Historical Context

Uncovering History’s Inconvenient Truths: Separating Art from the Artists


Not long ago, I responded to a friend’s recent posting of an article detailing how the actor Gary Sinise was openly supporting a group committed to curing sinners of their homosexuality. The article can be read here: http://tinyurl.com/mmgfnzz. As one might expect, my liberal friend had many messages of support and outrage at such casual bigotry, seemingly in the face of science and common sense. People expressed disappointment and betrayal at being ‘duped’ into liking Sinise’s work, and enjoying his long and impressive career. Finally, they nearly all affirmed that they would no longer support the actor, and would actively boycott his work. This cultural shaming is quite common in the media and entertainment field, and certainly thrives in the world of politics as well. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this response, and I have taken similar actions on many occasions. However, tonight I decided to pose a moral dilemma, and questioned the wisdom of silence and solidarity against supporting an artist versus engaging them further, and/or simply separating the art from the artist, and selfishly enjoying the product, even while at odds with the maker. I was surely being provocative, but by no means a troll. After all, I seek discourse and reason, not discord and treason! I began by relaying my own personal connection to Gary Sinise, whom I have never met, but have several close connections to. Sinise graduated from the theatre program where I did my graduate work and earned my MFA in Directing, as did many of the other co-founders of Chicago’s famous Steppenwolf Theatre, which Gary helped found. When I directed in Chicago, I worked with many of his famous colleagues — many of whom are also renowned actors of stage and screen. Where most of them are predictably liberal, I often heard them speak of how conservative Sinise was and a what a devout and committed Catholic he was. At least one of them — an actor you would all know — is openly gay and married to his partner of many years, and arguably stood the most to lose from Sinise’s hateful views. And yet, to hear him and the others speak, although they don’t share his unenlightened beliefs on homosexuality and marriage equality, they are loyal friends and love him regardless. Can we, his fans, do the same, and somehow manage to separate the art from the artist? History is replete with flawed icons and troubling heroes. How do we reconcile ourselves with the beautiful art of Wagner, Hemingway, Eliot, Woody Allen, and countless other objectionable artists, who reportedly hold/ held hateful, sexist, anti-semitic, or racist beliefs? Or sexual predators such as Roman Polanski? The troubling thing about learning the values and belief of our most celebrated and respected artists, is deciding whether it’s morally reprehensible to support them, even after learning of their hateful transgressions. Do we do ourselves a disservice by lumping all offenders in together, and dispelling them all from our lives? While we must be consistent and honor our values and beliefs, while simultaneously undermining the hatred and intolerance of others, perhaps there is wriggle room when we consider historical context and take all factors into consideration. There seems to be something tangible in the different approaches and strategies we take to handle a piece of hateful and intolerant work. After all it’s a slippery slope of approval, having to vet our tastes, for fear the sins of the father aren;t delivered upon the son. If others saw me as hijacking the post or pushing an agenda, that was not my intent. As always, I came seeking knowledge and fellowship, and for me, that often means good natured debate and exploring the boundaries of any given situation. Whether it is possible or right to separate the art from the artist, and enjoy guilt free, is an age old question within the art world. At the very least, I thought I might challenge people to reconsider their inflexible stances, if not because I disagreed with them, but because it is intellectually honest and discerning to consider all sides of an argument. Whatever glaring faults I may possess, I have an aptitude for asking the right questions and breaking down people’s enmity and resolve. I am unwavering in my belief that the truth and solution are invariably closer to the middle, than either extreme side. Although I most closely identify as liberal, I am a moderate and independent at heart. I always seek to assert myself into conflict, and find ways to argue for both sides. Some see this as two-faced or disloyal, but I see it as the greatest act of love a person could do. Why go out of your way to burn a bridge, when you can help to rebuild it? I wish I could more closely live by my own words, but at least I think I can say I learn from my mistakes, and always seek reconciliation and peace. However, such feats of derring are incapable of being faked, manipulated, or pulled off without a few basic–yet integral–concepts: trust, love, humility, courage, acceptance, respect, good faith, a willingness to compromise, and a commitment to peace over unconditional comfort and sacrifice.

