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May 03, 2005

Comments

Edward, I find it terribly offensive that you crossposted this to ObWi when it was obviously intended for an edward_winkleman audience. :)

I find it terribly offensive that you crossposted this to ObWi when it was obviously intended for an edward_winkleman audience. :)

you're right...my bad...it's just that my stupid day job is making demands on my time today and besides, there is no edward_winkleman audience to speak of, so it's a "moo point" as we say in my house (you know, a cow's opinion, a moo point).

by the way...thanks for the plug ken!

you're right...my bad...

No, it was just a joke, riffing off the objections to the Charles Bird RedState crossposts.

Isn't it often the case that after a traumatic event, the first wave of art the comes in response has more of a therapeutic value than artistic value?

I'm not a connoisseur of the visual arts, but I'm personally more inclined to separate the aesthetic from the political message, and so it seems to me that good art (qua art) can be made from any subject at any time; however, in traumatic periods the aesthetic impulse itself seems to get trampled by the need for pure emotional expression, and the art market probably over-values that sort of thing.

Isn't it often the case that after a traumatic event, the first wave of art the comes in response has more of a therapeutic value than artistic value?

I thinks that's a very astute observation. Even with Steve Mumford's work, there's a sense that these are not the best paintings he ever made, but their therapeutic value is important. If you're allergic to cheap sentiment though, badly considered works, even if inteneded to be therapeutic (or possibly actually therapeutic for some audiences), they are actually the opposite...they make you cringe and leave you emptier.

How long after the event was Guernica done?

freelunch- about four days, you stole my post!

I'm not sure. I don't there's a hard and fast rule, necessarily. 110 Stories was apparently written in 2001, and I remember Art Spiegelman's New Yorker cover the next week.

110 Stories does seem to take that same approach, of just recording, that you describe in Steve Mumford's work.

If it's your own struggle to make some sense of something that can't be made sense of, or if you recognize that it can't be made sense of and seek simply to record it--to respond to an inhuman act of destruction with a human act of creation, however imperfect it may be--you take a giant risk of it being too soon and it coming out all screwed up, of course, but I see no real harm in trying. About two weeks after that day, I stayed up until four in the morning trying, and ended up writing this. That piece is probably too prose-y to be art, but it came out of the same impulse & I don't think it's bad. I think part of why it's not too screwed up though is that I restricted myself to a relatively easy, safe, limited subject, and even with that I let another, better writer do the heavy lifting.

There are other things I've written since then that are a struggle with the same events at some level, and maybe two or three of them I think are better, but a whole lot of them are worse.

But if you convince yourself that you have made sense of it & you're telling others what to think & enlightening them with your wisdom, I think that what you come out with will not be so good, and will risk being exploitative and alienating.

And if you're trying to make yourself or others feel better about something, putting therapeutic value above honestly--that's going to come out all wrong too, in a different way.

It's hard to know which category your piece falls into in advance, but I think trying to simply record may be the best way to sail between those errors.

But just because it's good for you to try to do a piece of artwork, doesn't mean it's good for others to see it, or a magazine to publish it, or a gallery to show it. Even good art about a disaster is going to break some people's denial, and that's not something to be done lightly when many people need their denial to get through the day.

On the other hand there are others who are incapable of denial or for whom denial has become a destructive thing, and they will find it useful to see an artist struggling with the same things that they are struggling with...It was after that day that I started liking poetry, especially poems written in specific response to "interesting times."

In the end I'm left thinking about the artists' direct responses to political events the same thing I think about politicians' use of religious rhetoric or arguments: it's not intrinsically good nor intrinsically bad. In the end it's a piece of art like any other or a moral argument or a piece of rhetoric like any other; it can be good, bad or indifferent. The only difference is, for the artist doing the work or politician making the speech, you're using something powerful, and anything powerful can be misused, so a little extra humility and caution is called for.

I agree with kenB and Edward. With Edward, I hate bad art about things that matters to me more than other bad art, in something like the way that really bad Hallmark cards about important things like the deaths of loved ones set my teeth on edge. With the cards, at least I can keep repeating: no one knows what to say at a moment like this; almost every communication is valuable mainly as a gesture, not for its content, and everything you try to say comes out all gawky and awkward, which is why people buy cards to begin with, and it's all understandable. But as there's no obvious reason why someone had to thrust another work of bad art on the world, that line of thought isn't available.

With kenB: I think making good art demands some sort of exquisite balance that lets you get enough distance from your emotions to shape them into something fine (as opposed to just blurting them out, as you might in group therapy), without getting too much distance, which would make your work lifeless. (One of the reasons I stopped trying to do most sorts of art, in anything other than a hobbyist sort of way, was that I realized that I could only do this with discursive prose, not with fiction or poetry. I had about a year when I could do something of the sort with watercolor, but unfortunately it passed.) You need to be in control of what you're doing, so that you can give serious form to it, and choose the right means of expression; but you also have to be receptive to it, willing to let it lead you. (In control, but not controlling.) And this is harder the more strongly you feel about something, I think. (In particular: harder to find the state of grace between blurting stuff out unformed and too much control; the space in which you can be active and passive at once, and each in the right way.) Though for that reason very much worth attempting.

