Leave Quentin Tarantino Alone

There’s some buzz on the internet about Quentin Tarantino’s adamant refusal to indulge a journalist’s follow up questions to him about whether there are any links between violent films and violent behavior.

My take: it is not the artist’s role, qua artist, to play the role of a politician, a policy analyst, a scientist, a social scientist, a philosopher, an ethicist, a cleric, a journalist, a blogger, a public intellectual, an art critic, a pundit, or any other kind of literalistic commentator on the nature of the true, the good, or the beautiful. If you want to know what an artist thinks, it’s in the art–even when the artist doesn’t know what he thinks himself and even when he doesn’t know it’s in his art, what he thinks is in his art. And you have to do the work of thinking about it if you want it conceptualized.

Artists are not the people who should be demanded to give theoretical explanations of the meaning of their work or theoretical disquisitions about any other topics. Their genius is typically not in scientific or philosophical precision. They’re often as banal as any ordinary person when asked to communicate outside the media that they master. And even if they are interesting thoughtful people or, even, experts in some other field as well, they almost never can say what they say through their art better in discursive statements. If they could, they used the wrong medium and should have just done some non-fiction writing in that case instead. They communicate through their art because that’s their best mode of expression of what they think and feel and understand about the world. Quite often they do the world and their art a far better favor by not commenting on the meaning of their work or its meta interactions with the world around them. Too many people’s thinking and imagination closes down when they learn of an artist’s imperious pronouncement about what their work means or does not mean. Stanley Kubrick once put the point this way:

How could we possibly appreciate the Mona Lisa if Leonardo had written at the bottom of the canvas: ‘The lady is smiling because she is hiding a secret from her lover.’ This would shackle the viewer to reality, and I don’t want this to happen to 2001.

In my view, artists should go so far as to decline any commentary on their work. If it needs their commentary for them to be understood minimally enough, it’s already failed. It’s like with jokes–if you have to explain it, there’s no point.

And more specifically to the case of Tarantino being asked to play psychologist here–it’s not his responsibility to defend a thesis about the ethics or psychology of violence in films. I think he has moral responsibilities as an artist. But he does not have the responsibility to be the advocate for his own views on psychology and ethics. Qualified experts who agree with him should be asked if you want a theoretical justification for what Tarantino implicitly accepts as true. He’s not the most qualified advocate for the viewpoint. He’s a filmmaker. He’s the wrong person to ask. Whether or not his opinions are right or wrong, journalists shouldn’t be asking him his views on the subject. (In fact neither should they be asking the uninformed and simply guessing pundits they often ask.) Tarantino should be judged on his merits as a filmmaker and not confused for an especially relevant voice on psychology, ethics, or, quite possibly, even the meaning or relevance of his own films.

For related thoughts on art and meaning, see my post Disambiguating Faith: Faith In The Sub-, Pre-, Or Un-conscious wherein I rejected the idea that faith beliefs were justifiable on the grounds that they conveyed truths the way art does. Along the way, I made a similar point to the ones above about how artists express themselves:

So, I think that ideas are present and idea processing is present on a prelinguistic level. I think of artists as conveying their ideas in different symbolic languages. I think that when Bob Dylan wants to communicate an idea it comes out in a series of symbols. To ask what they “really” mean in discrete, discursive technical terms is to completely misunderstand him. His symbols and metaphors directly translate that prelinguistic idea for him. It is not like the prelinguistic idea gets translated into normal English sentences and then he seeks symbols and metaphors to fancy up those ordinary ideas. Instead those prelinguistic ideas that would come out in banal ordinary sentences in us form complex symbolic patterns when they come out of him when he is writing. When creating (and maybe even more often) the prelinguistic ideas form in the ways they come out in the art. The same goes for other artists. It is possible that they sketch out plans in normal, non symbolic terms but I imagine it’s rare. Very few artists I imagine work out careful philosophical distinctions and then try to figure out what they’d look like in paint or sound like from a guitar or be evoked through symbols and metaphors.

Read more.

And since I brought up Dylan, here’s one of my favorite songs that I hope Bob never “explains”:

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • JB

    If they are communication ideas through their art, then they should not cry when the violence they glorify erupts into the society.

