When Great Artists Do Bad Things

Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein

Several weeks ago, when I was in Manhattan seeing my new grandson (oh, and his parents as well), we visited the Met and saw an extraordinary art exhibit that featured many of the paintings that the Stein siblings had collected (Leonard, Gertrude et. al.). Everyone interesting from the early 20th century seemed to be represented, including Picasso and his famous portrait of Gertrude. I learned yesterday from an on-line New Yorker article, however, that something had been left out of the explanatory material although it has since been added: the collection survived the German invasion of France between Gertrude collaborated with the Vichy government. In fact, she was a fan of Maréchal Pétain, Vichy’s president.

In the article, author Emily Greenhouse talks to Barbara Will, who has studied the Stein-Vichy relationship, and the interview broached the issue of problematic artists that produce greats work of art.  Here’s an excerpt from their talk:

But Will voices the danger of what Fredric Jameson called the systematic “ ‘innocence’ of intellectuals” which, as she puts it, “gives a free pass to those whose work we admire, regardless of the context in which it was written or its ultimate aim.”

I asked Will whether genius could ever justify itself—surely we wouldn’t want to put away Degas’s whirling ballerinas, or stop reading Heidegger, Eliot, Pound, or even Céline, just because their prejudices were bigoted and their politics abhorrent. “ I think we do need to ask ourselves whether our writers and artists should be judged by higher ethical and moral standards,” she told me. “The cult of genius that has dominated our understanding of the artist/writer for at least two hundred years—and which Stein thoroughly subscribed to—may have encouraged a certain exculpability for anything done in the name of creative expression. But the Second World War, as intellectuals like Theodor Adorno and others pointed out, inexorably changed the terms of how we think about art and its role and meaning in society. It made the ethical dimensions of art and the artist much more urgent.”

Back in the heyday of New Criticism (the 1950s and 1960s), formalism automatically gave a free pass because it deemed the intention of the author irrelevant to the art work. (This was called “the intentional fallacy.”) Interestingly Fredric Jameson, coming at literature from a Marxist point of view, makes a related (albeit a different) claim. Arguing against leftist ideologues who judge works by an author’s political position, Jameson calls them “vulgar Marxists” and says he prefers a good work by a reactionary writer than a mediocre or bad work by an ideologically correct author.

Defending that proposition, Jameson notes that Marx asserted that he learned more about capitalism from the royalist novelist Honoré de Balzac than he had from the leading economists of the day. British Marxist literary scholar Terry Eagleton has said something similar: in the works of the reactionary writer T. S. Eliot, he notes, one can get a much clearer depiction of capitalism’s crisis than one can from many leftist works.

The point here, I guess, is that if an author is really dedicating him or herself to truth, then we will learn more about reality than if the author is filtering reality through a politically correct bias.

That being said, however, Jameson and Eagleton, unlike the formalists, would still think it important to know about the political orientation of Balzac and Eliot and Gertrude Stein. Their perspective needs to be factored into understanding their vision. If, as I believe, literature (and art generally) is humanity’s attempt to express its deepest potential, a cry for freedom in a world that is always bound around with constraint, then we need to understand the boundaries that the vision is chafing against. These boundaries include the prejudices of the artist.

To cite one of my favorite examples (so that I don’t get hopelessly abstract here), I think that Chaucer sees depths in the Wife of Bath that we have been able to appreciate only after the feminist movement of the 1970’s. Furthermore, who knows what more is still waiting there for us to find out? But as far as Chaucer’s own views of women, I suspect that they were consistent with those of patriarchal medieval England. The Canterbury Tales is smarter than he is.

The tension between freedom and constraint, as I see it, is the drama at the heart of literature. Indeed, as we listen to what our greatest works are trying to tell us, we will become clearer about how we are limited by those constraints. Progressive authors, reactionary authors, it doesn’t matter—if they are true to the deep search, we will learn to see past where they are dishonest or shallowly conventional or politically objectionable. We will come to honor where they are true.

Of course, our other challenge is to build a society that honors humanity’s potential. That’s how literature’s visionary works can serve as a guide to politics. And yes, the process takes a long, long time.

This is far afield from Gertrude Stein’s art collection, which anyway is not the same thing as her art. I don’t know enough about her poetry or prose to figure out how it weaves together both her avant-garde progressive tendencies and her fascist sympathies. But this was a good occasion for me to sort out some issues I’ve been wrestling with.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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