I say all this because when we confront the reality that our heroes and icons are somehow frauds who deceived us with beauty and virtue, and all that art holds dear, while harboring hateful and vindictive thoughts and beliefs. And sometimes, even actions done in the name of oppression, disgust, contempt, pity, or any other number of motivating factors. If the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and somewhere in the mix we both have valid points, the easier it is to find a common ground. Admittedly, there should be no tolerance for violence, hatred, willful ignorance, or bigotry, but we must still be willing to sit at the same bargaining table, and take steps to resolve animosity and enmity. You both know you are right, and have the full weight of….the Bible? Socail justice? Liberty? The Constitution? The fill-in-the-blank.. If nothing else, open and honest engagement with an enemy or objectionable piece of art is a learning experience, and goes a long way towards earning respect, seeing a situation from another’s perspective, and learning about prohibitive obstacles to another person’s understanding — geographical location, access to schools, history of domestic violence, incidents of rape or incest, educational attainment, physical and mental disabilities, crippling poverty, strong handed religious exposure and enforced obedience, and many other factors. We are both nature and nurture, and invariably products of our time and place. We are not raised in a vacuum or arid dessert, but in the richly embroidered world of some kind of family unit, perhaps a spiritual community, a cultural one, ethnic identity, and increasingly larger concentric circles of membership and identity. It is with these eyes that we must necessarily see, and we are as we so often were raised and reared. The world is full of a wide range of circumstances, entitlement, access to wealth and resources, and inherited physical and intellectual limitations. At the same time, we are all human beings of worth, intrinsically endowed with inalienable rights as human beings, including an innate dignity and special value, That means that we are all valuable and indispensable souls, with our own unique strengths and shortcomings, and most importantly, worthy of respect and the greatest gift of all – one;s undivided attention. Each of us has something to say or to add, and it is high time the responsibility fell on us to search for those qualities in others that we recognize in ourselves. The burden of proof should no longer fall on our foes and enemies to prove their worth and goodness. Nothing will ever get solved in this world if we continue to shift blame, point fingers, and go into each dispute with the foregone conclusion that our adversaries are morally corrupt, savages, incapable of feeling, humorless, devoid of mercy and sympathy, and generally the monsters we make them out to be. Love is the elixir of all hate, misunderstanding, and strife, and it all starts from the accepted truth that none of us are better than anyone else, and that we are all capable of loving and being loved. Regardless of whether you are a theoretical physicist, cosmologist, author and Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology or a simple and unassuming impoverished tenant farmer from Jackson, Mississippi, you are equals in the eyes of the law — perhaps both secularly, and for some, spiritually.

When we approach a work of art — the careful and passionate expression of one’s closest thoughts and feelings — we cannot ever fully understand what the artist intended, but because it’s subjective, it hardly matters. It’s not just beauty that’s in the eye of the beholder, but the intrinsic value of art, which means something different to all of us. If and when we find out that an artist;s actions or beliefs are deeply at odds with our own value system, it is completely understandable to reject the artists work — all future endeavors, as well as past favorites. And perhaps that is where it becomes the most complicated. If art is subjective, the experience is transcendental and deeply personal, and in many ways, a confidential conversation between a fan and the work/ artist. When tragedy strikes, we are shaken to the core, and all our accepted truths are thrown into disarray, and we must somehow struggle to condemn those that we once loved, and disavow ourselves from work that inspired, entertained, or perhaps only distracted us from our otherwise meaningless lives. I am not suggesting consumers and fans go on supporting a celebrity with despicable views, but only that we take time to process our true feelings, and what it means to abandon something or someone we once loved so dearly. Grief and despair come in many shapes, and we do ourselves no favors when we impulsively reject people and groups, without at least first learning what they are all about. It’s far easier to say goodbye to a truly hopeless cause, than to burn a bridge where you could have built one, and missed a genuine opportunity to educate and enlighten a soul just as worthy as yours, but perhaps not quite so fortunate and privileged. Not only do we owe it to each other to treat one another with respect and the assumption that they are good and valuable, our very livelihood as a species depends upon it. Since the Industrial Revolution began, our brains and our value systems have dramatically changed and evolved, and we generally place higher premiums on things like education, personal betterment, social justice, a commitment to less violence and an end to war, egalitarian principles of love and respect, a less punitive and more reformative criminal justice system, laws that promote freedom of speech, personal liberty, and other freedoms believed to be innate to humanity, and an unmistakable attraction to science and the virtues of an enlightened mind. 

