Peter Robinson at NRO posed the fascinating question a couple of weeks ago: "If a work of art is mistaken in its social analysis, can it still be considered well-wrought, perhaps even beautiful?"
Ah, a question deserving of an essay, or even a book (and I'm sure they've both been written). What is the role of truth in beauty? And what of the credentials of the artist - can those credentials alone discredit the product of that artist? Is it even possible to answer such questions?
Think of Wagner. You either love him or you hate him; Mark Twain once said that his music wasn't as bad as it sounded. Personally, I'm a great fan of Wagner's music. I find it among the most evocative in classical music. But take a work like Parsifal, with it's suspect theology (some might call it posturing, or worse). Does his mythic misunderstanding of the story of redemption discredit the entire work? Last Good Friday I wrote of some of the elements of Parsifal I found particularly appropriate, and there can be no doubt that within these passages Wagner got it right, even if one might suggest that in the long run he got it wrong. I believe the noted opera expert Fr. Owen Lee once said it was alright to enjoy Parsifal for the music, even if you didn't agree with the story.
This, of course, doesn't even begin to touch Wagner's reputation as an anti-Semite. His music has been historically banned in Israel, so one might conclude that for the Israelies the question has been answered: the actions of an artist can discredit his output. But then you look at the conductors who've dared to defy the ban, Mehta and Bairnboim among others, and you see Jewish artists conducting Wagner in Israel. For them, the question has an entirely different answer.
What of Oliver Stone's JFK, a magnificent piece of filmmaking that nonetheless sets out fairly deliberately to mislead the public as to the facts of Kennedy's assassination. Or does it? Stone believes the theory, apparently. Is it wrong for him to use his art to present his analysis of the situation? But then what happens when he purposely distorts the facts, presenting falsehoods and altered situations in order to convince the public of his thesis? Is his art beautiful even when it's a lie?
D.W. Griffith was a pioneer of filmmaking, introducing into that primitive era techniques that revolutionized the movies. Birth of a Nation is singular in that respect, even as it presents images that glorify slavery and the KKK. Can a movie which some consider powerfully racist also be a powerful piece of art? Can you respect Griffith's skill in his craft, even while condemning the product of that skill?
The poet Matthew Arnold wrote Dover Beach, an evocative medidation on the loss of faith, that nonetheless was based on a false premise: that the advances in science and knowledge had destroyed the foundation of belief in God and the Bible. Arnold was wrong in his analysis; what does that do to the sense of his words? Can you still savor them, even knowing that they're taking you down a primrose path you don't want to go?
Robert Mapplethorpe was a man with a true eye for art, a fact to which many of his photographs will attest. And yet he misused that gift badly, in his pictures that glorified the homosexual lifestyle. Is it possible to divorce the two, for the eye to appreciate the sublime lines in a Mapplethorp photograph of an orchid while the mind struggles with those images?
Well, I've probably already gone on long enough with this laundry list, posing questions while at the same time declining to answer them. But I'll offer one more, from this week in fact: it's Jack Shafer's two-part review of George Clooney's latest movie, Good Night and Good Luck (the story of Edward R. Murrow and his supposed takedown of Senator Joseph McCarthy), in which Shafer offers praise for how the movie is crafted, but condemns the faulty history upon which the movie is based. Again, one can't help but feel that Clooney and his writing partner Grant Heslov have set out more or less deliberately to present their version of the facts, which an objective review (what Shafer is giving us) suggests ain't necessarily so. In fact, as Shafer points out, it's fairly apparent that in some cases Clooney and Heslov had to ignore the facts in order to present the story they wished to tell.
Furthermore, Shafer raises the stakes for the purpose of our discussion, when he suggests that a movie that more carefully hewed to the facts might have been a better, more entertaining movie. He ponders the possibilities of an alternative version, from a zany comedy in the mold of The Front Page or Clooney's earlier Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, to a taut drama that focused more accurately on the behind-the-scenes story. And therefore we open up yet another question: when the artist bends the facts to suit his own purposes, and the distortion of those facts weakens the story - or even worse, when he allows his ideological bias to prevent him from making what could have been an even better work of art - what does that do to one's appreciation of the initial work?
This is a difficult quesiton for me to answer. Some people have said that Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ was a magnificent movie, but for me the fact that the whole story was a lie prevents me from acknowledging whatever merits the movie might have. Same thing with Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code. The book's built on falsehoods; what does that do to the reader's ability to appreciate the telling of the story? Some have said that those who are strong in their faith, who won't be taken in by Brown's lies, can enjoy the book as a simple thriller. I probably wouldn't be able to do that, since for me the ideological component of a book or movie has always been a big part of my subsequent reading of the story.
So does Peter Robinson's question have an easy answer? Of course not - otherwise we wouldn't have gotten this far. But it seems to me as if the artist's intentions play a large role in this story. When the artist is trying to present a particular point of view, we are welcome to agree or disagree with that POV even as we might appreciate the art itself. But when the artist uses his art to distort the facts, to knowingly present a false version of the truth, then I think we have room to quibble.
For if we believe that there is truth in beauty, and if art has the potential to be a vehicle of beauty, then we must say that the artist who abuses the gift he's been given by intentionally distorting the truth has in some way distorted the beauty contained within in, inherently making that work of art less beautiful.
Put another way, there is no questioning the beauty of the human body (some bodies more beautiful than others, of course). This shouldn't be a surprise, since God created the human body, and the beauty of those bodies reflects the beauty of God. But pornography is a supreme distortion of that beauty, and the purpose for which it was intented. Yes, there are often beautiful bodies involved in pornography, but something about the way they're used diminishes that beauty, don't you think? And so the beauty of the human form diminises in relation to how that form is used.
And maybe that's as close as we can come to answering Peter Robinson's question. For to be wrong is one thing; to be a liar is something else. The artist who is honestly wrong in his assessment nevertheless has created a work of art, one that can be appreciated on its own merits. On the other hand, the artist who misuses his craft, who cloaks his lies in the form of art, has debased that very form. A pig, no matter how clean, is still a pig. And a lie, no matter how beautiful, is still a lie. God is Truth, and a lie is a distortion of that truth. If there is a relationship between truth and beauty, there can be no other answer.