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« Elsewhere | Main | Bouncey Bounce »

September 04, 2006

Separating Artist and Art

Donald Pittenger writes

Dear Blowhards --

So Guenter Grass was in the SS in World War 2. Not the part of the SS most people think of, where SSers wore tight-fitting black uniforms and got to wave Lugars around while sneering at members of lesser races.

You see, as the war ground along, the SS became a military arm of the National Socialist German Workers Party. There were even SS divisions, which didn't amuse the Wehrmacht generals, I would think. Anyway, Grass was in the military part of the SS.

The revelation touched off a fair amount of fuss in both the traditional media and the Blogosphere (see here for info on Grass and here for a report on the controversy). Besides the not-so-trivial matter of Grass' decades of hypocrisy, the issue of separating artist and art came up from time to time.

And that perennial issue is what interests me more than Grass who, to my mind, spent his career backing the wrong political horse.

Okay, I understand that we are supposed to focus on the quality of the art and not the merits or failings of the artist.

Fallen, fallible creature that I am, I don't seem to be able to live up to that standard. If I despise an artist's lifestyle, personality, morality or politics, I can find it hard to like his art. This isn't universal, mind you; my reaction varies by case.

Let me focus on politics for now. I am an anti-communist (gasp!!). That makes me seriously unwelcome in many artistic circles, but so be it; "I yam what I yam" as Popeye the Sailor succinctly put it.

But I fancy myself a reasonable anti-communist. I tend to give slack to people who fell in love with socialism and communism back in the days when those schemes were theoretical, untried. I give a lot less slack to those who persisted in loving communism after the period of Stalin's trials and the August 1939 pact with Hitler. And I pretty much totally write off anyone who was a communist or sympathizer after the mid-50s uprisings in East Germany, Poland and, especially, Hungary.

Now that I've established myself as a vile, closed-minded, imperialist warmonger, let's turn to art.

Even if an artist was as red as the "meatball" on the flag of Japan, I can overlook his politics so long as the subject of the art is non-political. Obvious examples are artists who were Abstract Expressionists.

Other artists favored political themes. George Grosz is an artist whose art and politics I don't like. Ben Shahn also was a lefty who sometimes dealt with political subjects, but I tend to like his work thanks to his interesting technique. In particular, I was intrigued by his pen-an-ink work back in the 50s when I was a student.

Frida Kahlo is an artist whose popularity has inexplicably (to me) risen greatly over the last decade or so. She and her sometime husband Diego Rivera were reds, but a quick flip through a book about her suggests that she did little or no political art, focusing instead on herself. I don't like her work though appreciate the fact that yet another semi-representational artist has gained popularity. Her politics simply reinforce my negative take on her art.

There are no right-wing artists of stature that I can think of who did or currently do political art. No doubt some exist(ed), but I simply can't come up with any at the moment. Most of the artists who did propaganda painting for the Third Reich were not first-rank. And major artists who served regimes (Velazquez, for example) generally worked in an era before modern politics emerged.

I'll further distinguish between political art and patriotic art -- the latter gives me little trouble. Others will disagree. Nowadays, to be patriotic has become political to those who hate the thought of nations in both the sovereign and anthropological senses. That's a topic for another day.

Hmm. Looks like my rant has gone on a bit too long. So I'll stop for now and retreat to the bomb shelter to await comments.

Later,

Donald

posted by Donald at September 4, 2006




Comments

So what's your take on Thomas Kinkade and his criminal behavior? Using his Christianity and sentimentality to force print dealers into untenable situations and cynically peddling his "paintings of light" to the naive? I gather his offenses are pretty serious, enough to earn him CEO-type jail time.

I haven't Googled him so have no links to offer, but I'm sure there are some by now.

There are more than a few artists I quite dislike and generally I dislike their art as well. However, there is art I dislike without having any opinion on their originators at all. Same with writing, except that with writing I think there is a kind of "moral" point of view that often comes through -- not quite political, but a sort of belief about what life means, what's important, the value of other people and so on. I suppose that's the sort of thing that comes through in someone like Salvador Dali: ennui, despair, shapelessness. Renoir the optimist, Degas the cynic.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on September 4, 2006 9:14 PM



A tangential quibble - patriotism as a political issue didn't just come from "those who hate the thought of nations in both the sovereign and anthropological senses". It also came from the Republicans that have successfully painted liberals as necessarily being unpatriotic.