When 9/11 happened, I was pretty heavily into anime and manga, and was doing translations and writing fan fiction. A few days later I wrote a piece of fan fiction that depicted the characters in my current pet series reacting to the events. I made no pretenses of it being good art or good fiction, it was simply written to help me process, and the only reason I posted it anywhere was on the off-chance that reading it would help someone else do the same.

Katherine,

you start off as if you disagree with me, but then (as is often the case) make my point more eloquently than I did.

But just because it's good for you to try to do a piece of artwork, doesn't mean it's good for others to see it, or a magazine to publish it, or a gallery to show it. Even good art about a disaster is going to break some people's denial, and that's not something to be done lightly when many people need their denial to get through the day.


Hilzoy,

With kenB: I think making good art demands some sort of exquisite balance that lets you get enough distance from your emotions to shape them into something fine

absolutely. My favorite quote on that is (paraphrasing and forgetting who said it): "good art begins more felt than thought, but ends more thought than felt."

I'm all over artists responding to calamity through their art (although I think it's more therapuetic for them personally than it can be expected to be for anyone else). But I'm a stickler when it comes to editing work for exhibition. If the work is the "simply record" type, then that context can be clarified and it's fine. If it's presented as "art" about this or that tragedy, however, my inner critic comes roaring to the surface and will judge it in that context. Woe be to those offering the first as the sceond.

"With Edward, I hate bad art about things that matters to me more than other bad art"

right, but I love good art about things that matter to me more than other good art. Choosing a subject like that is a force multiplier. It's something to be done cautiously, not something to be avoided no matter what.

Don't the arguments about political subject matter also apply to religious subject matter? I think that was a lot of people's objection to The Passion: when you're making a movie about a subject with that kind of power, you have greater responsibilities than when you're making, I don't know, Ocean's Twelve, and the movie utterly failed to live up to those responsibilities. And I guess the idea that you simply can't get it right is also there; hence the emphasis on calligraphy and geometry and abstraction in Islamic art.

But, I think we're pretty much agreed that if all artists had always avoided direct depiction of religious subject matter, we'd be poorer for it.

But, I think we're pretty much agreed that if all artists had always avoided direct depiction of religious subject matter, we'd be poorer for it.

There are some religions (Jewish among them I believe) that forbid depictions of religious subject matter, though, no?

Edward, as for the breaking denial thing: a gallery showing is somewhere between privately making something, and putting it in Rockefeller Center. I don't see a problem with Fischle making his sculpture or in wanting to put in a place where the general public could choose to see it, but the key word is choose. If you go into a gallery showing on artist's responses to September 11, you know what you're getting in for & you've decided you're ready. If you go to take your kids ice skating or you're just walking to work and there it is, like being kicked in the stomach--it's pretty different. It's like purchasing a book for the library versus making it assigned reading.

Yes; my understanding of the role of calligraphy etc. in Islamic art is that it forbids the depiction of anything. According to some versions, though apparently not the one current in 15th century (or so) Persia, luckily for us.

"But, I think we're pretty much agreed that if all artists had always avoided direct depiction of religious subject matter, we'd be poorer for it.

There are some religions (Jewish among them I believe) that forbid depictions of religious subject matter, though, no?"

I don't actually know about Judaism. I mean, a picture of God would probably be Right Out, but I don't know if it goes as far as Islam where you're not supposed to depict people either. You wouldn't want to depict a person in art at a synagogue; it's not Moses or whichever prophet that you're worshipping, but I don't know if an Orthodox artist would consider himself banned for depicting religious scenes or depicting people at all.

I actually really love Islamic art and architecture, but I can't regret the Italian Renaissance.

Okay, gotta go.

Generally, I find most overtly political art too obvious and the motives of those making it far too suspect.

This is true not only of paintings, but of various other kinds of art: I point at the "Isaac and Ishmael" episode of The West Wing as an acute example. (It's absolutely the worst WW episode written by Sorkin, and may even be the worst overall.)

In another identity, on various mailing lists, I recall a lot of very bad short fiction being written immediately after September 11 that dealt with effects of the day.

Katherine writes:

"But just because it's good for you to try to do a piece of artwork, doesn't mean it's good for others to see it, or a magazine to publish it, or a gallery to show it."

Notice that both of these activities *might* be called "expression" or "expressing oneself".

I have always felt that there was a deep and troubling ambiguity in arguments against censorship that claim we can never censor art because it would interfere with our personal "right of self-expression" or "right to express ourselves".

There *may* be something like a "right to express oneself" that could not be impinged without damage to persons. But if so, it is probably Katherine's first activity, i.e. the "trying to do a piece of artwork".

I find it much less plausible that we should recognize any "right to express oneself" in the second sense, i.e. in the sense of having a right to insist that others view our attempts.

