Terrible people: great art

My wife and I are going to see the Ender’s Game movie tonight.  Ever since it was announced, I had friends who would ask me, sometimes rather challengingly, ‘are you planning to see it?’  I guess because I’m a well-known leftie, pinko commie, and Orson Scott Card has said some things that, uh, suggest he isn’t.

So there’s a boycott.  And it’s the kind of boycott that someone like me seems likely to support.  So do I support it?  Am I going to see the movie?  Let me end the suspence: my wife and I have purchased tickets already.  We’re seeing the movie.

I read Ender’s Game many years ago. I liked it.  I especially liked the triumph of a kid who was victim of bullies.  I could relate to it.  It wasn’t my favorite book ever or anything–I preferred Frank Herbert’s Dune–but I thought it was good.

In recent months, though, OSC seems to have begun, for whatever reason, positioning himself at the Jon McNaughton end of the political spectrum.  His right as an American, of course, just as it’s my right to write long blog posts taking issue with his views. Whatever; he’s a fine novelist and a brother in the gospel.  He also has weird ideas about President Obama, and ideas about gay rights I don’t agree with.  Free country.

But boycott the movie?  No, I don’t think so. No way.  First, because I have no intention of depriving myself of the pleasure of seeing a movie I’ve wanted to see for years.  I’ve read mixed reviews; I have to think, though, that it’s going to be better than the movie version of Frank Herbert’s Dune.  Lo freaking l.

The larger question, though, is this: do we not see various works of art based on our personal disapproval of the lifestyle, ideas or personal obnoxiousness of the artist.  Pablo Picasso was a pig; does that negate the extraordinary beauty of Guernica?  Richard Wagner was a womanizer and seducer, who held utterly disgusting political views; does that prevent me from attending a performance of Tannhäuser?

When I was in grad school, working on my dissertation, I was allowed a dedicated desk in the library.  It was soon piled high with Ibseniana. The desk next to mine was equally covered with books about Bertold Brecht; the desk of my friend Cynthia, who was working on BB for her dissertation.  One day, we were both up there, and she was reading her stuff and taking notes, and I was reading mine, and she sighed, sat back, and said to me, “what’s it feel like studying someone who was, at least, a decent, moral human being?”  Which Brecht was not.

Except, except.  I’m an Ibsen scholar and an Ibsen translator; I think Henrik Johan was one of the greatest playwrights who ever lived, part of a holy trinity that includes Shakespeare and Sophocles.  So you study him, and sure, he was obnoxious.  Grumpy, irritable, egotistical.  But anyone who studies Ibsen seriously runs, soon enough, into the Emilie Bardach problem.  The Helene Raff problem. And the Hildur Andersen problem. Ibsen, in his sixties, liked young women.  He certainly had an affair with Emilie Bardach–her journal and letters have been recently discovered.  He spent huge amounts of time with Andersen and Raff–teenage girls.  It’s quite possible, in fact, that Ibsen was, by our standard, a pedophile.

And he wrote about it.  Only one character appears in two of his plays; Hilde Wangel.  We meet her as a teenager in The Lady From the Sea, and she reappears as a twenty-year-old in The Master Builder.  And The Master Builder is about an elderly artist, past his prime, who is inspired to greatness again by a relationship with a fascinating young woman.

Here’s the thing: it’s also a tremendous play.  It’s terrific.  It’s creepy and has weirdly pedophiliac overtones, but it’s also brilliant. A good play can do that, can show a mutually destructive and icky relationship between a really old guy and a really young woman, and turn it into art. Does it excuse pedophilia?  Portrayal is not advocacy; the play ends tragically.  So Ibsen as an elderly playwright, has an affair with a teenager, and writes, as a result, a play about an elderly architect who has an affair with a teenager.  And it’s a really good play.

This is my point.  I personally disapprove in the strongest possible terms of elderly married men having affairs with girls young enough to be their grand-daughters.  I think that’s reprehensible behavior.  My favorite playwright–a playwright I have spent most of my life studying and writing about and translating–not only did that, but rubbed our faces in it.  Wrote one of his greatest plays about the very behavior I despise.  How do we handle all that?

We recognize that art is about life–it’s a testimony about lived experience. And that life isn’t always pretty.  And that we sin, we humans, we sin all the time.  And writers write what they know.  Including sins, including, in fact, the specific sins they created.

So Wagner was a womanizer, and wrote these magnificent, sensuous operas about, among other things, sexual longing, sexual attraction, passion and obsession.  And Ibsen was inspired by young women–they fascinated him, and became subjects for his plays.  And Picasso didn’t just live a life of moral relativism, he placed relativism–or at least relativity–as the central organizing theory of his paintings.

Art celebrates humanity, all of it, even the grubby bits. It transforms experience, even even nasty experiences.  We can avert our eyes.  Sometimes, maybe we should. But no, we don’t say ‘I won’t see that; the artist, I heard, was a bad person.’  It’s art.  Honest, it is; it’s not a cesspool.  How can we tell? Take a swim.

6 thoughts on “Terrible people: great art

  1. Julie Saunders

    With movies, it gets even more complicated because it’s a collaborative medium. So you’re not just punishing OSC by boycotting Ender’s Game (and whether you’re even doing that is debatable, considering he’s already been paid), you’re punishing all the producers, directors, actors, and crew members who may or may not agree with him. In that sense, it’s a much more complicated decision than deciding to pass on work that has more of a single creator, like paintings or novels.

