Wednesday, February 14, 2007

What Makes a Person Great, What Doesn't?

By Drew

Regardless of your politics, I'd encourage you to go over to The Corner at National Review Online and check out a fascinating discussion that arose from a most unexpected source: Mitt Romney's presidential announcement yesterday at the Henry Ford Muesum in Dearborn. From there, we somehow get to the question of anti-Semitism in art. The topics encompass the merits and values of the museum in light of Ford's anti-Semitism (can Ford be both a great American and an anti-Semite?) and wind up with an analysis of the famed novelist Anthony Trollope.

I find this interesting for a couple of reasons: first, from a piece I wrote last year entitled "The Morality of Art, and the Artist," which raised this question (as articulated by Terry Teachout): "is there any act so absolutely heinous that the works of a great artist who commits it should be permanently banned from circulation?" I followed this up with another piece that asked whether or not Leni Riefenstahl's films were disqualified because of their Nazi content. The other reason for my interest stems from a friend relating a conversation he'd had with a co-worker about a family argument that centered on whether, in light of Mel Gibson's drunken tirade last year, you could in good conscience support his movies, or if your patronage would be taken as tacit support of his opinions.

In dealing with the possible question of the anti-Semitism of Trollope (and other writers of the time, such as Dickens), John Podhoretz frames the question in these terms: "Probably most great men of previous ages thought ill of Jews as a group. But their dislike of Jews and Judaism weren't their core concerns, nor did they imagine there was a specific "Jewish problem" in need of a solution." Which suggests that in terms of content, the works don't become inherently disagreeable simply because of the presence of disagreeable moments, as long as the work itself doesn't openly pursue or advocate a disagreeable agenda.

If these men are, to some extent, products of their time and environment, does that excuse the opinions they might have privately held? If Trollope's goal, as Peter Robinson goes on to discuss, was to show life the way it was, does that serve as explanation for perceived anti-Semitic characterizations? Certainly Riefenstahl might agree with that - to depict Hitler's Germany without showing Nazis would have been a challenge, to say the least. As I ask in my original piece, "do we punish the filmmaker because of the subject of her films?" (Or, can one listen in good conscience to the works of Wagner, for example? I've been meaning to write on that for months, and I still will, one of these days. Short answer: yes.) And, as a sidelight, is there any ideology that provokes as much of this type of discussion as anti-Semitism?

Can a Jew comment objectively on such matters? Can a non-Jew possibly understand all the dynamics at work? Can a male writer write convincingly about female characters, and vice versa? Does art cease to be art if it is also propaganda? Does a leader have to have experienced war first-hand in order to send soldiers into it? See how circular, and how relevant, the discussion can become once one explores the philosophy behind it? If nothing else, it serves as a brief for why public morality is so important in the first place. Lacking the ability to read the contents of another's heart, we are left only to judge them by their public behavior. And, as we know all too well, there is no such thing as privacy today.

Instead, I fear, we continue to waste too much time with name-calling and other extra-curricular pursuits. We dimly perceive the great questions out there, but we dance around them for fear of what they might tell us about ourselves. Which shows, if nothing else, that a mind is still a terrible thing to waste.

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