    Tarantino is just blowing smoke and hiding from the question.

    • RobMcCune

      That’s a non-sequitur if I ever heard one.

  • Richard Norris

    Hey, does anyone else remember the samurai sword rampage that happened after the release of Kill Bill? Yeah, me neither.

  • Felix

    “I think he has moral responsibilities as an artist. But he does not have the responsibility to be the advocate for his own views on psychology and ethics.”

    If he chooses to be interviewed (especially by a serious news program) then he should answer the questions.

    • Kodie

      No, he doesn’t have to. Do you feel like you always have to answer all the questions you don’t think you have to answer just because someone asks them? Because he’s on a television program? The reporter has viewers who watch HIM and asks the questions that make him look like a serious interviewer taken seriously. His guest isn’t then required to follow his lead and talk about things they didn’t come there to talk about. His guest isn’t required to make the reporter look good by dancing to the tune the reporter decides to sing. He’s not on trial, he’s not under oath, he still has agency and autonomy to decide whether the questions are good or not or whether he wants to answer those questions or not. I think what the problem here is that “civil discussion” approach where people feel compelled to answer whatever questions are asked about them for fear of coming across as not polite – and no, Tarantino was not polite. That seems upsetting to some people who just want to see Tarantino (a) answer the question because they’re curious what he thinks about it, and (b) play nice like we’re all taught to do. How come he can refuse to answer direct questions and I can’t? The reporter is not an authority to him (or anyone), he says it in the first 30 seconds.

  • jason

    I don’t know, sounds like a legitimate question to me. Anyone who doesn’t think about how their work impacts others is living a pretty shallow life.

  • serhilde

    i think he came across as a monumental jack*ss, and it’s extremely insulting to watch him attack someone who gets to ask questions on behalf of us average joes. i won’t be watching the new film, and i will be getting rid of the stuff of his that i own. i won’t enjoy it any more, knowing that the person behind it behaves so poorly to someone who meant him no ill will. don’t want to answer the questions? don’t go on the d*mned show. your stuff is already pretty well advertised. i wish i knew the ansi code for the middle finger.

    i agree with you that artists shouldn’t be demanded to give theoretical explanations. he wasn’t demanded. he was asked. what other questions should he have asked? “what’s your favourite colour?” whatever.
    and yes, artists can decline commentary. this is one way of doing it: not appearing on programs that are going to ask for commentary. he chose to be on that program.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      i agree with you that artists shouldn’t be demanded to give theoretical explanations. he wasn’t demanded. he was asked.

      No, he was asked. He gave a polite brief answer. And then the reporter followed up. And he refused. And then the reporter didn’t let it go. Over and over he tried to force Tarantino to talk about it for 4 minutes. That’s demanding.

    • Kodie

      There are other questions between “what is your favorite color?” and “do you think there’s a connection between movie violence and real violence?”

      Why do people take the reporter’s side is beyond me. He’s putting on his own show, the Quentin Tarantino appeared on – to talk about his movie. Not to talk about societal implications or his personal opinions. I keep hearing arguments about “famous people” and they shouldn’t have an opinion anyway. That’s not entirely true – he’s entitled to his opinion. But you get this area where interviewers want to ask artists serious questions the artist has no business answering and especially if he doesn’t want to. That’s not the reporter being good at his job, it’s him trying to be taken seriously for asking “good” questions nobody respects the answers to anyway, and a guest finding that too intrusive. The guest doesn’t have to dance to that song. I think he handled it rather well – he was put on the spot and refused to stand there and try to make words come out of his mouth like an obedient person, subordinate somehow to another man who just happens to be “the one asking questions”. Even criminals have the right to remain silent. What authority does asking questions on a tv show give the reporter that Tarantino was obligated to answer “on behalf of regular joes”. Does that give you the authority to get answers from anyone, because you watch tv? The reporter is trying to make himself look better, and Tarantino is under no obligation to aid the reporter in achieving that goal. He’s there to sell his movie, not discuss societal violence.

      I also would not charge him with never thinking about it. He just doesn’t have to reveal his thoughts and be an open book on demand.