ethics

Does Art Belong to Its Audience or Its Creator?

…For many other artists, however, the arts network proves an unmitigated disaster. Sometimes it’s just that the freewheeling thought patterns that lead to artmaking don’t lead as gracefully to tidy record keeping. More often, though, the same artists who diligently follow a self-imposed discipline (like writing in iambic pentameter, or composing for solo piano) prove singularly ill-equipped to handle constraints imposed by others… Ideally (at least from the artist’s viewpoint), the arts network is there to handle all those details not central to the artmaking process… If all this evidence of the reach of today’s arts network still fails to impress you, consider the sobering corollary: once you’re dead, all your art is handled by this network.

David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking

As the artist works away, creating, revising, failing and starting again, she never knows if her work will live beyond her, if it will be cherished or forgotten; if it will be deemed classic or garbage. Much of this has little to do with the artist or the quality of her work at all. To become “a classic” a work has to have a champion who is determined to share it after the artist is gone. It has to have teachers who present it to students. It has to have archivists who deem it worthy of preservation. These are the artist-makers. Their passionate enthusiasm transforms a struggling artist, who may have died penniless, into a vital part of our culture. Sometimes these executors carry on in accordance with the artists’ wishes. Sometimes they do so in spite of the artist.

The Atlantic today featured a review of Benjamin Balint’s forthcoming Kafka’s Last Trial, a book about the posthumous legal battle over Kafka’s manuscripts. In his review Adam Kirsch wrote:

At the time of his death, in 1924, at the age of 40, Kafka hardly seemed like a candidate for world fame. He had a minor reputation in German literary circles, but he had never been a professional writer…

Famously, he had tried to keep it that way. Before he died, Kafka had written a letter to Brod, who found it when he went to clear out Kafka’s desk. In this “last will,” Kafka instructed Brod to burn all his manuscripts, including his letters and diaries. But Brod, who admired Kafka to the point of idolatry, refused to carry out his friend’s wishes. Instead, he devoted the rest of his life to editing, publishing, and promoting Kafka’s work—even writing a novel about him, in which Kafka was thinly disguised as a character named Richard Garta. In this way, Brod ensured not only Kafka’s immortality, but his own. Though Brod himself was a successful and prolific writer, today he is remembered almost exclusively for his role in Kafka’s story.

The question of whether Brod acted ethically in disregarding Kafka’s dying wishes is one of the great debates of literary history, and it lies at the core of Balint’s book. As he notes, “Brod was neither the first nor the last to confront such a dilemma.” Virgil wanted the Aeneid to be burned after his death, a wish that was also denied. Preserving an author’s work against his or her will implies that art belongs more to its audience than to its creator. And in strictly utilitarian terms, Brod undoubtedly made the right choice. Publishing Kafka’s work has brought pleasure and enlightenment to countless readers (and employment to hundreds of Kafka experts); destroying it would have benefited only a dead man.

Does art belong more to its audience than its creator?

Put another way: Is the life of the work of art more valuable than the human considerations of the artist and his relations?

Robert Baldwin Ross, who became Oscar Wilde’s literary executor a number of years after his death, was one who placed a high value on the life of works of art. In response to an editorial that said in a burning museum anyone would save a child over an old master, Ross wrote that he hoped he’d have the courage to save the art.

One of the great debates in Wilde circles is how closely Ross’s actions on behalf of Wilde’s estate followed Wilde’s wishes. Nowhere is this more relevant than in his handling of the manuscript of Wilde’s prison letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, which Ross named De Profundis. Ross was determined that the work was important, and he went to great lengths to preserve it. His efforts proved painful and detrimental to Douglas, and ultimately to himself as Douglas battled against them.

We, the modern-day readers and researchers who benefit from the continued existence of De Profundis, are grateful for Ross’s choice and therefore there is a strong bias in favor of the idea that Ross did act in accordance with Wilde’s wishes. We would like the ghost of Wilde to be pleased at his literary resurrection and our interest in his life.

