Caravaggio was a murderer and Ezra Pound was a fascist

They also happened to create great art. When weighing art as art, I think the moral life and political views of the artist are entirely irrelevant as a general rule. You judge the work, not the one making the work. That’s why I empathized recently with John C. Wright on the tedious politicization of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

Some people wrote me in a certain amount of dudgeon to complain that Theodore Beale’s neo-reactionary Dark Enlightenment racialism is vile and to denounce the views of various other blackballed figures. I’m not really familiar with the other people mentioned by John (except for Card, who has done some very good work), but I in fact agree that Beale’s DE racialism is vile. He indulges in and promotes the bullshit purveyed by the Dark Enlightenment crowd and, in fact, had a gleeful time when one of the DE types told me a cock and bull story a few months back which I stupidly believed. Such racist crapola represents the id of increasingly post-Christian “conservatism”. I detest it with every fiber of my being. If it comes to that, I loathe and detest a great deal of Heinlein’s philosophy as well.

And I think it entirely irrelevant to the question of whether Beale’s (or Heinlein’s) stories are any good or not. If the stories are good art, then they are good art. If they are crap as stories, then they are crap. But Beale’s filthy DE racialist views have nothing to do with it one way or the other (unless, of course, his stories are not art and are simply propaganda for DE bullshit).

Back in the day, when liberalism was healthier and did not politicize absolutely everything, it was possible for liberals to say, “I oppose every word you say, and I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Being something of a dinosaur, I think this should still be the case. Let Beale’s work be judged as art. If it’s crap, it’s crap. If it’s good, it’s good. But booting people out of a guild of storytellers for views that have no connection to their art as art just contributes to the further fragmentation of our culture. Have these people never considered the possibility that their own stories may talk a Beale out of the post-modern, heretical racialism of the Dark Enlightenment?

One of the marks of Protestant (and post-Protestant) culture (and such culture has widely infected the American Catholic Church, leading to endless calls for purges and pogroms against those deemed “not really Catholic” by the Greatest Catholics of All Time, who include even the pope in their bulls of excommunication) is that it tends to assume that it is more important to avoid being tainted and ritually impure than it is to roll up one’s sleeves and wrestle with sin. In this, it shares much in common with the Pharisees, who likewise could only respond to sin by gathering their skirts about them and avoiding contact with what was defiling. Their very name means “Separated Ones”.

Jesus, after promulgating the New Law of the Kingdom in Matthew 5-7, then comes down from the mountain and (as Matthew carefully catalogues) has a series of encounters with various people, every one of whom was ritually defiling under the Old Law. Lepers, Gentile Centurions, Matthew himself (a tax collector and therefore the lowest of the low in Jewish eyes), a woman who is hemorrhaging, a corpse. And in each case, it is they who receive life from Jesus while he is undefiled.

No small part of the post-modern curse of tribalism is that it is recapitulating the doom of the Pharisees by perpetually cutting off more and more of humanity as defiling because, having lost faith in Christ, it has lost faith in his power to overcome sin and evil. Are some of Beale’s views revolting and repellent? Sure. And I have not been shy about saying so. But that is not a reason to write him off. The answer of the Faith is not to ostracize, but to overcome the sin with grace and truth.

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  • HornOrSilk

    I think it is a different question of whether or not he can write good stories, and whether or not a society wants him a member. Two different questions.

    • wlinden

      So, whether a “professional” organization should impose a political test for membership is not in question?

      • HornOrSilk

        Professional organizations often have morality clauses. This is not just a “political” test, unless you think morality is merely political. And this is also why, for example, a Catholic club at a university has a right to say no to an atheist member joining and becoming president.

        • HornOrSilk

          I would also say, another thing is reducing it to “politics” also ignores what politics we are dealing with. It’s like the KKK are just political, and do nothing. The reason why he was kicked out was politics, his own dirty politics and abuse of another member who he was running against; I can see many organizations kicking someone out for that reason. Notice, he was a member for a long time, despite his radical unhealthy political views, so it was not his views which got him kicked out, but he is using it as a scapegoat for his actions (imo).