Posted by: ptm on September 4, 2006 9:36 PM



My stance has always been to separate people's personalities from the way they do their job. Some really great people do terrible work, and some really terrible people do great work. I guess the problem with artists is that they seem to be able to do things so extraordinary that we want to believe their character matches their talents. But this is not always so. I tend to look at them and how they treat their wives and kids (or spouses, whatever). Many people who are creative for some reason tend to have problems with their bilogical families, so that really doesn't count--they have no choice in it. So I look at how they treat those closest to them to see what kind of people they are. But it doesn't lessen my appreciation for what they do or have done.

In the end, its what they gave us that really matters. Many are dead and gone. Its sad, in my opinion, to only focus on what they did wrong rather than what they did right. God doesn't treat people like that, so why should I?

Posted by: btm on September 5, 2006 1:20 AM



"There are no right wing artists of stature that I can think of who did or currently do political art."

You might want to look at the work of the Italian Futurists. The movement came into being around 1910 with a Futurist Manifesto, written by the painter/sculptor Boccioni. Essentially, the Futurists worshipped youth, speed, technology, the new; the plane, the car, the industrial town. They aestheticized violence, glorified modern warfare and were intensely nationalistic. This made them a perfect fit for Mussolini's Fascist Party when it took power.

They produced some really first rate paintings and sculpture. Boccioni, Cara, Russolo, Balla and Severini led the movement.

When I was growing up there was a painting by Balla (or Cara?) called The City Rises, on permanent display in the Museum Of Modern Art - MOMA - in NYC. It was impossible to stand in front of it and not be swept up by the dynamism of its depiction of construction in a great industrial city.

Posted by: ricpic on September 5, 2006 8:48 AM



It's not so much the revelations that G. Grass comes up with as the timing of such revelations. As the appointed conscience of post-WWII Germany, he sure seems to have been unconscious regarding his SS membership for a while. Reveal that faux pas after he claims the Nobel Prize? Absolutely ridiculous. I loved "The Tin Drum" and I have a hard time seperating the artist and the art in this case, specifically because of the timing of the revelation. Maximize a book's sale while minimizing the retraction of awards and accolades.

Posted by: DarkoV on September 5, 2006 8:54 AM



Ahhhh, hermeneutics. Finally. Oodles of theorizers have mucked up the simple act of understanding what we read. The meaning of a text, they say, is not merely in the text itself. That’s too easy. Somehow meaning gets “situated” around the text, like an aura. Meaning is behind the text -- in the author or, casting the net a bit more broadly, in the community in which the author was intellectually situated. And meaning is in front of the text -- in the mind of the reader, or his or her intellectual community. The text itself sorta drops out of contention and treated as a mere goad to finding “real” meanings.

Similarly, with a piece of art, architecture or music, it is difficult to allow the “thing itself” to just mean something. We mentally jump behind the object as if the biography of its creator offers tantalizing clues to its meaning and worthiness. In doing so we act as if the meaning or value of the object can be found in the intention or mind of its creator, not in the thing itself.

Simultaneously, at those moments when self-awareness pulls us away from the object toward ourselves, we become vaguely aware of our own role as interpreters and observers of the art. To borrow from philosophy – incorrectly! -- the “thing itself” becomes the “thing for me.”

What to do? Can’t we just let the text be a text without self-consciously worrying about our own biases and history? Similarly, can’t we just forget the creator and concentrate on the creation? Tragically, the answer is “no.” There seems to be both a learned habit and innate need to probe the intention and mind of the artist behind the art. I have no idea why.

