Monday, March 12, 2007

Racism in the arts

From Bizarre Hatred of Random Celebrities, the Bookapalooza thread:

Beefy McManflesh:

Last night I discovered something about H.P. Lovecraft that makes me profoundly sad; he wrote the following poem:

On the Creation of Niggers

When, long ago, the gods created Earth.
In Iove's fair image Man was shaped at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;
Yet were they too remote from humankind.
To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,
Th'Olympian host conceiv'd a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,
Filled it with vice, and called the thing a NIGGER.

H.P. Lovecraft, 1913

I know this has been a topic of discussion in the past, but how can I now relate to the art of a person capable of spewing such vitriol? It sickens me to reread the words of the author whose stories have given me such enjoyment in the past. I feel as if a part of my childhood has been lost.

Is it possible to separate art from the artist, or must they be taken as a whole? Is it reasonable for a humane person to suggest that Albert Speer designed some rather beautiful buildings? What is the morality of this dilemma?

Nerdy suggests that my disappointment shows a certain racial "naivety"; I disagree. I have been surprised by the beauty of the human heart, but never by its attendant ugliness. We invent monsters because we cannot accept the fact that the monstrous lies within us.

In this case, I am saddened because I have begun to receive "viscerally" what I have always understood "intellectually" to be true. Love has bound me to a woman of colour and through that love I am slowly beginning to "feel", piecemeal, what she has put up with for all of her life. I may never fully understand it, but I am continually heartened

The Great Beast:

Beefster, being married to a woman of colour (and into her family) for 23 years I have a bit of perspective I can share.

The past is a different country: they did things different there. Lovecraft was a product of his time, and no worse than any other man who wrote for a living.
It's a mistake to assume that everyone in the past was unsophisticated, naive or ignorant--people are pretty much as sharp as they've always been in our recorded history. However, modes of thought have changed over time. Leonardo thought women were only useful for reproduction, and we don't discard his ideas.

Jefferson was a slave-owner. Greek civilisation was founded on slavery, and we distill our philosophy from them for the most part.

True evil happens when someone is presented a choice, clearly understood, between good and evil, and chooses evil. Someone soaking in their own milieu, who merely failed to overcome prejudice or ill-thinking, and has been dead a hundred years? It's tough for me to get a serious hate on for them--I'll save that for where it can do some good.

Randy Wylde:

It's problematic, I'll give you that. I don't have a good answer, but I do try to allow that people are a product of environment and time, and while it would be great if more would rise above the petty hatreds and misconceptions of their time, many do not. I think that's why I'm more forgiving of the dead than the living.

Wagner's what brought it up for me this past week - he was a bit of an asshole, and also a virulent anti-Semite. But living without the overture to Tannheuser would be very hard for me; it fills me with joy, and I don't hear his antisemitism in it. On its own, it's a work of joy, majesty and great beauty. It also drowns out obnoxious people on the bus very successfully.

I'm trying to love the good works while despising the bad works he did, and to speak out against antisemitism and other hate/bias where it exists today. At this point, my listening to Tannheuser doesn't benefit him or his estate in any way.

I have a much harder time with, say, Mel Gibson. Supporting his work at this time does realize a financial benefit to him; it also adds to the "data" that says he's popular, and while it's specious to say that popularity=support for his ideas, I'm not willing to help build that fallacy.

I'm not sure by any means that my position is defensable, and I don't intend to defend it. But it does bear thinking about and discussion, and I appreciate your raising the issue.

Beefy McManflesh:

You make a good point, Beast. As a student of history, I understand that we need to filter the ideas of the past through the lens of historical "context"; and I am certainly NOT one who holds to a great deal of moral absolutes. I too believe that "people are pretty much as sharp as they've always been"; I guess that's why I'm a little disappointed that Lovecraft was unable to rise above the predominately held beliefs of his day. It was about this time that Franz Boas was developing his theory of cultural relativism.

Randy says, "But living without the overture to Tannheuser would be very hard for me; it fills me with joy, and I don't hear his antisemitism in it."

I hear you, buddy.

