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Art for art sake

I recently saw the question asked (and answered very haltingly): can you separate the art from the artist?

Having watched, read, listened to works by variously kinds of socialists, racists, religious wackos, and people with all manner of other assorted loathsome world views… yes, one can most certainly separate the author from the work, the artist from the art, as the works can stand on their own. One can appreciate what Leni Riefenstahl or Sergei Eisenstein or Zhang Guanzhe did without embracing the ideologies they propagandised or caring much about the artist. Daesh nasheeds are a really interesting form of music. The Joker dancing on those stairs was dancing to music written by Gary Glitter. So what? The music is fabulous.

HP Lovecraft, know these days as much for his of-his-times racism, was hugely influential culturally with many who followed for reasons unrelated to that. As a teenager, I was introduced to Lovecraft’s works by a Jamaican fan, and he had a really interesting theory as to why HPL wrote what and how he did (tl’dr: he was terrified of The Other, which informs his entire opus).

If you can’t transcend the fact people who see the world differently (and often horribly) can nevertheless make astonishingly good things… well, your loss.

38 comments to Art for art sake

  • Paul Marks

    Yes of course one can separate the art from the artist.

    For example, I can enjoy the music of Richard Wagner (although I tend to prefer music from a century before him) without supporting his socialist politics (no money or private property in the means of production – and material equality) and his idea that people from my ethnic group are naturally evil and need to be eliminated.

    As for H.P. Lovecraft – he was all over the place on race (often contradicting himself and holding different opinions at different times – that did not use to be a crime), but he could WRITE. Which is more than the “anti racist” J.J. Abrams can.

    I even admire some Soviet buildings (although not many) – no doubt CNN will now claim that this makes me a “Russian Asset”.

  • RNB

    With Lovecraft, ‘the other’ was pretty much anyone who lived outside the borders of Rhode Island (and most of those who lived within them). Lovecraft was a deeply, deeply neurotic man. Anyone looking in his direction for a paragon of virtue should look somewhere else. And he was a lousy writer. Nonetheless, his stories have an undeniable power, and that is what has kept them alive long after HPL died.

  • Myno

    Regarding the non-literate portion of art, advice from an anthropologist friend after a failed lecture by a photographer, “If an artist’s medium isn’t words, don’t ask them to describe their work.” Speaking to another friend, an artist who wrote lyrics, he was always most interested in where his art had taken the listener, much more so than “what he had meant”. Admire art for itself, irrespective of source.

  • Agree totally but that’s why we have Bitcoin & Five Finger Discount. I’ve no interest in giving some fucktard who regards me as the enemy any of my money, so if I can steal their work, I will. Leftists want to help themselves to to money, so seems only fair I respect their property rights in much the same way.

    I’d be quite happy to personally put a bullet in the head of several people who I regard as great artists.

  • And he was a lousy writer

    Oh I do not agree. His highly adjectival style is an acquired taste & rather archaic but that is part of the charm.

  • I concur, Mr. de Havilland.

    The rare times I have issued with the Artist vs their Art is when the Artists vision is constrained by their worldview to limit their art, or their indulging of drugs makes their vision incoherent and puerile.

    Example of the first: The folk singer/composer Woody Guthrie. There came a point when his devotion to Communism overpowered his sense of a good tune.

    Example of the second: The vocalist Mike Patton. Drug use rendered his singing and lyrics into disharmonic microphone manipulation, AKA c*cksucking the mic.

    This, as always, is just IMHO.

  • bobby b

    If you feel strongly enough about the demerits of the artist, I think you can set aside the wonder of their product and dislike it on principle. I wouldn’t hang the paintings of Pol Pot.

  • Fraser Orr

    I think it depends on which “you” you are talking about. Some people can, some art can be. Not not all people can, and not art can be.

    Some art is attractive just for what it is (the Mona Lisa or Westminster Abbey, for example), some art is intrinsically beautiful, but we eschew it for its context (such as the aforementioned paintings of Pol Pot.) Some art is banal, but it is its context that makes it attractive to some people (for example there is a famous story of an art teacher asking his students for comments on an image of a Jackson Pollock. They were later shocked to find it was not a Jackson Pollock but a picture of his paint stained artist apron. However, I have certainly talked to people who think Pollocks are attractive because it is not an object in isolation, but for what it represents in the process of the history of art, and who Pollock himself was.