And some arguments against censorship seem to me to conflate these two, i.e. they move from saying that there are certain things we just have to get off our chests, to saying that we should never be prevented from dumping them on someone else's chest. I think there's something wrong with this argument, and Katherine's distinction points to what looks wrong to me.

(And don't worry--there are enough other *good* arguments against censorship that we don't need any bad ones).

Censorship almost never happens at the artmaking stage though Tad. It's the book that's been published or the movie "in the can" or the artwork a museum or gallery has already vetted and decided to exhibit. In other words, it's passed through the filters of the producers, editors, and curators already. Someone, in addition to the artist, has declared it valuable. That's when you begin to approach censorship, when a section of society beyond just one artist, believes this message deserves to be heard, but others say no. The censorship you describe would require a totalitarian monitoring. Unless you stand over an artist in their studio or at their desk, you're never going to stop the sort of self-expression you're describing here.

Edward_--

No, I myself have no *desire* to stop any self-expression at the artist's easel, so I won't be advocating any totalitarian monitoring.

It is the self-expression of the artist in their studio or at their desk which seems to me to gain some justification from the therapeutic argument. If you don't let people express themselves at this level, it can be psychologically damaging, or at least it precludes some of the most important possibilities for psychological growth.

What I am saying is that this sort of argument-from-therapeutic-value is sometimes extended to what I think is a fundamentally different kettle of fish, namely an artist's right to publicize their work to an audience. I don't think the justification transfers over from one sort of "expression" to the other sort of "expression".

Here's a case--I think it is important for hateful homophobes to express themselves.

Huh?!?

All I mean is that I think that people who hate gays would probably benefit from finding a quiet room with no one in it but a skilled therapist, and ranting and raving for as long as they want about how much they hate gays. My guess is that with some mindful guidance, many of them would discover some very interesting things about themselves, that would make them better, more tolerant people in the long run. Writing and painting could also be useful ways of facilitating this sort of transformation. And if they are prevented from expressing their deepest feelings about homosexuality, they may never come to any honest self-knowledge. So there is a therapeutic argument for the importance of allowing these people to"express themselves".

But I have rather different feelings about having hateful homophobes "express themselves" in the sense of spreading their hatred to broader audiences. I have no particular reason to think that would be good for them, or for their audiences. I certainly do not think that it would be justified by the therapeutic argument outlined above. This kind of hate speech is probably protected on other grounds, but I do not think we should give it any cover by talking about the value or importance of "expressing oneself" or the "right to self-expression".

So my point is just that phrases like "self-expression" are ambiguous between two very different things that occur, as you point out, at very different stages in the artistic process. Censorship happens (if at all) at the later stage, the stage of publication. The therapeutic value of "self-expression" occurs (if at all), at the earlier stage, the stage of self-exploration. I'm not sure there is any good argument against censorship on the grounds of a right of self-expression, or at least I think that some versions of that argument trade on a fallacious ambiguity.

Ed,

Thats a great post.

Sure he may need to make it, but that doesn't mean we need to see it, and we certainly don't need to pretend it's good.

I'm confused. Then don't look.
I mean, if he needs to make it, maybe others who lived through the same things he did need/want to see it to.
As to whether it's any good -- history will judge.

I'm confused. Then don't look. I mean, if he needs to make it, maybe others who lived through the same things he did need/want to see it to.

But I do look, votermom. I look at everything I can, and if something is substandard, I don't shy from saying so. Your argument suggests there's therapeutic value in this work for someone other than the artist, and that may be true, but the context for that should be clearly set. It doesn't seem to have been here.

As to whether it's any good -- history will judge.

Sure, but history starts now. There are some artists who were totally underappreciated in their lifetime, but not many. Most who are historically important became so because of a process that started while they were making art, a process including curators, critics and collectors. So deciding whether it's good now is important.

Meow meow meow. That last point is a good one. I am ambivalent in my opinion of Picasso's "Guernica", because on first reading it (as a painting, but, you know, looking at and interpreting etc: reading, sorry, my control of the English language is wrested with great reluctance from the language itself, no doubt against its will) I found it as reflexive and immediate, i.e. less considered than felt, a response to the events in Guernica as something like "tumbling woman" was to the events of September the 11th. Upon further exploring, or googling, I found out that it is possibly the seminal artist's political and social cry against the madness of such events, and upon finding that history's curators found it more insightful, may have to re-examine the work, or at least the process of my previous judgement in relation to it. The point I am badly making is that the only valid way to judge such an artwork response to traumatic circumstances is through decades of history-curator-eyes, as any other judgements are dismissed as subjective, individual interpretations only as important as the individual making them, this importance being gained through the same curator-eyes that will accept the interpretation, and we non-history people will battle eachother's readings down in the massive equal-standing of the present, as is happening here. So this dialogue IS vital to the eventual standing of this situation, but we can't hope to raise a standard now, only to shape the eventual.

I won't also start on the censorship of expression debate beyond saying that every created work is the product of creative process, which is a series of decisions and often self-censorships, because my words are fleeing from me, and I hope the above passage will add relevant and comprehensible material to your discussion.

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