It is true that Lovecraft's racism comes through directly in his fantasy fiction in only a few instances that I know of...

Not that I'm trying to be his apologist.

Tim o-Bedlam:

Beefy: It is true that Lovecraft's racism comes through directly in his fantasy fiction in only a few instances that I know of...

it's evident in quite a few of his stories; witness all his talk about "degenerate folk" in many of his stories, like Call of Cthulhu or the Dunwich Horror. ALso, his cat in the story "Rats in the Walls" is named "N****rman".
I suspect Lovecraft was guilty of the upper-crust WASP racism common in his social group.

rufus christ:

You know something? Mores and manners and all of that might have been different back in the bad old days, but it never excuses cruelty. I have it straight from my own maternal ancestors, in their own hand(s), that what was going on in Tennessee in the early to mid 19th century was wrong. So, giving somebody an out based on when and where they lived seems kind of...nope. Can't do it.

It's one thing when you're very young and people are telling you lies and you believe them because it's family and there's a degree of safety and trust. Once you become capable of independent critical thought, then your responsibility should become more personal and less a product of following whatever patterns your culture has taken you.

Maybe this isn't fair, but I hold writers even more responsible than other folks for the simple reason that a lot of what they/we/I/ohputwhoeverthehellyouwanthere do/does in order create often entails wearing someone else's skin for a while.

You can't tell me Lovecraft didn't know he was writing about people and not chattel to be ridiculed. Same goes for Baum's Coulteresque essays about Aboriginal Americans. The thing that gives me hope is that maybe somewhere down the line they had a revelation that their thinking was wrong.


I have to bisociate when I read/listen to/view art produced by people I find repugnant. So many artists are just shitty people (but not all of them) that I have to keep two images in my head. Lovcraft(bigot) and Lovecraft(writer) have to be separated or I can't appreciate the art.

And I don't know what that says about me - I don't know if I'm a moral coward for being unwilling to set aside art I like/love over deep moral principles or if I'm being corageous for the sake of timeless art, but I suspect I'm just being human.

It helps that many of the artists I have to bisociate like that over are comfortably dead, so even if I purchase an anthology of Lovecraft's work, I'm not giving him money.

But maybe that's weaseling about it, too.

The Great Beast:

As much as I'm a moral absolutist in my day to day, I'm with Adam here: yes, the baby may be bad, but that's no reason to chuck out perfectly good bathwater.

Tim o-Bedlam:

I think it's death and distance, at least for me. Lovecraft was clearly not the most emotionally healthy person overall (to say the least) so it's not surprising he had some ill-thought-out ideas about race.

Racism among white people was the social norm in 1920 in a way that it absolutely is not (at least, not openly) in 2007.

I do admire people who were able to at least partially overcome the racism of their time: both Lincoln and Darwin were able to do this.

e fulton:

Hearing that someone was a bigot or a misogynist or whatever sours me on them generally and dims the light of any admiration I might have for his or her body of work, but it does not snuff out such light. For people in the past, buying or enjoying their work does nothing to encourage their bad ideas, as (a) they are no longer alive to perpetuate such ideas beyond their existing body of work and (b) I can judge any portion of their work as racist or sexist or what have you, with my judgment being the last word. The ugliness continues beyond their grave, but it stops with me.

Sure, there are those who will draw encouragement in their current racism and sexism and such from old writers who manifest those evils, but as long as I have the ability to transmit my ideas, I hold out hope that over time there will be more people who think like I do and fewer people who think like they do.
So, I think of it like so -- assholes do great work, but great work shouldn't excuse someone for being an asshole. Inasmuch as we know someone is an asshole, we should think such asshole an asshole, but we can still appreciate the great work of such asshole, so long as we don't perpetuate that which makes the asshole an asshole, either by funding the assholicity or by mimicking it in ourselves.

Beefy McManflesh:

Rufus Christ says, "The thing that gives me hope is that maybe somewhere down the line they had a revelation that their thinking was wrong."

True enough. When a writer puts pen to paper, their thoughts, for good or ill, are frozen for all time. What is true for a person one minute may be different the next.