    It is also worth saying that not all art is meant to be beautiful. Really, I think the purpose of art is to provoke an emotional reaction (rather than a rational one) and beauty certainly does that, but others (for example Picasso’s most famous work, Guernica is specifically designed to be shocking and disgusting, which is a different emotional outcome. (FWIW, Guernica, is one of the reasons I particularly dislike Picasso.)

    Which is to say that, almost by definition, art is subjective, so some people like some stuff for a lot of reasons, and some people don’t. I find Picasso to be just ugly, and rap music to be droning and offensive. But some people love Picasso (judging by the prices they pay) and lots of people love rap (judging by the money they make.)

    So who are you or I to say what art is, or whether context is important. Art isn’t, almost by definition, objective. The nature of art is to say that it really is up to the individual to judge.

    A friend of mine who is a fine artist sent me this video, which I thought was very interesting, and you might enjoy. This however, is rather a different perspective, “Why you don’t get contemporary art” It is fair to say the former speaker disagrees with what I have written above, but these are commentaries from people who study this stuff for a living. I obviously don’t fully endorse either view.

  • GregWA

    The Prager guy made his points very well. 5 mins total, but you knew his thesis at 1 minute in.

    The Ted talker didn’t make the thesis, at least not a complete one, by 10 mins in. I quit listening at that point. I’d rather spend the time required to finish the Ted talk reading this blog!

    Probably because I went in biased: modern/contemporary art IS crap, at least 99% of it or at least the stuff I’m shown (the stuff the critics and purveyors want to push). At the very least, this person is a lousy communicator, or the message is muddled and non-persuasive so has to be dressed up.

  • Fraser Orr

    @GregWA
    Probably because I went in biased: modern/contemporary art IS crap, at least 99% of it or at least the stuff I’m shown

    It is crap to you perhaps. I think ballroom dancing is poncing around, but lots of people enjoy it. I think MCA and that whole comic thing is weirdly bizarre, but if you like it, then go for it. I think video games are a massive waste of time, but I wouldn’t write them off. On the other hand I love playing backgammon, and a lot of people will think it is just a stupid board game.

    I think Jessica Backus is making a stronger case that that though: that modern art objectively isn’t crap, just that you haven’t taken the time to “get it”. I’m not sure I would go so far as that, quite simply because measuring art by objective criteria is like saying you made the Kessel run in twelve parsecs. You are using the wrong measuring stick. Art is intrinsically subjective. You might measure it by certain criteria of beauty, but perhaps the artist’s goal isn’t to impress you with beauty. Perhaps the purpose is to shock you, offend you, confuse you, or be snooty toward you. If you aren’t looking for that then perhaps that art is not the right type of art for you. And as to not taking the time to “get it”, maybe my biggest criticism of art is that somehow artists confuse the right to speak with the right to be heard.

    But that is a bit OT. My answer to PdH’s original question — can art be separated from the artist is, yes, if you want to, but you are under no obligation to do so. And certainly some art the whole point is its connection to the artist. Otherwise Banksy is just a graffiti punk.

    And FWIW, the Gary Glitter song that the Joker was dancing to, made me smile, reminded me of many things in my youth, even if he did turn out to be doing creepy stuff in Thailand. That art served a useful and enjoyable purpose to me anyway.

  • Ken Mitchell

    The only artist that I can’t separate from her art was the SF/fantasy fiction of Marion Zimmer Bradley. After reading about the ways she enabled the long-term sexual abuse of her own daughter by her husband, I simply cannot enjoy reading her stories.

  • Chester Draws

    However, I have certainly talked to people who think Pollocks are attractive because it is not an object in isolation, but for what it represents in the process of the history of art, and who Pollock himself was.

    I have seen a couple of Pollocks in situ. They suited the spaces and were attractive in them.

    One of the features of modern buildings is that they are often big and sparsely decorated. But big representative art is odd on a plain wall — I quite like some of Jacques-Louis David’s works too, but they really don’t suit a modern space. And big spaces need big works or they get swallowed up — which is why so much modern art is huge.

    My issues are with 1) taking art that is intended for a space and placing it in a museum — Pollock’s work has zero intrinsic meaning so hanging it in isolation as if it does is stupid, and 2) the valuations placed on the most iconic works that are completely out of whack with how good they are — becoming about how famous they are. If the price of a work of art varies by a couple of orders of magnitude depending on who painted it (as Pollocks do) then it clearly isn’t about the art.

