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