Imagine if we lived in a society where all communications were conducted sans internal filters; what sorts of insane, psychotic ramblings would we be subjected to - racist or otherwise. Does that mean we're all scum? No. Though a confirmed cynic, I still believe "most" people are good "most" of the time.


As a person of color (brown, dark), racism isn't very far from my consciousness. Apocalypto, for example feels like a personal affront.

You get plenty of that in films, actually--one of the greatest ever made, in my opine, was Birth of a Nation, which singlehandedly revived the Ku Klux Klan; one of the greatest documentary/sports films ever made was by a woman, who did it for Adolf Hitler.

One way I can make some kind of peace with these contradictions is by trying to keep both aspects in focus--I can dwell or write about the greatness I find in a Birth of a Nation or Olympia, but I always append it with the warning that Birth is outrageously racist, and Olympia played into Hitler's notions of a superman (though to Riefenstahl's credit, she did allow for the beauty of a Jesse Owens).

(There's a case-to-case element to all this, too--Intolerance I think was Griffith's masterpiece, and considerably less racist, while Triumph of the Will is more clearly Nazi propaganda, and I think a good deal less interesting than Olympia (though there's a moment in the documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl where she looks at footage of Triumph and--in the way I read her expression--is enjoying the sheer beauty of vast amounts of men marching in precisely orchestrated motion (men depicted as cogs in a machine aren't exactly unique to the Nazis--Busby Berkeley? Fritz Lang in Metropolis?)).

As for Mel Gibson--well, he's an egotist, anti-Semite, and talentless to boot. There's no excuse for the likes of him.

(postscript: a New York Times review of two Riefenstahl bios argues that it's a fine line between accepting her talent and excusing her opportunism--something I hope I'm still on the right side of...)


Oggs Cruz said...

I can't wait to read what you think of Snyder's 300. It's getting unprecedented love from most Filipinos --- and I'm starting to feel lonely.

Noel Vera said...

Hi, oggs. Sorry, I haven't seen it--it just wasn't a priority for me.

Peter Nellhaus said...

Not related to the post, but just a note to let you know I updated my links to include CAD. Also, here is a link to an article in the Bangkok Post you may be interested in:

Peter Nellhaus said...

There was some kind of system error. The Bangkok Post article is on Filipino directors at the Rotterdam Film Festival. This is the link.

Noel Vera said...

Thanks for the link, Peter. Incidentally, Lav Diaz's Ebolusyon is eleven hours, not six.

Did he really mean that about the indie Filipino filmmaker, over the Thai? Considering the rep the Thais have enjoyed in recent years?

Paul Martin said...

Sometimes it pays not to know too much about an artist's personal life. I like Woody Allen films, but gee, marrying your adopted daughter? Or others who may be on heroin? Michael Jackson and... wait, forget about the weird one, he's in a category of his own. But I understand how you feel.

While I'm not defending a person's use of the term nigger, in 1913 it would have held a different degree of intent than now. To some (if not a large) extent, it may have been pure ignorance, whereas now it would be considered sheer contempt.

Noel Vera said...

I kind of have a more que sera attitude: you're going to learn what you're going to learn, and it might affect your feelings for the artwork, it might not. Dostoevsky was anti-Catholic, and a right bastard to boot. His books are still great (are probably great because he understood right bastards).

On 1913--I don't know. Birth of a Nation came out around that time, and it inspired plenty of protests from the black community--inspired black filmmakers to create films in response to Griffith's racist screed.

Paul Martin said...

One doesn't have to look as far back as 1913. My father, who was fairly spiritual (not religious), would sometimes surprise me with some stereotypical anti-Irish comments (he was British). I just think we've become more aware since his generation. It was not as socially unacceptable then as it is now. And I don't think people's attitudes have changed. Rather, people have learnt discretion and self-censorship, being careful what they say but still harbouring the same ignorant thoughts.

Noel Vera said...

Racism has learned to hide itself, in effect.

Gibson isn't all that dangerous now, I think; at least people can see he's a nutcase. Not like before, when only a handful of smarter folks recognized him for what he is.