There is reason to doubt that Ross did follow Wilde’s instructions when it comes to the manuscript. He did not follow the only written instructions that were preserved– they said to send the handwritten original to Lord Alfred Douglas, which did not happen. He claimed to have received different verbal instructions. Of course, the only evidence for this is Ross’s own statement.

Ross did not always follow Wilde’s instructions when he disagreed with them while he was alive.  After Wilde was released from prison, they had a minor falling out over how The Ballad of Reading Gaol should be published. Ross felt, for artistic reasons, that it should only be put out as a book. Wilde’s concerns at that point were more down to earth and human. He’d lost everything when he went to jail and he wanted the biggest, fastest paycheck. That meant serial publication.

Unable to persuade Wilde to think long-term, he went behind Wilde’s back and tried to enlist Leonard Smithers in preventing serial publication. “I hope you will refuse to publish [the ballad] at all if the market is going to be spoiled by having it published in an English newspaper.” Ross wrote. When Wilde learned of this he was understandably annoyed with Ross.

One thing that I found interesting in Kirsch’s article on Kafka was the speculation that Kafka chose his literary executor precisely because they disagreed.

And in choosing Brod as his executor, he picked the one person who was certain not to carry out his instructions. It was as if Kafka wanted to transmit his writing to posterity, but didn’t want the responsibility for doing so… Brod, for his part, had no doubts about the importance of his friend’s writing.

Was a similar dynamic at work in Wilde’s reliance on Ross’s contrary advice and his decision to name him as his literary executor? Did he chose someone who he instinctively knew would value the art over even his own point of view about it?

Or would Ross’s handling of De Profundis have, in the words of their mutual friend Reggie Turner, “pained its author.”

Even Wilde’s desire to have Ross as his executor is contentious– a fact that has largely been forgotten. Ross’s position as executor was only won after lengthy litigation. His success in court was based on a single line in one of Wilde’s prison letters, the same one in which he instructs Ross to send De Profundis to Douglas.  The exact line is “If you’re going to be my executor you should have [De Profundis].” Ross used this letter in court to prove that he had the authority to be Wilde’s executor and also that De Profundis was his personal property. My personal theory is that Ross may have destroyed letters that contained more of Wilde’s instructions regarding the manuscript, but he had to retain the letter that called him Wilde’s executor. It was easier for him to make the claim that Wilde had given him verbal instructions that contradicted his first written ones than to support the claim that he had any right to act on Wilde’s behalf without it.

If he did edit the record to make his actions on the estate’s behalf clearer should we care? What if he took actions that went counter to Wilde’s own wishes? Should we care about that or is Wilde’s own view ultimately less important than ours as the audience?

I believe three things: First, I believe (though I cannot prove) that Wilde’s desires for De Profundis changed after he reunited with Douglas after his release from jail. Second, I believe (and also cannot prove) that Ross disregarded at least some of Wilde’s instructions for what he thought was the greater good.  Finally, I believe that the preservation of De Profundis was, in fact, a greater good.

What do you think?

The Womp Womp Mindset

We live in a country where politicians have always pandered to voters by talking about their hard-working, poor, immigrant ancestors who came here with nothing but a dream and the determination to make a better life for their families.

By sharing these histories, politicians write themselves into the Great American Story.  We are a nation of people who are proud of our humble origins, our struggles to get here, and “the Great American Melting Pot.”

It occurred to me lately that something changed in the last election. Candidate Trump did not tell a heartwarming story about his hardworking immigrant ancestors. He said, “I’m rich, and that makes me smart, and it means the old rules don’t apply to me.” This appealed to a segment of the voters.

Was this the unraveling of the Great American Story? Do we no longer hold as an ideal the story of the poor but hard-working person who works for a better life?

Maybe this is a tacit admission that America’s great age of social mobility has ended and is not coming back. According to research I did for a previous book, if you wanted to be a self-made man in America, the best year to be born was 1850.

Instead of idealizing the land of opportunity, we’ve changed gears and are now just trying to be sure that in this unequal terrain, we’re on the favored side.