          • wlinden

            And Communists are “just politics”? Because that would be BLACKLISTING.

            The atheist in a Catholic organization is not a parallel at all. SFWA is not (overtly) a “liberal” democrat organization.

            • HornOrSilk

              If it were a capitalistic group supporting capitalism, I can see them kicking out a communist.

            • HornOrSilk

              As pointed out, it is not just his ideas, but how he treated fellow members. His actions would have had him kicked out of any club. It’s just the kind of scapegoating for his actions, “They are doing this because of my beliefs,” when no, it was because of his actions. That is the problem. It’s as if I went out in the world, proclaimed there should be no death penalty, and then firebombed the house of an abortionist and said “they are jailing me just for my politics.”Tis an excuse

  • jroberts548

    You can and should separate the art from the artist, but you can’t separate the artist from the man. To whatever extent an award or organization membership honors the man rather than just the work, or to whatever extent honoring the work rewards the man, refusing to do so on grounds like this makes sense.

  • capaxdei

    So it’s okay to give Roman Polanski an Oscar, if his was the best direction of the year?

    • HornOrSilk

      I avoid all Polanski films, because of the man, even if they look like they could be good. But right, there is a time and place to talk about art and the quality of the art, but when going beyond that, and talking about awards, recognitions, respectability and the like (in associations), the associations I think have every right to self-police (and probably should do it more). You don’t need to be a member to write or get published, and it says nothing about the quality of your work, but I fully understand why they would want nothing to do with him (I wish Hollywood made the same decision with Polanski and many others!)

      • Benjamin2.0

        This disparity requires a distinction be drawn! I’d say that indirectly providing for the health and wellbeing of a fugitive from the law (even a “law” which turns a blind eye to the fugitive when convenient) is a remote cooperation with evil.

        Or perhaps someone else could do better.

        As further evidence, though, I cite the tribalist mindset of American politics. Because each side (one far more so than the other in this case (let the reader understand)) considers the other criminal, it behaves as such. A cadre of Democrats behave toward an allegedly conservativish writer as a decent moral human being behaves toward Roman Polanski.

        • HornOrSilk

          It might be remote material cooperation. I’ve not judged others who went to see the movies, however, I would also say, if we can avoid remote material cooperation, it is better to do so.

    • Mark S. (not for Shea)

      Polanski is a brilliant director. His films are worthy of their awards.
      That said, Polanski is a despicable human being who should have been jailed for his crimes. But he’s also a coward and decided to run away instead.

    • Evan

      THE PIANIST is an incredible work of art, and it was the best directed film of that year (it should have gotten best picture too). Since I think award ceremonies should solely look at the nominated work, and ignore the creator’s personal life, yes it was perfectly okay to give Polanski that Oscar.

    • chezami

      Interesting question. I first think that Polanski should be jailed for, say, 20 years (as should Woody Allen). Then I’d let the academy make up it mind and take the political fallout it would richly deserve if they went ahead and honored them. As for me, it’s a moot question since I’m not keen on their films. I think there *is* something that needs to be weighed when the artist moves beyond evil thought to evil action. But as the case of Caravaggio demonstrates, that’s not always going to be the final and permanent disqualifier in judging their work. I also think (and suspect it is true with Beale’s work) that the phenomenon of “vile thinking completely decoupled from artistic genius” is greatly overrated. Allen’s personal vileness bleeds through into his work all the time, which is why I don’t like his movies very much. My guess is that Beale’s personal vileness also bleeds through into his work–and that his work will be found to be no all that good. There are a lot more Ayn Rands and L. Ron Hubbards out there than Caravaggios. But “judge the work as a work, not the person creating the work”, still seems to me to be a good rule of thumb in most cases.

