since, I think, resolved for myself. But let me hear what you all think about it.
The dilemma is this: Can you separate the art from the artist?
Let’s take a prime example. Richard Wagner, the great German composer, composed his masterpiece “Ride of the Valkyries” as a testament to the spirit of Germanic culture. It is very martial and stirring and it features some of the greatest violin parts ever set to music. The violin bits for the piece were so difficult that Wagner himself was forced to train his own violinists to do them, rather than simply hire musicians for his orchestra. Oh, for those of you who don’t know the piece I’m referring to, it’s the “Kill The Wabbit” song that Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd sing in the Warner Bros. classic, “What’s Opera, Doc?”. But I digress. Anyway, the dilemma is that Wagner was a raging anti-semite. Of Hitlerian proportians. It was no accident that Hitler himself was a huge admirer of Wagner and appropriated his music as a way of stirring the anti-semitic feelings that lay in German society. To this day, many Jews, young and old, can’t bear to listen to Wagner because of the views he held and the evil that was done set to his soundtrack.
Let’s take another example. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, and the 3rd president of the United States, was a great statesman. His work, as a politician and as an author, was seminal in the development of our country. It changed the way people think about politics, human rights, the organization of the state and the way people should live. He was also a slave owner who undisputedly fathered children with a slave he owned, Sally Hemmings. The dichotomy of the man who authored the phrase, “All men are created equal”, using his influence as the owner of human chattle to satisfy his lust outside the bonds of his marriage is palpable.
I find it interesting when I visit museums to research the artists whose works catch my eye. I like to know more about them because I am curious about the process of creation. Are the works of these artists shaped by their experiences? Undoubtedly. Does it matter if they are virulent and repulsive human beings? That’s the answer I was trying to find out.
Initially, I thought that yes, the artist’s personal views DO matter when looking at their artwork. That you can’t separate the two. My logic in this was the definition of ‘art’ as I saw it ten years ago. In my mind, art was the expression of a person and the product of a person who holds twisted beliefs must be twisted in themselves. Don’t we do this in our own minds when we hear politicians giving stump speeches? We look into the backgrounds of those people, find flaws, and then project them onto they’re message. We even extrapolate personal flaws from personal behaviors! I remember reading an article recently that said Barack Obama….smokes. The horror! The article implied that someone who smokes might not have, I am not making this up, the moral fortitude to lead our nation. Ridiculous, right?
A few years ago, while thinking deeply about this topic, I came to an about face, which is where I am now. Expressions of artists, I reasoned, are essentially ideas. Some of those ideas are original and some aren’t. But no matter where they come from, an artist you find personally repugnant or one whose views you agree with, the ideas are all filtered through the viewer’s own prism of interpretation. In other words, we as humans make our own judgments on ideas that are presented to us every day. Some of these judgments are based on our experiences and some are visceral reactions, but they are unique to us, the viewer. What this tells me, logically, is that art, once created by the artist, is set free to become whatever the viewer sees in their own mind. The intention of the artist, while interesting, has no real bearing on the meaning of the piece! This was a revelation to me when I thought about it. This means that I should hold precious in my head only the interpretations that I give to art, be it books, music, paintings or poetry. It’s true that some research into the artist’s background, intentions or circumstances might inform my opinion better, but in the end it is my own filter that counts.
Karol said it best (and more succinctly): “Don't hate the album, hate the artist”.