    For me, art museums have spoiled art. It should be about decorating living spaces and public areas, not being held in sterile museums. This has reached such a ludicrous situation that Banksy — whose art was all about public spaces — has been transferred into precisely the places where it was famous for escaping from. His works are good as graffiti, in their natural environment, but poor as art.

  • Ben david

    It should be about decorating living spaces and public areas, not being held in sterile museums.
    – – –
    … But enormous effort has been invested in separating capital-A Art from mere craftsmanship and decoration. This parallels the elevation of the artist to a quasi-prophetic role in this secular era.

    This puts a great burden on young artists, who often do not receive basic technical apprenticeship yet are expected to produce work of profound insight and originality right out of school. Quite the double whammy – which explains some of the worst modern art – poorly executed, overly conceptual, self-consciously esoteric.

    Paradoxically this has led to a flourishing interest in the “creative arts” like glass, ceramics, fibersarts, and fashion design. And a re-examination of figures like William Morris and Lalique. And a new appreciation of product and graphic design.

    The new seriousness about fashion is particularly interesting, as it easily includes much of the poitico-social-identity discourse that has infected academia.

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker) Gray

    Ken Mitchell, must admit I did not know that about Mrs. Bradley. I liked her works because she included psychic phenomena in a plausible way into her stories. Who will I read now for that sort of plausible fantasy? I think John Dalmas is in the Sigma Field, as he might have termed it, and Katherine Kerr seems to take forever.

  • Otherwise Banksy is just a graffiti punk.

    You mean he isn’t? Oh how I howled with joy at this: someone vandalised the vandalism 😆

    I am rich enough already that if Banksy painted something on my property, I would spray a large cock over the top of it with the epic words “Fuck Banksy” under it.

  • John

    Having read most of Lovecraft as a teenager and particularly loving the Randolph Carter dream stories I had high hopes for Sky’s Lovecraft Country.

    I stuck with it for 1 1/2 episodes. I have rarely seen such ham-fisted wypipo are all bad drivel. There might have been a decent storyline but I couldn’t be bothered to find out. Also any programme where the male lead is the eye-candy judging by the regularly of his shirtless appearances probably wasn’t meant for me.

  • I am rich enough already that if Banksy painted something on my property, I would spray a large cock over the top of it with the epic words “Fuck Banksy” under it.

    Given the current interpretation of “Art” in the circles of the metropolitan elite that would probably make it even more valuable. I’m surprised Banksy hasn’t done that already…

  • Jacob

    It is currently un-PC to separate the artist from his art.
    The MOMA has an exhibition of Black artist, Women artists, LGBT artists, and combinations thereof (like Black women).
    No other exhibitions available.

  • John

    I’m not so sure.

    A few years ago someone poured black ink into one of Damien Hirsts works, a dead sheep flooring in some clear liquid.

    I don’t recall either the art world or the artist himself being notably receptive to this example of public participation.

  • The only artist that I can’t separate from her art was the SF/fantasy fiction of Marion Zimmer Bradley. After reading about the ways she enabled the long-term sexual abuse of her own daughter by her husband (Ken Mitchell, October 28, 2020 at 12:23 am)

    and also by herself – the father’s abuse was secondary and arranged in the hope her daughter would be thereby made a lesbian, but Marion Zimmer Bradley’s own behaviour counteracted that.

    (Getting back on topic) I’m glad I anyway found her works unappealing back in the day (when occasionally leafing through them on S.F convention bookstalls), and so never read one of them let alone bought any, because otherwise I would now be seeing their not-so-hidden underage sex propaganda as just that – propaganda, not (just) plot devices.

    I very much agree with Perry’s general point. Conscious propaganda corrupts art, but any book whose moral (or amoral or immoral) “only .. arises naturally from the whole cast of the author’s mind” (C.S.Lewis) is an insight into another’s mind, however different or even disagreeable, and people (libertarians especially?) should value the ability to gain such insights. It is one way to know thoughts that are not only not your thoughts but – far more interesting to me – thoughts you yourself would never have had.

    For the record, I have also read tons of (mostly left-wing) propaganda, sometimes of the crudest kind, over the years, usually old and so obviously propaganda.

  • Fraser Orr

    @Perry de Havilland (London)
    I am rich enough already that if Banksy painted something on my property, I would spray a large cock over the top of it with the epic words “Fuck Banksy” under it.

    I think that puts you in the category of “contemporary artist”. Are you planning on starting to wear a black turtleneck?

    FWIW, I found Chester Draws comments very interesting and insightful, they made me think, so thanks Chester.