An anecdote. Many years ago I took a medieval history class in grad school. For the two weeks prior to class, I imbibed medieval history thoroughly loving every book on the reading list. Then class started. Curiously, we rarely talked about medieval history. Instead, we spent ALL of our time discussing the biographies of the authors of the wonderful books I had just read, as if knowing about the author would give a secret insight or necessary clue to the book’s meaning. The content of the book was almost ignored. Of course, the prof may have assumed we’d get the content by ourselves, and so spent our seminar time instilling “nuance” and “significance.” But I remember feeling empty after every class. The innocent joy of reading medieval history turned to muck. (I’m a professor of history, by the way, and those dusty books are on my office shelf. I have never read them again.)

Back to the German Waffen S.S. writer, Guenter Grass. A big part of me – in fact the biggest part of me – wants to scream, “Who gives a shit about his past. It is his ART that matters. It his ART. ART. ART.”

But I have to admit I’m curious about the artist. A wee voice inside of me is curious about Glass. I confess to being fascinated with demented, mentally ill and politically repulsive artists so much so that I wish art could be rendered ahistorical and anonymous, as if discovered on the moon. But even if this happened, I’d have me to contend with me. I’d still be in front of the text, viewing it from afar through lenses specifically ground by my intellectual past.

I miss innocence. I just want to curl up with a book and forget about me and the author and the context and the bias and the agenda and the … I JUST WANT TO READ.

But I can’t.


Posted by: Kris on September 5, 2006 9:57 AM



"That makes me seriously unwelcome in many artistic circles, but so be it;"

Really? Which ones? This isn't the 1930s. Seriously, I think statements like that are not borne out of any real experience with "artistic circles," unless you were being coy and intentionally conflating communism with liberalism.

Posted by: the patriarch on September 5, 2006 10:16 AM



I love btm's comment about how artists have troubles with their "bilogical" families -- so many times a typo means more than the correct spelling might! As a veteran (graduate?) of a marriage to an older tempestuous artist whom many people disliked and as author of a book about said artist, I have to say that the "bilogic" of the situation was that the same torment driving him to create made him hard to live with, not that one caused the other. But he was also capable of providing great joy in his work and life when the problem was getting solved.

At U of Chicago Div School which, when I was there, was pretty much a "look at the text only" place, I found it much easier to understand the "Modern Thinkers" (which we called "modern stinkers") after sneaking off to read their biographies. The key to their theories was often in the problem their lives demanded that they solve. This was especially true of theologians. Tell me about the person's mom and pop, and I'll tell you about his God or lack of one.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on September 5, 2006 10:24 AM



Error in my earlier post.

The City Rises was painted by Umberto Boccioni.

Easily googled for a view.

Posted by: ricpic on September 5, 2006 10:42 AM



A few notes:

1) The SS was _always_ "the military arm of the Nazi Party". It was founded as the security force for party leaders and meetings.

2) There was no real separation between the "Waffen-SS" (the field combat force) and the "SS-Totenkopf Verband" (the death camp operators). Invalids from the Waffen-SS went into the Totenkopf, the Waffen-SS drew on Totenkopf for replacements. Nearly all Totenkopf were also in the Waffen-SS at some time; about half of all Waffen-SS were also in the Totenkopf.

This is important, because a lot of Third Reich "buffs" pretend that the Waffen-SS was 'clean'.

Grass, AFAIK, was never Totenkopf. He was drafted into the Waffen-SS fairly late, and there was much less opportunity for such exchanges at that stage.

As for Frida Kahlo, she did plenty of political art, including hagiographic portraits of Stalin. She was at work on one of these when she died.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on September 5, 2006 1:15 PM



Grass is indeed a political nincompoop (I can't comment on his art, not having read any of it). Shortly after 9-11, when the Afghanistan war was getting underway, he said something to the effect of: "The death of three thousand white people does not justify the bombing of many more thousands of brown people." I read this shortly after returning to Germany from New York, where I had observed the many heart-breaking "Do you know where my (husband, brother, father, sister etc.) is?" flyers with pictures posted up all around - the majority of which showed Black, Hispanic and Asian faces. The ignorance of the man regarding America - and the self-righteousness: unfortunately, it's all too typical for present-day Germany's intellectual class (for more information on that, Davids Medienkritik is a pretty good source, although it's slightly puerile in a pro-Bush, neocon way). I'm sure I could pull up a bundle of similar Grass quotes if I wanted to, but I don't want to get angry.