      • I’ll second the opinion that, as perpetrators of grave crimes, Polanski and Allen (and of course, their victims) are being denied justice every minute those two spend outside a jail cell. The current situation isn’t doing anyone any good.
        I also wrestle with the question of whether–or rather how much–an artist can separate personal ideology from art. While I believe that, to some extent, the art always reveals something about the artist, I try to keep in mind that sins aren’t definitive, but are defects in our nature and actions.
        Though fallen, all human beings bear God’s image and likeness, and our capacity for artistic sub-creation is one of the ways in which we most resemble God. So I hold out hope that even the most debauched artist’s work can convey a glimmer of beauty and truth as well as the stain of evil.

    • I think Brandon Sanderson exercised keen discernment recently on his podcast when he drew a line between evaluating art on its merits and supporting its creator financially.
      I won’t pay to see a Polanski film. In the unlikely event that I’m ever on an awards jury where I’m asked to evaluate one, I’ll judge it on its merits.

  • Dave P.

    I thought Caravaggio was guilty of manslaughter, given the circumstances of the incident.

    • D.T. McCameron

      In the end, it seems like he was chased out of most places for being a raucous, violent, and unpleasant person; the death of the young man featuring more as a footnote in his troubled history.

  • Jem

    “I oppose every word you say, and I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

    Mark, at no point did ‘liberals’ offer the proposition ‘I like your paintings, so keep murdering people’.

    I think there’s also a distinction between the long dead and those who are either living or who have living victims. And I also think now is probably not the best time for prominent Catholics to push the idea ‘forget about all the abuses and crime that happened behind closed doors, just enjoy what they’re saying in public’.

    Does this apply to all public figures? Are we to judge legislators only on the legislation they pass, not what they do in their private lives?

    But, OK, if this is the new rule, John C Wright recently complained about Miley Cyrus not being ladylike on his blog. I assume from now on he’s just going to note that she’s got a nice voice and make no further comment about how she conducts herself as a person?

    • Benjamin2.0

      Mark, at no point did ‘liberals’ offer the proposition ‘I like your paintings, so keep murdering people’.

      Neither did Mark say so. He seems to advocate ‘judge artists by their art and murderers by their murders.’

      And I also think now is probably not the best time for prominent Catholics to push the idea ‘forget about all the abuses and crime that happened behind closed doors, just enjoy what they’re saying in public’.

      I’m pretty sure he didn’t say that either. He was quite vocal about his feelings toward whats-is-face’s views as views.

      I assume from now on he’s just going to note that she’s got a nice voice and make no further comment about how she conducts herself as a person?
      The thesis here is: Judge a person’s art by the quality of that art. I’d pose the corollary: Judge a person’s views by the quality of those views. What little I’ve heard of Cyrus’ “art” and her antics lead me to believe there is little distinction in this case, though. There are probably better examples.

      • Benjamin2.0

        Bah! Foiled again! Curse you, blockquote!

    • Steve P

      It is sometimes hard to draw that distinction. Is it okay to like a Woody Allen movie? (I can hardly even think of one off the top of my head – just know there was lots of recent brouhaha again.)
      I don’t have a good answer, but it seems a good idea to at least try to make the distinction. You might even say, “I found some of Fr. Corapi’s talks to be inspiring, and his presentation of the Catholic faith led me to be a better person. But I find what he did in his personal life rather despicable. I pray he repents, and does a better job of practicing what he preaches.”
      I believe this approach better upholds the Catholic understanding of human dignity, rather than the lazy smearing or support of someone just because they are on the wrong or right team.

    • chezami

      It’s sad that your driving will to land a punch forces you to make such a stupid and irrational argument so packed with fallacies, calumny, and well poisoning. But it’s what you do, Jem.

  • wlinden

    Well, is his THE IRRATIONAL ATHEIST any good, whether or not it is “art”? Because I loved every page, and did not notice any trace of “racialism” or “Dark Enlightenment”.

