Archive for November, 2011

Should you – or can you – appreciate works by an artist whose morals or actions you find objectionable?  Today, the question returned to haunt me when a colleague rightly pointed out that a public statement I made about a writer minimized his cruelty and immorality by equating it with shortcomings well within the human norm. That wasn’t the first time the issue or art and morality had come up, and I’m sure that it won’t be the last.

If you consider yourself a person of conscience, the question has no easy answer. In many cases, evoking the cultural relativism of past times just doesn’t provide an excuse. By the standards of any time, Samuel Pepys was a sexual predator. In all likelihood, Byron was, too, although the removal of evidence by his friends allows some people to believe otherwise. Mozart was a brutal egomaniac, Dali a sadist, and Ezra Pound a Fascist sympathizer. Even as seemingly an amiable eccentric as William Blake subjected his wife to poverty and kept her subjugated to his art,insisting that she color in his prints and waking her in the middle of the night to keep him company. The truth is, artists are so far outside the social norms in general that, once you start reading their biographies, many will be found morally lacking.

At times, the exceptions stand out all the more because of their rarity. For example, William Morris was true enough to his ideals of equality that he never divorced his wife, although knowing she was carrying on an affair with Dante Gabriel Rossetti. John Keats also appears to have been a thoroughly decent man, although cynics might question how much poverty and illness simply deprived him of opportunities to offend.

I suspect that how you answer such questions depends on your priorities. If you are only concerned with artistic achievement, then everything else that an artist does is irrelevant. What matters is the art, and the fact that Leni Riefenstahl’s films were propaganda for the Third Reich is irrelevant compared to her cinematic technique.

The trouble with this position is that, if you admire someone for one reason, you often want to admire them in other ways. Unless you are very careful, sooner or later you find yourself making excuses for their behavior, simply because you like their art.

Yet holding artists to the strictest ethics and morality is no easier. For one thing, the artists of which you approve will make a very short list. For another, the question seems a slippery slope. Do you reject Charles Dickens because of his utter inability to portray women as human? Raymond Chandler or Brendan Behan for their alcoholism?  Where do you draw the line for the minor offenders against morality?:When, if any time, do you make an exception?

Just as importantly, there is something crass and insensitive about insisting that art meet other standards as well, perhaps because that is a common practice of totalitarianism. The problem is not so much that at least some arts – especially writing – can have a moral content, as the difficulty of imposing morality upon art without reducing it to the triteness of modern Catholic Holy Cards.

In theory, as George Orwell suggests, it should be possible to hold two separate beliefs — first, that someone is a skilled artist, and, second, that they were reprehensible human beings – but the practice is more difficult. It seems to involve endlessly jumping back and forth between the two extremes, and therefore is likely to satisfy no one. Instead of offering clarity, Orwell’s solution actually invites us to practice double-think – that is, thinking two contradictory thoughts at the same time, a habit that Orwell pointed out is a handicap to clear thinking.

I suspect, however, that is exactly what the majority of us do. We get swept away by the perspective or the choreography, only to start guiltily at enjoying the efforts of someone we disapprove. At other times, we start out disapproving and find ourselves tapping our fingers to the music despite ourselves, or having a memorable phrase lodge in our minds against our sternest judgments. For most of us, the answers don’t come easily or offer much satisfaction when we face the complexity of the situations in which we try to apply them.

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For the last two years, Kate Beaton’s web comic “Hark! A Vagrant” has been part of my morning reading before I settle down to work. Not only is the comic centered on literature and history, which happens to be my favorite reading material, but Beaton approaches both from a distinctly Canadian viewpoint as I do, as opposed to the usual American or English one. So naturally when her first collection came out, I pre-ordered it.

Naturally, too, my productivity went out with the garbage the morning it arrived, as I eagerly read cover to cover.

So far as I can figure, the collection includes all of the comics posted on the web from March 2009 to June or July 2011. They are all available online, of course, but I believe in supporting artists whose work I admire. Besides, the reproduction on the page is far better than on the screen. And, unless I’m mistaken, Beaton has taken the opportunity to clean up the comics and rearrange them by subject matter – although even online, she tends to publish small bursts of comics on the same subject at one time.

Another advantage of the book is that it allows me to appreciate Beaton’s work more. In particular, until reading the book, I don’t think I fully appreciated how much her loosely rendered style owes to Edward Gorey. It’s by no means a slavish copy of Gorey’s work, being less angular and less-detailed in the background, but the resemblance is obvious when you look at their work side by side. Beaton indirectly acknowledges the influence by devoting a number of comics to the impression that Gorey’s dust jackets give of the contents of the book they adorn; clearly, she knows his work well.

Reading Beaton’s comics in batches also helps me to pinpoint her sense of humor. It’s broader than Gorey’s, and less straight-faced, at turns sarcastic (Jane Eyre telling Mr. Rochester at the end of the story that “We are equals now that I am totally superior to you! Now I can love you”) and willfully literal minded (Nancy Drew telling men seen through a crack in a wall that she will rescue them, and their reply, “we could just walk around”), and more likely to be carried by the words than the drawing.

At times, the humor drifts in to the absurd, as with Queen Elizabeth I’s Tilbury speech, in which her words “I have the heart and stomach of a king” is continued with “and the wingspan of an albatross” and “the left hook of a heavyweight champ.” Often, the humor comes from a juxtaposition of modern and historical outlooks, such as Americans telling the French during The Reign of Terror that “We think your revolution is super creepy” or the Brides of Dracula terrifying Jonathan Harker, not with their sexuality but their desire to vote and own property, and go to university.

There’s no denying that “Hark! A Vagrant” is a geeky comic. It isn’t buttressed with the elaborate footnotes of Sydney Padua’s “2D Goggles,” but, without a knowledge of the historical events or the fiction she is riffing off, the jokes are much less funny, if they work at all. In particular, I can’t help wondering how much non-Canadians can grasp of jokes about people like Lester Pearson, William Lyon Mackenzie, or John Diefenbaker. Beaton’s assumption that the readers have prior knowledge might very well limit her audience, but for those of us who know what she is talking about (I get about 90%), her work is an acquired taste that leaves us hungry for more.

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