Monday, July 19, 2010

WSJ: “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Mel Gibson?”

In the July 16, 2010, issue of The Wall Street Journal, Evan R. Goldstein discusses Mel Gibson's racially charged outbursts, Ezra Pound's anti-Semitic and fascist leanings, and how an artist's personal character relates to his work. Excerpts:
While in American custody after the war, Pound wrote "The Pisan Cantos," an elegiac and in spots anti-Semitic work -- "the yidd is a stimulant, and the goyim are cattle / ... and go to saleable slaughter / with the maximum of docility." Harvard English professor Louis Menand has called "The Pisan Cantos" "a Fascist poem without apologies."

In 1948, the Committee of the Fellows of the Library of Congress -- which included such luminaries as W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot and Robert Lowell -- gave Pound the prestigious Bollingen Prize for "The Pisan Cantos." The decision sparked widespread anger. ...

Out of the debate came this clarifying statement by the art critic Clement Greenberg: "I am sick of the…art-silliness which condones almost any moral or intellectual failing on the artist's part as long as he is or seems a successful artist. It is still justifiable to demand that he be a successful human being before anything else, even if at the cost of his art."
Read the whole thing. Let me say upfront that I am not a fan of censorship. The ability to freely traffic in ideas, to evaluate and examine all sorts of beliefs running from silly to stupid to simply strange, is an extremely important thing. But it's hard to deny Clement Greenberg's assertion than an artist or author's integrity matters. After all, poems and books don't arise out of the void; they come from people and bear the stamp of their internal attitudes. By all means, let us avoid censorship originating in centralized governments. That way lieth all sorts of injustice. But when an offensive individual's efforts don't receive a warm welcome in the marketplace, let's not raise a hue and cry, as though artistic freedom itself were at stake. Letting some works live and others die is a market's job.

(Picture: CC 2008 by


Deka Black said...

Censorship is a very, very delicate affair. I mean. freedom of speech? Of course! Inmy country , not so long ago, we had a dictatorship. Plenty of people remember those years today. (My father and mother, for example).

You in the USA... must be the only coutry never had one. And is lucky for you.

Anyway, and what happens when someone tajkes advantage of this freedom of speech to spread hate in a criminal form?

Is not exactly the same, but remebers me when Elia Kazan received an awatd (which i don't remember). Kazan, if i remember well, was a delator in the infamous "witch hunt" of Seator McCarthy.

If the eyes were able to kill, some of the assistants... well, i remember very well the look of Ed Harris.

Scattercat said...

I would point out that trusting the free market to filter out the good art results in Larry the Cable Guy and American Idol while Firefly gets canceled halfway through its first season. One of the useful things a government can do with art is preserve it regardless of its content.

Loren Eaton said...


It is a delicate affair. There are some forms of speech in the United States that aren't protected (e.g. libel, obscenity). But we're able to say a lot. We are very blessed here to have not yet had a dictatorship. I hope we never do.

Loren Eaton said...


Oh, no, wait, I'm not saying that the market only picks excellent art. I mean, if that were true then Pushing Daisies would run forever. I'm simply saying that we shouldn't complain when the market punishes artists who do stupid or evil things. Much better that than the government.

Scattercat said...

Indeed, we shouldn't complain when artists with problematic themes fail to find acceptance, but neither should we complain, in my view, if the government supports and preserves even art that we find offensive. That's an important government function, to my mind; libraries and art museums and so on, to preserve culture without overtly shaping it. (Because culture is shaped even by the act of perceiving it as culture and deciding what to save and what to destroy.)

Loren Eaton said...

I would generally agree with the idea that government libraries (such as the Library of Congress) play an important role in preserving works indiscriminately. Things get a little more sticky, though, when we start talking about the r0le of NEA or local libraries. (The Wall Street Journal had an excellent article about a year ago on the silliness of the ALA's banned books week.)