Taking the Ad Hominem Out of Art Appreciation
This morning, I made comments (here and here) on SOLO HQ, in response to James Kilbourne's essay, "Yes? No!" A long-time opera fan, Kilbourne gave a negative review to "Going For the One," an album by the prog-rock group, Yes. I responded:
Jim, I enjoyed your article for many of the reasons described above by others, most importantly: that you actually listened to and engaged with the material and evaluated it as such. You made some key distinctions, as well, between technical evaluation and aesthetic response.
I recall Linz telling me once that he thought Ray Charles' rendition of "America the Beautiful" was interminable, but my own view is: If you can't hear the beauty I hear, I can't explain it to you. (Thank goodness I get a special dispensation because of my love of Mario Lanza.) However, my own tastes run the gamut from classical, film scores, Broadway, and jazz to R&B, disco, rock, and even a little country. Music speaks so personally to us, and, indeed, a lot of it has to do with the factors that Phil points to above: very personal associations and experiences, cognitive stylistic preferences, mood, and even the context of a particular time and place. Let's take that last factor: I think one can make an objective judgment that Maria Callas is a magnificent singer, technically far superior to Madonna (an analogy I take from Jim). But I doubt that Callas could have sung a good "Vogue," and if I go to a dance club, and want to shake my booty, I'd rather listen to "Vogue" than to "Un Bel Di, Verdremo." That fact does not in any way detract from the superiority of Callas's voice. (And since the issue has been raised, I just wanted to emphasize that my love of some pop music, including some prog rock—does not depend on the influence of alcohol, which I rarely drink, or illicit drugs, which I don't take.)
I would also argue that the subcultures that surround the various genres of music are not necessarily extensions of the music per se; they can be, however, reflections of the overall culture. That's why I'm a bit apprehensive with regard to the implications of this statement of Jim's:
"Also, it is not just coincidence that rock music is almost all politically left inspired. But that is for another day."
I'd venture to say that most artists have an association with the political left. Even so-called "redneck" country musicians have had their share of politically-left inspired artists (of the "blue collar," "working class" variety). There are reasons for this, some of which relate to the arts in general, and some of which relate to the culture in general. I suspect that if you were to commission the Nielsen organization to run a political poll among all artists (actors, actresses, painters, sculptors, literary writers, poets, and musicians from all genres of music), you'd find a leftward tilt. Some of this can be explained by the fact that "conservatism" in any age has been associated with suppression and/or censorship of cultural and aesthetic tastes that are deemed "threatening." That has been the response of the older generation to any musical "rabble rouser," for example, whether it be Frank Sinatra in the 40s or Elvis Presley in the 50s, right through to some popular performers today.
The other issue is, of course, related to the current state of culture in general, which is a reflection of a conflicting array of implicit philosophical premises. Change the ideas that underlie that culture and the cultural forms will reflect that. There is evidence, for example, that even among "leftward-tilting" artists in prog rock, Rand has made and continues to make a cultural impact (as I've argued here and here). Hers is not the dominant influence on that genre, but it's not the dominant influence on the culture-at-large either. And though I know you, Jim, are not suggesting this, I just thought I'd say the obvious: If I had to give an ideological litmus test to every actor, painter, novelist, or musician as a precondition of responding to their work: well, fuhgedaboudit, as we say in Brooklyn. My music collection (to say nothing of my DVDs) would be decimated.
It's those very last sentences that have provoked further thoughts. I've been meaning to write about this for weeks, because every so often I get a note from a Notablog reader who looks at "My Favorite Songs" and asks: "How can you like the music of that child molester Michael Jackson?" Or: "Frank Sinatra!? That Mafia rapist!!"
I have to confess that I'm exhausted hearing about all the "boycotts" of various artists whose views or characters people don't like. Maggie Gyllenhaal says that the US government contributed to the 9/11 attack: Boycott her movies. The Dixie Chicks don't like George W. Bush: Ban them from the radio airwaves. Jane Fonda is a traitor: How dare you express admiration for "Barefoot in the Park" or "On Golden Pond." Barbra Streisand is a limousine liberal whack-a-doo: Ban "Funny Girl" from your Broadway and cinematic memories! Don't read Ezra Pound, he's a Fascist! Don't listen to Wagner, he's an anti-Semite! And so is Mel Gibson, so make sure you don't ever see or (gasp!) enjoy another "Lethal Weapon" movie!
You're morally corrupt if you happen to like Joan Crawford movies, because that "Mommie Dearest" beat her kids. Do you like the song "White Christmas"? Bing Crosby was an SOB to his kid Gary too. You like Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze"? You're just an apologist for drug addiction! As for the Chairman of the Board: Well, I now read about allegations that Frank Sinatra was a Mafia courier or, worse, a rapist: So it's time to say, "That's Life" to Ol' Blue Eyes: Roll his music up in a big ball and let it die.
And don't even go there with the alleged child molester, Michael Jackson. If you so much as think of tapping your feet to "Rock with You," you're off the wall!
Folks, I give up. I just don't care what any of these artists, musicians, writers, or performers did, allegedly did, may have done, could have done, or will do in their lives. I respond to their work according to whether I like it or not. I'll keep reading, I'll keep watching, I'll keep listening, I'll keep dancing to any artist I want. If I start censoring my appreciation of art according to how "morally upright" the artists in question are, I'd soon find myself with an ethically "pure," though vastly depleted, music, film, and literary collection. As I said above: Fuhgedaboudit!
Art appreciation is slowly being infected by various shades of "political correctness" coming from both the left and the right. But I think of art the way I think of philosophy. I respond to artists and performers the way I respond to ideas. On their own terms.
And so, let me advise my readers: Respect your own aesthetic response. Don't temper your appreciation of art by appealing to personal considerations about the artist's character or life. End the guilt that you feel because you just happen to like the work of somebody who is "persona non grata" in today's culture because they were idiots or criminals. Focus less on who the artist is, or how the artist lived, and more on the art that inspires you, makes you laugh till you cry, or dance till you drop.
And don't forget: Some of the greatest art has been produced by some of history's most tortured souls. We can celebrate the greatness without "sanctioning" the torture.