« Song of the Day #256 | Main | Song of the Day #257 »

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.

Comments welcome.

Update: This post has been noted by me at Liberty & Power Group Blog, and also, by Chip Gibbons at The Binary Circumstance.


As a child, I knew a survivor of the Third Reich, a friend of my father's, who would not tolerate the music of Wagner. (Among Dad's many virtues was keeping our home always humming with a variety of good music.) One of my sharpest memories is that of my father explaining to us kids the reason why. I knew that the man's reaction was a TOTALLY reasonable one, but I also decided then never to allow "political" considerations to affect what I would enjoy in life--as best as I could manage.

But, once more, you bring sanity, Chris.

I've taken friends to the opera only to have to keep them awake. I've played Yes, one of my personal and absolute favorites, to other friends who immediately begin looking for the door. To both I have the same reaction: what a shame that this particular emotion is outside of their range of appreciation. I imagine someone might have the same reaction to my reaction to Rap. Somehow I doubt it.

You see, my musical taste is perfectly objective, damn it! Nay, intrinsic and absolute, totally unaffected by considerations of personal context! And just mine, of course. The rest of the Kilbourne's and Linz's of the world are simply blind to obvious and objective virtue.

(Old Yes is the best, and old Yes spin-offs, Bruford in King Crimson, also rocks, as you know! Even Jon with Vangelis is great! Who can't see this axiomatic truth?)

Amen! As an atheist who enjoys black gospel music, I couldn't agree with you more, Chris.

Mick Russell

And one of my favorite singers, Paul Robeson, was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize. Not even that could tarnish his magnificent bass-barritone voice!

Well put, Chris.

I hope they don't ever unearth "Hitler Sings the Classics" in some old Nazi vault. What if it turns out der Fuhrer was a Mario Lanza quality tenor?

And btw, Maria Callas had an ugly voice. Sure, she projected a lot of emotion and sang loudly, but she always sounds like she is singing with cotton in her mouth. (Ducking from the eggs from Callas fans.)

Thanks to everyone for the various comments, some of which made me chuckle.

Of course, I was waiting to see how long it would be before somebody would bring up Der Fuerher (though, with all due respect Mark, there is one Callas fan who will probably eviscerate you upon seeing your comment).

Well, in truth, I've thought about Hitler. He was, after all, an amateur painter. And even Charles Manson, apparently, wrote songs, one of which was recorded by the Beach Boys; see here: http://www.charliemanson.com/music.htm .

I can't imagine that my ~response~ to Hitler's paintings or to Manson's songs would be anything other than what it is (whatever it might be). Knowledge of the artist's biography might, of course, color my response to it. But there are still distinctions that can be made among aesthetic response, technical evaluation, and a consideration of the personal context or biography of the artist.

In truth, the ~only~ reason why people might wish to call a "boycott" of any particular product or producer (whether it is art or not) is because they don't wish to "line the pockets" of people whose views or actions they find abhorrent. And that is a person's right.

But in a market economy, especially one with a complex global division and specialization of labor, we often do ~not~ know the biographies of the people who produce the products we use. (To a certain extent, that is the ~beauty~ of the market system: If we had to know the biographies of every producer, prior to purchasing any product, odds are we'd starve to death, without clothes or shelter.)

Everything we do in a complex market economy has ripple effects; it is liable to benefit people (directly or indirectly) who are, for lack of a better word: scoundrels. For all I know, the computer I'm working on was assembled by 30 different people, one of whom is a mass murderer or domestic abuser. I don't have to be concerned with that mass murderer or domestic abuser, though; I need only be concerned with the quality of the product I've purchased.

Still. I suppose if I absolutely knew that a portion of my purchase price was going to benefit a killer or an utterly immoral cause, I might indeed exercise my right to boycott. These are, however, ~marginal~ issues. Most artists are not killers, and holding a mistaken or downright disgusting idea is not the same as actually committing the deed.

Then again, in the case of criminal justice, the situation is a bit different. Most convicted criminals do ~not~ benefit from the sale of their products; in most instances, courts have put liens on the estates of criminals, such that money earned is actually collected for the purposes of restitution to crime victims. If that's the case, there might actually be a reason to ~purchase~ one of Manson's songs.

In the case of Manson's Beach Boys song, however, Manson doesn't receive a dime from the sale of the "Friends/20/20" album. If I really liked all the Brian Wilson compositions on that album, I don't think I'd deny myself that pleasure simply because one of the compositions ("Never Learn Not to Love," with re-worked lyrics) was written by the cult leader of a murderous clan.

Hi, Chris,

I generally agree with your view on this, but I do think it needs some caveats or clarification.