  • AKM

    @Chester Draws. Goods points, I entirely agree.

  • I have done all kinds of things that people can look at. But I’m damn sure to note that I am an artisan, not an artist. It can be hard to separate the artisan from the object. With the artist? That can be even harder.

    H.P. Lovecraft? I don’t give a rat’s ass about his personality. What bothers me is that he’ll say something is indescribable, then spend a page or two trying to describe it. (If you like the Lovecraft mythos, Brian Lumley is a better writer.) Marion Zimmer Bradley? Even before her personal evil was aired, she was cruel to a friend of mine. It blew my ability to enjoy her books.

    There was another writer of SFantasy I loved. But then she got a social conscience and started putting it into her novels. I stopped buying her books beyond that. Joanna Russ and James Tiptree? One novel, one story, told me so much about the person that I could never read their work again.

    On the other hand, I did not like Picasso’s cubism until I saw some paintings from his blue period. The man obviously knew how to paint realistically – therefore, it was worthwhile putting some effort into understanding his cubism. I don’t like Guernica, but it was an effective editorial cartoon in oil paint. (It was about the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica.) It’s worthy of praise. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon repels me. I have to take Picasso picture-by-picture, knowing there was a capable artist in there somewhere.

    If the artist’s personality shows in their works, you can’t separate them. But you can ignore it if it’s not the part that bothers you. The hard part is when you discover something about the artist, and can suddenly see it in everything the artist did. Niall just mentioned that about MZB.

  • The hard part is when you discover something about the artist, and can suddenly see it in everything the artist did.

    Not for me. Or indeed for my Jamaican boarding school chum who saw HPL’s racism in everything he did (several decades before it was fashionable to see that), suspecting it was what drove him to imagine the things he did. He would read some of the more lurid racist section to me with a grin on his face 😆

    Apropos nothing I suppose, the same chap who introduced me to Lovecraft also introduced me to Frederic Hayek, making him far more influential on how I later came to see the world than any of my teachers.

  • Paul Marks

    If a man’s stories have an undeniable power, he is a good writer – not a lousy one.

    But then I do not give a damn about the technical rules of writing – what I care about is whether someone can tell a story that stays with me.

  • Paul Marks

    Rhode Island – it has been a long fall from Roger Williams to “Whitey” Bulger.

    In its way as horrific as any story by Mr Lovecraft. And the corruption is all over the Federal government and much of Big Business as well.

    As Mr Joseph “Joe” Biden says – why not make eight-year-old-children “Trans”?

    Why not indeed? And why not use the face of some human in order to make one’s self look less odd when communicating with humans?

    And remember to suppress the buzzing sound.

  • bobby b

    “The hard part is when you discover something about the artist, and can suddenly see it in everything the artist did.”

    Good way to describe it. I did some legal work for a neighbor years ago, concerning an aspect of his business. It became quickly obvious to me that the guy was a pedo rapist POS who enjoyed abusing women and girls and boys, who flocked to him because of his business. He was a local star, then national, then international, and his product was much acclaimed.

    But I could never hear his stuff without attaching it in my mind to the garbage human I knew him to be. I don’t know how one could separate the two things without some dishonest mental gymnastics.

  • Fraser Orr

    @bobby b
    It became quickly obvious to me that the guy was a pedo rapist POS who enjoyed abusing women and girls and boys,

    I’m curious — at what point do you transition from “attorney client privilege” to “turn him in else I am part of an ongoing criminal enterprise?” Maybe never, but it must be a real challenge for any criminal defense lawyer who also is a decent human being. (I assume that since you are evidently both that the two categories are not always entirely distinct 🙂 .)

  • Thomas Fairfax

    But I could never hear his stuff without attaching it in my mind to the garbage human I knew him to be. I don’t know how one could separate the two things without some dishonest mental gymnastics.

    I get it, I do. But to quote myself: “I’d be quite happy to personally put a bullet in the head of several people who I regard as great artists.” … just replace artist with businessman. Admire their accomplishments, genius and creativity and then anonymously shop them to the police for being an utter piece of shit 😉

  • bobby b

    “I’m curious — at what point do you transition from “attorney client privilege” to “turn him in else I am part of an ongoing criminal enterprise?””

    The difference is found in the contrast between “here’s a pic of the girl/boy I did last night” and “here’s a pic of the girl/boy I’ll be doing later tonight.”

    Confess your sins to your lawyer, but not your plans to sin.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “Confess your sins to your lawyer, but not your plans to sin.”