Doing away with the story of the poor immigrant ancestor is a good first step if you want to be sure people do not identify with more recent immigrants coming to our shores with nothing but the clothes on their backs, fleeing religious persecution or famine or violence.

It reduces some of the cognitive dissonance people might feel as they idealize their refugee ancestor while applauding a Muslim ban or describing people who cross the Southern border as dangerous, unclean, frightening vermin.

I’ve been thinking a lot about something I wrote in March 2017 when Trump was still a candidate.  I was shocked when a friend of mine, who supported Trump, started to refer to Mexicans as coming to the United States and “popping out babies” so they would be U.S. citizens.

Now we have Donald Trump, a candidate who elicits cheers and sighs of relief for saying “we’re too politically correct,” implying, of course, that those of us who do not agree that Muslims should all be treated as suspected terrorists or that illegal immigrants should be thought of as rapists do not actually believe what we are saying and are simply being polite.

There is room for polite disagreement on immigration policy. This is not about that. I am concerned that it is becoming increasingly acceptable to other and dehumanize groups of people…

To pillory “political correctness” is to overlook the fact that language does matter. There is a difference when you say that an immigrant “pops out a baby” or that she “has a child.” In the first case, you are speaking of her as something less than fully human.

“Is that why they pop out babies? To make them U.S. citizens? Is that why you popped out yours?”…

The strange thing is that illegal immigration has become such a hot button issue now as the number of Mexican immigrants leaving America is now actually greater than the number coming in.

But clearly the scope of the problem is much less important than the political value of having someone from the outside to blame for our ills.

Recently I questioned a Facebook friend who supported Trump and wrote about Mexicans “popping out babies” and getting free stuff in America.  In defending her views, she pointed to her own family history and contrasted it with the baby poppers of Mexico. Her grandfather fled Russia when the communists took over, and was forced to leave all of his possessions behind.

What fascinated me about this response is that being the descendant of a refugee did not produce empathy for other refugees… When her grandfather came to the U.S. he was fortunate that we distinguished between him and the people he was fleeing and did not keep him out because he and the communists were both Russian.

We can debate immigration policy. We can disagree. We can do it with respect.  But we cannot, as a moral nation, accept the notion that empathy is weakness. There is a way to take a hard line on immigration, and do it without dehumanizing people in the process. It is important.

I see a straight line from the anchor baby rhetoric to the moment we’re in today.  “The others” don’t have children for all the complex reasons we do. It is a trick, a ploy, to get citizenship. They are crafty, and it begins with popping those babies out. “Popping out” babies sounds easy. There is no labor. The women do not feel pain, because “the others” do not feel pain like we do. You needn’t worry about that. The children, who were not born the way our children are born, aren’t really our concern.

Yesterday I responded to a friend’s Facebook post. The friend writes Christian novels, and his post expressed a certain ambivalence about the family separation policy. “It’s terrible, but…” One of the people who commented remarked that there is no way to tell which of these immigrants are drug mules and that they put drugs in the babies diapers. Those children, popped out, not born, are now dangers in themselves. They try to trick us into compassion, but we give into it at our own peril. Once the concern was that these babies would grow up to become citizens and take what is rightfully ours (they’re all imagined as being on welfare and taking benefits, not building communities or contributing to the economy).  We’ve now moved beyond that. They are part of a wave that is going to overtake us. They’re going to turn our cities into ” “Blood-stained killing fields. Savagely burning, raping, and mutilating,” as the President put it.

I feel a sense of weariness and sadness having seen a number of my friends describing people by categories and using subhuman language.

Fast Company had a story today on what it called the “empathy gap” in politics. It contrasted MSNBC’s host Rachel Maddow getting choked up on air reading a breaking news story about “tender age” facilities for young children separated from their parents with a Fox News guest, a Trump campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski whose reaction to the news that a child with Down’s Syndrome had been separated from her family by making “the sad trombone noise, which phonetically looks like ‘womp womp.’”