First, it's true that liking or disliking something is different from technical evaluation of the work, but for my money what really counts is the Total Response which includes technical evaluation, sense of life, philosophy, and highly personal elements. Doing just technical evaluation is a good academic exercise, and a useful abstraction for scholars to work with, but for a consumer of art, it means nothing by itself. To make things more complicated, how much you give weight to the technical elements of the work of art in your total response to it varies from individual to individual. There are people who are what I would call pure aesthetes (is that a word even?)... perhaps most critics are like that... these are people for whom the artistic element weigh heavily, even dominate their total response. For me the moral, philosophical, and personal dimensions of the work is just as important as its technical merits.

Second, as for juding the art and not the artist, I would say it depends. It depends most of all on how much the art and the artist's other activities actually intersect. For instance, I thoroughly detest the works of Oliver Stone, and the things he says outside of his art, makes me detest his art even more.

On the other hand, I understand that Paul Newman is a big lefty, but I certainly don't see it in his art... what I see is a consummate actor, so obviously, I do not go around boycotting Paul Newman's movies.

Literary scholars tell us that knowing the background of the art work will help us appreciate the art even more. Well, we can't have it both ways, because if that's true that means knowing something about the artist's background and context will change the way we view his/her work, for better or worse.

No work of art is done in a vacuum, and neither is our evaluation of it, so I think, to take the view of looking at art, but not the artist to its extreme would be a form of acontextualism.



Thanks very much for your thoughts on this. I actually agree with you. I do think that response to art is deeply complex and that once we do know about an artist's context, it ~can~ influence the way we respond to their work.

Note, however, that what you are ~not~ responding to in Oliver Stone's work is the leftist leitmotif of that work. The reason Paul Newman's lefty predilections don't affect you is that Newman doesn't beat you over the head with that ideology.

Nevertheless, I still think it's possible to appreciate and even be entertained by works to which I'd be otherwise politically opposed. I think of Stone's film, "JFK," for example. It helps that I am a JFK assassination buff of sorts; I've always been very intrigued by that assassination and the whole JFK era. Certainly I find myself opposed to JFK's ideology, the way I oppose Stone's ideology. But his "JFK" is really a tour de force on many levels, not the least of which is his weaving of complex plot points and even the editing and cinematography. One doesn't have to accept his particular version of a "conspiracy" or even the notion of a conspiracy in order to be entertained.

Same for his "Nixon": I thoroughly enjoyed the performances in that film, from Anthony Hopkins to Joan Allen. One doesn't have to accept Stone's fictionalizing of various historical episodes in order to appreciate aspects of his films.


After reading your comments, I actually put Nixon and JFK DVDs in my netflix queue. My estimate of Oliver Stone's work is based on Wall Street, Natural Born Killers, and to a lesser extent on Platoon.

I want to emphasize that my reaction to the work is never as simple as "it's left, so therefore I dislike it". I admire and even love the movies of John Ford on the left, and Cecil B. Demille on the right. It's just that Oliver Stone's brand of leftism is a particularly nasty sort that I despise, and he offers very little else besides that. If you push me to the wall, I would say that he is actually a very talented film maker, but I generally detest both the substance and the style of the works that I did see.

I didn't care for Nixon because I had artistic problems with it. It was quite long and I don't remember what else I didn't like abou it. I did like JFK quite a bit and thought is was very well done.

Thanks for the additional comments, gents.

I guess what it comes down to for me is that there are movies that I enjoy ~thoroughly~ on all levels. Those might make my own personal favorite list.

But I also tend to enjoy movies on a variety of different levels. For example, in my own "favorite movies" list (which can be found here http://www.nyu.edu/projects/sciabarra/about/favorite.htm#film ), I tend to break up the titles in terms of genre (epics, historical/biographical, war & peace, gangsters, comedies, Hitchcock, 007, sci-fi and fantasy, monster movies, silent classics, classic cinema, foreign, and musicals). Now, granted, there is overlap on occasion. But it's just very hard for me to compare apples and oranges, which is why I tend to appreciate things for ~what they are~, rather than rejecting them for what they are ~not~.

I also tend to appreciate each film on a variety of levels; I may, for example, find a particular film distasteful in some grand sense (like, say, "Sin City"). But even "Sin City" was remarkable to ~look at~. And, like Technomaget, I may not care for some of the "artistic problems" of a film like "Nixon" (or innumerable others), but I can still appreciate excellent performances (which is why I singled out Hopkins and Allen for their roles in that film).

In truth, I'm a film fanatic. And I also have the capacity, as a friend of mine once said, to find the one rose petal sitting in a pile of manure. :)

Cogent and inspiring, Chris--as usual!

Of note, from Margaret Talbot, "The Candy Man," New Yorker, July 11-18, 2005:

"[Roald] Dahl’s personal reputation is justifiably tainted, but his work has been unfairly assailed. When it comes to literature for adults, we’ve mostly stopped judging a work by its author’s personal morality. Why should we hold children’s writers to a stricter standard?"

That's a good quote from Talbot, Jon. Thanks for sharing it!