Mouse rant blog vent mouse.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

On role models, art, and dark sides

Sometimes long threads on blogs can really take you to interesting places, as the thread at Alas, a Blog on "real manhood" did when it turned into a thread on the place of role models in people's lives and it was brought up that it can be devestating when you find the dark side of someone you admire. Jam had this really interesting and poignant comment:

for me, i can remember my reaction upon discovering that Jack Kerouac -whose writing, cliche as it sounds, opened up whole new worlds of literature, music, & possibilities for me when i was young- ended up a bitter lonely man dying drunk on the toilet. i couldn't reconcile the two men in my head for a long time.

the same for discovering that Miles Davis terrorized & abused the women in his life. again, i couldn't listen to his music for a long time. despite its beauty (& it is beautiful) all i could think when i heard it was that somewhere within it all lurked a vicious thug.

and then there was the discovery that L. Frank Baum
advocated genocide against native americans. that threw me for a loop, lemme tell ya.

Even though I'm not being properly post-modern when I do so, I enjoy reading up on the lives of artists and writers I like, so I am more than familiar with the experience of finding out something really awful about someone you admire. That's actually when that training in literary criticism is helpful as I gallantly remember that it's not the person that's important but the art. Art is so very subjective that the individual failings of artists can't really be construed to say too much about what one can get out of the work.

Jam will be disappointed to realize that Kerouac was no champion of treating women nicely, either. But you don't even have to read biographies on him to know how shabbily he treated women--he downright brags about it in his writings. It makes me sick and probably has a lot to do with why I dislike On The Road so much. But the funny thing about misogyny in art is it doesn't necessarily make me dislike it. For instance, I like Ernest Hemingway, who is a huge bugaboo for feminists because of his persistent unwillingness to write female characters who are much besides cunts on legs. For that he doesn't get a pass with the product-of-the-times argument, since even the garden-variety sexists of the times were full well aware that women were human. Despite that, I get a lot of his writing and I even still admire him as a person because of his uncommon bravery.

And what you get out of art doesn't necessarily match up with the artist's intentions. For instance, there's little doubt that Mick Jagger was deliberately trying to send an anti-woman message in the song "Under My Thumb", and for that you can't blame feminists for hating that song. But I like that song because there's something else that song is about--the wicked delight of torturing someone who has caused you pain and lovesickness in the past. It's wrong and immature, but there's no denying that it's a pleasure to make someone you used to beg for coming begging for you, and this song captures that nasty pleasure perfectly. I'm not hearing the sexism when I hear that song. Some female singer should cover that and reverse the sexes in the lyrics and that would probably bring that aspect of the song out more.

None of this means that feminists are obliged not to criticize sexist messages in art and music, as much as many petulant sexist artists wish otherwise. Sexist art perpetuates the problem. Criticism of sexist art therefore functions more to help people understand the way that sexism perpetuates itself and give them tools to resist it. Censorship is not one of those tools, either--hiding a problem doesn't make it go away. I think that's why criticism itself should be taught in public schools, to eliminate the misconception that criticizing something necessarily means that the critic doesn't like the work or wants to have it banned.

43 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This seems particularly relevant to me this week, when Monica revealed in the comments section of an Alas post on fathers' rights movements what Bob Geldof's opinions are on women and divorce.

I'd always had a lot of admiration for his strength of feeling and his activism in Africa, and now I'm forced to see him in a new light.

10/16/2004

 
Blogger Amanda said...

A quote from that article: "Domestic life is devalued, he says, and eulogises about coming home after a crap day, slamming the door and “she’s done something nice, like make a meal or something. It’s so feminine, so sexy.”"

Again, the sheer stupidity of some people perplexes me. How can he not see that women would also like to come home to someone making their dinner?

10/16/2004

 
Blogger mythago said...

Because it's all about him. Or, more properly, all about HIM.

I'm not hearing the sexism when I hear that song. You could apply the same analysis to "Smack My Bitch Up." I don't think a bouncy tune saves that from being a sexist piece of shit either.

10/17/2004

 
Blogger Amanda said...

I know the song is sexist, but my point is that doesn't make it an unsalvagable piece of shit. The urge to get revenge on those who've played with your mind is a genuine, if ugly, feeling. That Jagger interprets that in a sexist way doesn't change the fact that I relate to the underlying feeling. I've had my moments of spiteful glee when guys who played with my emotions turned green with jealousy when I went out with someone else, and that defies a sexist interpretation because the sexes are reversed. People take art and interpret to suit their purposes everyday and there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, the only honest way to understand art is to realize you are seeing it through your own filters.

I mean, if someone tries to make a song something that is most definitely is not, that is one thing. If I argued that I thought "Under My Thumb" was empowering, I would be stupid. But I'm arguing that it captures the dark anger that people sometimes have for their lovers in a way that you usually don't hear, and it's not crazy for me to admire that aspect of it.

It works the other way, too. People have taken works that were written in another place and another time and interpreted them to promote progressive political causes to great effect. For instance, there's nothing wrong with interpreting the strong and witty heroines from Shakespeare's comedies for feminist purposes even though he was clearly a man who was not above the sexism of his time. Again, there are commonsense limits. As You Like It or Twelth Night, sure. The Taming of the Shrew can't be viewed in a feminist light no matter how hard you try.

10/17/2004

 
Blogger mythago said...

The Taming of the Shrew can't be viewed in a feminist light no matter how hard you try.Sure you can. We can identify with that feeling of wanting to overcome a challenge, or seeing that spark of goodness in a crabby, unpleasant person whom everyone else thinks is horrible, and being the one to bring out their inner cool person.

Of course it's true that art can be enjoyed separate from the artist. (Ursula LeGuin has a good bit about how she preferred to avoid meeting writers she loved because you might find out the author of that Brilliant Novel is really a weird little guy with tinfoil-hat politics.) And it's also possible to get something out of art other than what the artist intended. YMMV, but with so many good works out there, I think it's a little easier to pan for nuggets of wisdom in the streams that aren't polluted.

10/17/2004

 
Blogger Amanda said...

Point taken, but I guess I was referring to the people who strain to see sarcasm in the speech about how women are happiest when they submit to their husbands. I'm sorry, but even if you try, you can't play that speech sarcastically.

10/17/2004

 
Blogger Elayne said...

I've had my share of disappointments at finding out what writers, artists, etc. are really like, and it does affect my reading of their work - anyone who's generally behaved as an asshole to me will not get my monetary support, for instance. But choosing not to partake of entertainment if you have a distaste for the entertainer isn't the same thing as saying that entertainment is garbage. The former is, I feel, a valid choice for any consumer.

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