Posted by: dan g. on September 5, 2006 1:18 PM



I actively work to not know the politics of people whose art (pictures, music, writing, whatever) I like. If it turns out that I agree with their politics, I don't like their work any better. If it turns out that I despise their politics, this taints my view of their work. There's just no upside.

"There are no right-wing artists of stature that I can think of who did or currently do political art.... Most of the artists who did propaganda painting for the Third Reich were not first-rank."

Non-sequitur; the National Socialist German Workers' Party was a decidedly leftist institution. Referring to them as being on the right is an artifact of propaganda from Soviet sympathizers wishing to demonize their new opponents (and former allies) subsequent to the collapse of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on September 5, 2006 1:35 PM



Hmmm, right-wing artists. Obviously, that terminology has meant many different things in different eras. In no particular order, we have John Constable, Thomas Hart Benton and most of the Regionalists, Frederic Church, Adolphe William Bouguereau, I'm guessing most of the American Renaissance painters, Thomas Cole and most of the Hudson River School, Peter Paul Rubens, etc., etc. Giotto wrote a poem in praise of wealth and criticizing poverty around 1300--does that qualify him as right wing? Franz von Struck was Hitler's favorite painter (what a distinction!), but I have no idea of von Struck's politics. I'm guessing Ingres was a political conservative, but that may be just projection; I was recently surprised to learn that Delacroix, painter of Liberty on the barricades, was in later life rather a political reactionary.

Actually, I wonder a great deal if it even makes sense to take most artist's politics seriously, even if the artists themselves do. The emotional needs of artists push them into relationships with the political thought of their own day, but in many cases, those relationships are impacted greatly by the artist's social surroundings, the politics of their patrons, etc., etc. There was a bit of a fuss when Giorgio Morandi turned out to have been a Fascist during the 1920s and 1930s, but at the end of the day it appears that was mostly because the Fascist art establishment was willing to give him some public recognition and a career push.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 5, 2006 1:45 PM



All -- "The dog ate my homework." Well, my comments replies. Actually, it wasn't a dog, it was an incoming cell-phone call.

I have one of these cell-phone based Internet connections which is really neat. Except, I'm now discovering, when a call comes in. If I answer, that blows the computer link.

I had just spent an hour replying and was editing the text and now it's all gone, gone, gone.

And I'm not redoing it because my wife arrives from California shortly and I'll be tied up with a trip for the next 4 weeks aside from a short post now and then.

So I'm sorry I failed to get the replies off. The comments were very good and I appreciated them.

Posted by: donald Pittenger on September 5, 2006 5:13 PM



I find as I go along in the art world that most artists are left-of-center politically. More traditional (realist) types tend to be more conservative, and the experimental types tend to be left (but not always!). I think this has to do with outsider types being drawn into art, people who don't fit into the existing order don't want to support it. I think it has less to do with the art itself and more to do with why people choose art over something else. This has had serious ramifications in this century for the art world.

But getting back on track, most painters I know are little concerned with politics in their own work (I tend to be conservative, and natch, like realist art). It all seems a bit tangential to the creative process anyway.

Grass I know a little about, but that's what you get when you tangle yourself up in politics. Best to keep the two separate. The Dixie Chicks have found this out.

I had no idea my lack of proofreading would be so revelatory. But I would like to emphasize that while there certainly are many artists who have bad families, there are also plenty who have good ones too. I'm sure great businessmen also have drug addictions, personal problems, family dramas, etc., but somehow the romantic notion of the artist seems to be some sort of nexus where all of this stuff appears more relevant to their professional lives. Perhaps. I certainly wouldn't want to throw out Klimt's or Anders Zorn's works because they were amoral womanizers. I don't think it has much to do with the value of their artistic accomplishments (although it sure did lead to some very erotic artwork!). I think you get the drift. Like I said, they're dead now anyway. I don't see why we just can't enjoy the good things that they gave us, live our own lives in a more morally upstanding fashion consistent with our beliefs, and let the issue go at that.

Posted by: btm on September 5, 2006 5:29 PM






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