And yet, somedays it seems like we have so far to go. We are confronted with artists and leaders we followed and were moved by, suddenly revealing their toxic belief in suppression of civil liberties and a denial and invalidation of another group’s right to exist. In all cases, is it best to disinvest from the situation, and publicly shun them for their actions, or is it ever acceptable to continue to engage the artist, or take steps to enlighten their stunted world views?

I simply raised the question out of intellectual curiosity, and perhaps to play devil’s advocate and generate discussion. I personally find it difficult and dishonest to consume the art of an artist who loudly espouses bigotry and hate, and who does not share your fundamental values of love and inclusion. Sinise is wrong, and deserves censure, as do all contemporary offenders. On the other hand, I suppose I would be less rigid in holding our dead and predictably less evolved artists to quite the same rigid standards. That’s not to excuse away deplorable acts like the Inquisition or the Holocaust, but to perhaps take context into consideration. If nothing else, there would hardly be anything left to read, admire on a wall, or listen to if we held past masters to the same inflexible criteria and divorced the work from its historical context. There is plenty of incontrovertible and demonstrable truth that the Industrial Revolution accelerated the efficacy of the human mind, which led to innovation in all the areas that contribute to greater equality and commingling of races and cultures. After millennia of much of the same barbarism and the rise and fall of countless Imperial empires, the last two hundred years of so have seen remarkable innovation and an evolution of thought.

It would be unfair to boycott Shakespeare because he may or may not have been anti-semitic. We must not read him with rose colored glasses, but always with a keen eye focused on context and intent. It may change the way we feel about certain passages, but it should never deprive us of drinking from the cultural well of those who shaped our very humanity. Even the most highly evolved and progressive figure from history was invariably a product of his or her time, and would likely fail miserably at any modern American dinner party. In such cases, we may not agree with the vitriol, actions, or objectionable beliefs of the artists we are exposed to, but still recognize that they were giants in their fields, and made invaluable contributions to Western culture. Indeed, one ignores such legendary icons at one’s own peril. In such cases, we have just as much to learn from those whose rhetoric we despise than those who only echo and reaffirm our own sentiments. When it comes to boycotting art, perhaps time and perspective are the only way to neutralize toxic hate and prejudice, and allow us to even consider historical context and biographical restraints when assessing the intrinsic worth of a piece. No matter how horrifying it is to learn of unconscionable acts of slaughter, slavery, and social injustice, it is somehow more palatable than being subjected to hate speech and bigotry today. The severity of condoning present transgressions is that their affect is compounded by the fact that we share oxygen with those being persecuted, and the bigoted words and deeds of contemporaries have immediate and far reaching consequences for tomorrow and for future generations.

In short, we cannot change the past, but we can shape the future by manipulating events of the present. It is our social duty to censure, scorn, and condemn hate speech in contemporary artists, businessmen, politicians, or anyone else who shares a public spotlight and has any modicum of influence. It is our civic responsibility to hold these men and women accountable, and never surrender love and inclusion for messages of hate and oppression. Yet still, we must not fall victim to the same sorts of knee-jerk reactions of those we oppose. We must handle each case judiciously, and carefully make informed decisions about intrinsic worth, contribution, and whether it promotes and upholds our most basic values. And if not, we should always consider its historical relevancy, and place it in its proper historical context, while deeply considering its influence on our shared cultural history — for good and for bad. Just because a work is objectionable, does not mean it is devoid of merit, and unworthy of consideration. On the contrary, the true scholar…social activist….loving human being…must consider all sides of an artifact and never forget that every piece of history can tell us something about where we are and where we’re heading.

who we are today. Keep an open mind. You’ll need it.