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Sunday, August 27, 2017

Of Art and Artists

I'm writing this post reluctantly. I'd prefer to ignore personal issues when it comes to discussing art (and oftentimes politics). I decided I needed to say something about Kai Cole's recent blog post about Joss Whedon for two reasons: (1) I'm quite complimentary about Joss in various essays here and in the book; and (2) some of her accusations touch on Joss' relationships with people involved in BtVS (I wouldn't care if he had an affair with someone outside his shows -- that's a matter between the parties).

Let me get some things out of the way at the beginning. I refer to "accusations" against Joss because that's the lawyer in me. We haven't seen the actual letter(s) to which Kai refers, nor do we know any of the actual details. I'm cautious about interpreting evidence as a professional matter. However, I'm going to write this upon the assumption that Joss had at least one affair with someone involved with BtVS.

I have to say that IMO the details do matter here as far as my personal judgment is concerned. I'm not going to try to define the precise boundaries of  what's acceptable and what's not, as if I were some arbiter. I'm not. I can only say that my personal view depends on the details. I started to explain with some examples, but decided that was unfair to individuals and distasteful to me. Moving on.

I'm going to assume that Joss had an affair with someone on BtVS which involved him being in a position of authority over that person, which is, to me anyway, the most potentially disturbing case. Note that I don't know if he did; I'm assuming that for the sake of discussion.

There are, in my view, two significant issues which arise from this assumed fact. The first is the question of Joss' credentials, if any, as a feminist. I'm not going to say much about this. I don't consider myself competent to discuss feminism as a topic generally, and I'm certainly not an arbiter of "true feminism" if there is such a thing.

The question I've seen raised is whether someone can be a feminist while having affairs, particularly affairs with someone over whom s/he has a position of authority. Notwithstanding the fact that some commenters, probably justifiably, noted my tendency to be judgmental when discussing, say, Xander, my answer is "sure". In my view, people aren't perfect. They not only make mistakes, they do stupid things. Failure to live up to your own professed ideals pretty much makes you human. That might irritate me (see Xander), but outside of extreme cases people don't have to be perfectly consistent. They can do good things and bad ones too.

The second issue, and I think it's related to the first, involves how we deal with artists who are unpleasant or even awful. I can't pretend that I have a perfectly consistent view on this. I'd never go to a Ted Nugent concert because I think he's despicable. On the other hand, I have no problem thinking that Chinatown is a great movie even though Polanski's conduct was horrific and I was one of the lawyers representing Polanski's victim.

If we ask how many artists do bad things personally or advocate for them publicly, my first guess would be all of them. Maybe more. We can't demand a test of personal perfection or else we could never enjoy any art. In some discussion with shadowkat on her lj page, we came up with 2 potential grounds for justifying my response to the Nugent and Polanski examples. One involves the distinction between personal conduct as opposed to political views. The other, the distinction between individual works versus collaborative ones.

The personal/political distinction kinda sorta works, as long as you're willing to agree that the personal isn't necessarily political (and that's a contested point). My view is that while behaviors that lots of people engage in are certainly political, not every private action is intended as a political statement. So, to continue with my examples from above, Polanski didn't intend his rape to be a political statement, whereas Nugent makes overt and obviously political comments. YMMV on this.

The other distinction is that a TV show, as I said in the essay on The Freshman, requires the collaboration of lots of people: actors, producers, writers, censors, et al. I have much less problem separating art from artist when "artist" is a plural. Even if Joss Whedon was the single biggest influence on BtVS, he was not the only influence, and the triumph of the show didn't just include others, it required them.

That brings me to the final point, which is that of hero worship. I'm not a big fan of hero worship, for exactly the reasons I gave above: people aren't perfect. Well, Willie Mays was perfect, but one counter-example just proves my point more generally. I gave Joss a ton of credit in the essays here, and I still do. That never meant that I accepted everything he did uncritically. That's evident, too (I hope), in the essays. It's not just that some episodes are weaker than others, it's what remained unsaid: as is obvious, I never sat down to write about Dollhouse, for example, because I don't think it's a great show. I respect and admire what Joss accomplished in BtVS, but I don't extend that any further than I think it's deserved. That's the flip side of my view that  I generally don't consider an artist's personal life to affect my evaluation of the art.

While I'm obviously disappointed that this issue ever even had to arise, it doesn't affect my personal attitude towards BtVS. But I don't think I have stated or could state a definitive rationale and I think reasonable people can reach different conclusions here.

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