    I had heard a story that lawyer ethics meant that the role of a lawyer in society is to defend the innocent wrongfully accused, not to enable the guilty to get away with it. And so there were cases of a defendant confessing to their own lawyer, and the lawyer giving them up to the judge. (Although it was said that they can advise on the best way to present it for the minimum sentence if you are confessing to a crime.) Their aim is justice, not simply getting their client off. I take it that’s not true?

  • He was a local star, then national, then international, and his product was much acclaimed.

    Just out of curiosity — did he come from Lake Wobegon?

  • Nullius in Verba
    October 29, 2020 at 12:14 am

    I had heard a story that lawyer ethics meant that the role of a lawyer in society is to defend the innocent wrongfully accused, not to enable the guilty to get away with it.

    The role of the defense lawyer, I believe, is to stand between the client and the prosecutor and say “Prove it.”

  • bobby b

    “Just out of curiosity — did he come from Lake Wobegon?”

    Ha! As I think about this, very good guess – it fits. But, no. It was a decidedly non-Norwegian bachelor farmer.

    “I had heard a story that lawyer ethics meant that the role of a lawyer in society is to defend the innocent wrongfully accused, not to enable the guilty to get away with it.”

    Nope. The role is to put the state to its burden of proof in any legal way possible – to be a complete advocate opposing the state’s own advocate before a neutral judge. A prosecutor has a duty to “pursue justice”, which places a different burden on her than on the defense lawyer. If a prosecutor knows a defendant is not guilty, she has a duty to end her prosecution. If a defense lawyer knows his client did it, he cannot put on testimony that he knows is untrue, but he still fights to show that the state cannot meet its burden. The opposite of “guilty” is “not guilty”, not “innocent.”

  • Nullius in Verba

    Interesting. Thank you!

  • Fraser Orr

    @bobby b
    The opposite of “guilty” is “not guilty”, not “innocent.”

    I don’t know if you are familiar with this but in Scots law there are actually three options, “guilt”, “not proven” and “not guilty”. Which is a curiosity given your comment. I wonder if it would be useful for juries to have to option to express their disgust, even if the state didn’t meet its very high burden.

    I am also curious to know — if you have your client on the stand and he testifies to something that you know is not true, and you know that he is consciously lying about — perhaps because he has in private specifically told you so, what exactly is your obligation there? There is no reverse Brady rule, correct?

  • bobby b

    Fraser Orr:

    1. Difference in philosophies of the legal systems. One – the Scots’ – seeks to solve the crime. The other – ours – only seeks to determine if the state has made a sufficient case to justify interfering with a defendant’s life. The three-choice verdict presupposes that the defendant has some duty to prove something – innocence – and levels the mid-verdict of “unproven” when neither party meets its burden. Here, only the state has a burden of proof, and if it fails to meet it, the verdict is “leave him alone, you failed” – also known as “not guilty.”

    I always loved the Perry Mason series, for several reasons, chief among them its procedural accuracy. But one of its traits is still the bane of defense lawyers – it always solved the crime, rather than merely showed that the state didn’t prove that the defendant committed it. It’s hard sometimes to convince a jury that they will likely leave some kinds of trials very unsatisfied – they’re never going to learn “who done it.” If I only show that the state hasn’t proven that my client did it, the jury is left unsatisfied – I haven’t shown who did – but that’s all that’s required. Moving to the three-verdict system would place that additional burden on the defendant – which to me is a bastardization of the relationship of citizen to state that our Constitution establishes. The burden should be all on the state, the presumption of innocence all on the citizen.

    2. I can’t put someone on the stand and knowingly and intentionally elicit from them testimony that I know to be a lie. After that basic statement, though, it gets muddled, and varies from state to state. If my client testifies, and lies, I also cannot spill the beans on him, or do anything that makes it clear that he lied – that would violate several of his rights, and his rights trump my honor and professional duty. In Minnesota, I might choose to not use such testimony in a closing argument, but that’s really all I could do. There’s no Brady argument on the state’s side – different duties between them and me.

  • Thanks for that explanation, bobby b (October 29, 2020 at 12:21 pm). Scots law differs from English in having absorbed a lot of Roman law concepts in mediaeval times, whereas English law was very free of the Roman law inheritance that was universal on the continent. I had not before understood the relationship of that to the not-proven verdict.

    The difference between English and Roman has been characterised as the difference between adversarial and inquisitorial approaches to law.

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