  2. Kirt Bateman

    Disclaimer: I’m on my iPad, which I blame for all typos, inconstencies, poor grammar, hyperbole, and malapropisms! So sorry!

    Eric, really fascinating discussion. One that I personally struggle with on different fronts.

    Do I know (or care) for instance about the stance on gay rights (because obviously that is an issue that personally affects me daily) of my favorite artist Well, yes and no. Yes: because I usually take the time to find out. No: because it shouldn’t matter. Unfortunately, I find that it colors my view. I don’t think that’s right, necessarily, but it happens.i know, on the other side of the coin, how terrified I was to bring the Indigo Girls to Layton (Davis County being second only to Utah county in conservative leanings), even though they are spectacular musicians and wonderful artists. And did I get complaints? Yes. Because I brought open (and maybe MORE offensive, PROUD) lesbians to our venue. But do you think that I thought twice about bringing even though he’s basically a crook? Nope. Because he’s a proud conservative.

    I know a lot of Mormon people would go see a Mormon artist of whatever artistic palate … Likewise a lot of gay people will go see a gay artist just because they are gay. Without even liking their particular art. Again, a question that is maybe too complex to answer.

    Anyway, I’m off topic, the point is: can we enjoy/relish in/support the art of someone who we personally find offensive or opposite on the political spectrum. I hope the answer is yes…as an actor, I hope I am just that and anyone who disagrees with my lifestyle (I hate that term) sees me as such.

    However, I have personally chosen NOT to see Ender’s Game for the very reasons about OSC’s views you mentioned above. What does that say about me? Hypocrite maybe? I guess I just don’t want to spend my energy (in this form, the energy of money) financing the energetic currents of someone whom I vehemently disagree with. So, yes, I think perhaps I’m a raging hypocrite.

    It also reminds me about a couple recent people (restaurant servers, in particular) who posted receipts from customers on them where the patron had written a note about how they wouldn’t be getting a tip because of their homosexual lifestyle. Is it that person’s right to withhold a tip? Absolutely! My questions are (and I think this does apply to your question): 1) did you recieve adequate or quality service?; 2) do you leave a furniture showroom if you perceive your salesman to be different from you (in these cases gay)?; 3) would you do the same thing to a server you found out was a white supremacist? (not the best example, but you see where I’m going with this.) This raises a similar question.



    I guess the solution–outside of art, personal lives, tips, and my horrible grammar–is one of true coexistence. Can we be examples of not just tolerance (another word I despise) but real side-by-side coexistence.

    I’m rethinking my little personal “boycott” of that film after reading your post and rambling through my reply.

    Thanks again Eric for asking really fascinating questions. I like the ones that are hard to answer.

  3. professorbeehive

    I just read a really interesting book about the early part of Frank Lloyd Wright’s career. It details his willful, calculated decision to commit adultery and abandon his wife and children in favor of his mistress.

    I love Wright’s buildings. I feel something wonderful and uplifting when I look at them, visit them, etc. But the man himself was monstrously selfish, arrogant, irresponsible, wasteful – you name it.

    So my question was, is there a link between genius and being kind of a jerkface? All the examples you cite dovetail right along with Salingner, Motzart, and plenty of other examples. So does being a genius make you awful? Or is it just that most people are awful, but we only really hear about it with impressive people because we pay closer attention to their lives?

    1. Julie Saunders

      I think awful people are more interesting, so you don’t hear as often about people who were generally good unless they were exceptionally good in some way. No one wants to hear that someone had a nice, ordinary home life. I mean, it’s good for that person, but doesn’t make a good story.

      But if you’ve got a terrible person who creates uplifting things, that creates a kind of dramatic tension that gives their story more traction.

  4. jcduffy

    Unnngggghhhh….. Eric, I plead with you to rethink your enthusiasm for Ender’s Game. If this is a book about “the triumph of a kid who was victim of bullies”–the triumph takes the form of the kid killing the bullies but not having to accept responsibility for having done so… just as he ultimately doesn’t have to accept responsibility for exterminating an entire race. He does accept responsibility because he’s, like, a really nice guy, but the point of the novel is, he doesn’t have to.

    Card’s far-right political views are already on display in that novel. If you’re a good leftie pinko commie–and I hope that you are–you should leave that movie feeling icky, however much you enjoyed the artistry. Icky, not because of what Card’s been writing lately about Obama. Because of what he was doing in Ender’s Game itself.

  5. Jerry

    I’m gay, I’m Mormon, I’m socially liberal, I support gay rights and gay marriage . . . and I love Orson Scott Card. He has been one of my dearest friends for 45 years. Yes, we have gone the rounds on gay issues. We are still friends. He even dedicated one of his books to me. I love “Ender’s Game” and other of his books, such as “Pastwatch, the Redemption of Christopher Columbus.” I hate “Hamlet’s Father” . . . but I understand his mistake: he doesnt’ know how to address academics and he really pissed off them off with this one . . . and I don’t believe that even now he gets it. But last week my production of Orson Scott Card’s modernization of Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” played to full audiences and total aclaim at RIT, where I’m a professor of theatre. I was proud to direct it. Scott offered to leave his name off the work. We left it on, and being there, it sold tickets. We had one person complain. That one person told me he did not support my production of Dustin Lance Black’s marriage equality play, “8” last year. My response was, you didn’t support what you say to believe last year, you don’t have the right to complain this year. Scott is so much more than his crazy rants about gay marriage. He has always been there for me and mine . .. . I refuse to throw out a true friend because we have vastly differing opinions on an issue or two.


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