Wednesday, October 13, 2004

A is A and B is B, and not-always the twain shall coincide.

Art is Art.
Beauty is Beauty.
Judgement is Judgement.
They are not the same, nor are they wholly different.

Yglesias writes -- here, here, and here, most recently -- that art has value distinct from its attitudes, that art is artful regardless of its creator's, or its own implicit, value judgments. The gist:

I'm simply trying to defend the idea that the aesthetic merits of a work are not
reducible to, or even necessarily related to, their political merits.

This is a point that I think people are clear on when it comes to things that are far removed from the issues of the day. Neither The Merchant of Venice nor any of Shakespeare's plays about the history of England say much that is admirable from a political point of view. One serious problem with Tom Clancy's more recent novels is that instead of being fun, though insubstantial, adventure stories about spies, they've become rather heavy-handed rightwing political propaganda. The problem here, though, is that they're heavy-handed rightwing political propaganda, which distracts from the fun and demonstrates a lack of artistry, not that they're rightwing political propaganda. Ezra Pound's Cantos or T.S. Eliot's "Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar" are good poems, their anti-semitism notwithstanding, just as Birth of a Nation really is a grounbreaking work of technical cinema, its racism notwithstanding.
It demonstrates a certain impoverished outlook -- as I wrote, a philistinism -- to not be able to see this. [...] No one can write about Checkpoint as a novel, instead everyone feels moved to denounce the idea of leftwingers plotting George W. Bush's
assassination. To be clear, I don't think anyone should plot George W. Bush's assassination. At the same time, it's easy to see how a person plotting Bush's assassination and a friend trying to talk him out of it without defending the Bush record could be the premise for a good novel. Or, if poorly written, it could be the premise of a bad novel. A worshipful portral of Che could be a good movie or it could be a bad one, whether or not you approve of what Che did in real life years later has very little to do with it.
Art is Art, right? Not quite. (Obviously, in a literal sense, the tautology is true.) On one hand, I recently saw a beautiful Chinese movie called Hero. The deliberately-paced story and beautiful, wholly necessary fight scenes and visual language -- better than a live-action Samurai Jack, I'd say -- made me reconsider my judgement of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill. My reconsideration is this: Kill Bill is entertaining, but vapid, proper philosophic ending notwithstanding. The fight scenes are for their own sakes, a somewhat hollow goal. This sense of emptiness in the movie is only hidden by filling it with fights, something not done in the elegant and meaningful Hero.

I also approved of the movie's moral message -- fighting is properly for the sake of peace -- that I almost missed its political message. In short, Hero is a piece of blatant pro-unification Chinese propaganda. Of course, that will go right over American viewers' heads in most cases (I do not delude myself into thinking everyone has my interest in global politics), and rightly so. The movie is a beautiful piece of art, and makes a correct moral judgement.

Similarly, Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray is a profoundly moral novel (despite Wilde's professed moral philosophy), depicting its judgement by unblinkingly recounting the consequences of Peter Keating-like Dorian's temptation and corruption by the despicable, Toohey-like Lord Henry "Harry" Wotton (With the artist helplessly watching, like a sort of proto-Fountainhead), ending in suicide and soul-death.

On the other hand, Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway and Weiss's Marat/Sade are, though effective, profoundly evil works in my estimation. Both are effective and powerful art, perhaps even beautiful to those who share at least Dalloway's sensibilities, but Dalloway is essentially morally determinist (which I explicitly separate from metaphysical determinism and/or mechanism), a disempowering philosophy, and Marat/Sade says we must choose between mindless destructive hedonism and totalitarian collectivism, with no third option except corruption and petty bourgeois theft.

Art cannot be evaluated without taking into account at least its moral judgement. Of course, an artist can espouse what I take to be an incorrect opinion and still make not only effective but good and beneficial art, but political particulars are very high-level judgements, and can be hald in contradiction to one's other beliefs, when insufficiently examined. This does not mean that art's moral judgements must never be questioned. Rather, it is imperative that critics take into account the judgement the artist uses -- moral as well as aesthetic -- in evaluating art, for only in an art technique class is effective and right art no more valuable than effective and wrong art. After all, art does serve a purpose, or we wouldn't do or spectate it.


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