Lewandowski’s reaction to the news that a child with Down syndrome was separated from her parents at the border is literally a parody of sadness. There’s no other possible interpretation, it’s all right there. Whatever he is supposed to feel, as a member of the human race, about a child with Down syndrome separated from her parents, he doesn’t feel it.

Not only does he not feel it, he seems to have contempt for the idea that he should feel something. Tugging at the heartstrings is nothing but an attempt at manipulation, and he is not going to fall into the whole compassion trap.

You can see this same mindset in Trump’s decision to separate families. The idea of tearing crying children from their parents is distasteful to people with normal human empathy. If you have none, or barring that, if you can find ways to tamp down that natural reaction by dehumanizing a category of people, then you are in a position of power. Trump assumed that the people who couldn’t bear to see children harmed would be soft-hearted liberals, not “his” people. (Trump does not aspire to be President of the United States, but President of the Right, in opposition to the Left. “I’m representing the best people on earth, the deplorables,” he said at a campaign rally yesterday.) They would say “We’ll give you whatever you want, just stop hurting the children!” He expected that he would be able to coerce them into agreeing to his wall that way. He underestimated how many Americans there are who have empathy and a sense of history. Or maybe he did not.

Ann Applebaum in an opinion piece in the Washington Post argues that politicians of his stripe use shock and awe tactics to show their strength. They are signalling to their followers that they are willing to be cruel in order to meet their ends.

“Virtue-signaling” is a snide little phrase that people vaguely of the “right” invented to tease people vaguely of the “left.”… it implies insincerity and self-righteousness. Those who brag about doing something good — say, riding their bicycle to work every day — are said to be “virtue-signaling” their desire to fight climate change…

More recently the British journalist Nick Cohen has identified another way of sending social messages. This is something he called “vice-signaling,” and it is precisely the opposite tactic. It applies to politicians who do something evil — deliberately — with the aim of proving they really are very sincere indeed. Cohen invented it in the context of an immigration scandal in Britain which had led not to the deportation of illegal immigrants, but to the deportation of actual British citizens, albeit with poor documentation. When uncovered, the policy led to a scandal and the resignation of the home secretary, Amber Rudd. Cohen argued, nevertheless, that the policy had never been a mistake or an accident: The Conservative Party had decided to pursue cruel and unfair tactics on immigration, precisely in order to “signal” to their base their seriousness about fighting immigration.

This is a useful context in which to understand the reasoning behind the Trump administration’s horrific policy on family separation at the border — a policy that, if it were enacted in another country, would be described by American officials as state-sponsored child abuse. It’s incomprehensibly cruel, separating small children from their parents and sending them to institutions that resemble jails.

…Because it signals to their base that they are really serious about stopping immigration — so serious that they will abuse children, damage families, and shock anybody who cares about civil rights or human rights in the United States or elsewhere.

..Morality is for losers, apparently. Cruelty is for winners. And this will be the long-term effect of vice-signaling: it makes its proponents, and its audiences, vicious themselves.

What has been equally shocking to me is to learn that in a poll 75 percent of white Evangelicals reacted positively to Trump’s family separation policy.

Looking back, it seems as though this moment  is just the culmination of something I’ve been lamenting for a while. A culture that not only fails to make a virtue of compassion, it views compassion as a weakness and as manipulation.

I was writing about a “womp womp” point of view in 2013 when I saw how easy it was for people to come up with reasons not to care about the poor. I wrote about it again in 2017 when Mick Mulvaney tried to cast the people who receive Meals on Wheels as lacking compassion for the taxpayers. With the family separations womp womp-ism has reached a new low.

I don’t know how to conclude this piece except to say that I’ve been feeling an existential sadness over this, and I think I am not the only one.


 

Love the Alien as Yourself

Attorney General Jeff Sessions used a bible verse to justify separating children from their parents at the border.

I will have more to say on this abomination in the coming days, but having a limited amount of time today, I will make only three points.

1. The United States is governed by the Constitution, not the Bible.

2. “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” Leviticus 19:34

3. This is wrong.