  • Maolsheachlann

    I disagree with you all.

    Ezra Pound did not create great art. Have you ever read any of his poems?

    • Mark S. (not for Shea)

      I never cared for Pound either, although I admit that some of my dislike is influenced by a college English Professor who LOVED Ezra Pound. The professor was an idiot and a pervert, so any time I’ve tried to give Pound a third or fourth chance, the ickiness of association spoils it.

    • I read Pound back in college. I remember very little except for a general impression that I liked him, but that could be because of his association with my beloved Eliot.

  • Jenny Cook

    “If the stories are good art, then they are good art. If they are crap as stories, then they are crap.”
    And this sums up my disappointment with a lot of the “art” made by Christians for Christians. I’m told by contemporary Christian media companies that because this product is made for Christians, it will be enjoyed by all Christians by virtue of its Christianness (read, its inoffensiveness and lack of any element that could be seen as sinful).
    And then I feel a little bit guilty for thinking it’s not very good. I mean, I’m a Christian, so what does it say about me that I don’t think this Christian product is very good?? I’m thinking chiefly here of the movies like “Fireproof” and “Courageous” or a wide swatch of CCM.

    • Mark S. (not for Shea)

      I haven’t seen either movie, but I agree with you wholeheartedly that 99.99999% of CCM is horrible dreck.

    • Eve Fisher

      I totally agree – most of what is passed off as “Christian art” today in movies and books strikes me as saccharine, obvious, lame, mild, and inoffensive to the point of boredom. I’ve tried some of the novels, and most of them are afraid to actually have a Christian actually experiencing temptation, and fighting sin within themselves. But of course this is like a sermon I heard once in which the pastor, to explain addiction, talked about chocolate – in a room full of struggling, recovering alcoholics and drug addicts. Believe me, they shut down their ears really early in the sermon, because it was fluff.

      That’s why personally I like Tyler Perry’s stuff – because while it is full of cliches, etc., there are real drug addicts and wife beaters, people who are wrapped up in pride, greed, anger, lust, etc. – and most of them struggling to find salvation. Some do; some don’t. It’s a lot more real that most.

      I know that there is a pervasive idea in the “Christian community” that if you’re doing it right, you don’t get tempted, you don’t fall into sin, and that makes them afraid to actually deal with sin in the arts. Give me “The Brothers Karamazov”, or Anthony Trollope, or Charlotte Yonge, or Bud McFarlane, or Charles Williams, or C. S. Lewis, all of whom could and did write about good characters who were wrestling with sin and temptation, and won. That’s the stories we need.

    • orual’s kindred

      because this product is made for Christians, it will be enjoyed by all Christians by virtue of its Christianness (read, its inoffensiveness and lack of any element that could be seen as sinful)

      I’d think that there are a few problems just with that statement right there.

      I mean, I’m a Christian, so what does it say about me that I don’t think this Christian product is very good??

      You have different tastes with regards to ‘Christian products’? 🙂

      • Jenny Cook

        Yes, I do have different tastes 😉 And yes, I agree that there are inherent problems with the idea that Christianity is inoffensive. It’s highly offensive to tell a person that they were born into sin and only Jesus Christ can save them and make them new and whole. So offensive that tens of thousands have died and still do die for proclaiming it.

        • orual’s kindred

          Indeed. However, I also think the phrase ‘Christian products’ is problematic as well. Unless I’m mistaken, Christians don’t refer to Bibles, prayer books, and similar items as ‘Christian products.’ How come certain films and music now have to be qualified as ‘Christian,’ and patronizing them is some kind of standard by which Christians feel pressured to meet? It seems (at least to me) another way in which real evangelization is cramped, if not actually defeated.

          • Jenny Cook

            I have heard at least one radio commercial (on that same station I mentioned) for a Christian book store chain which used a phrase like “We have a wide selection of Bibles, music, and other great Christian products to enrich your faith life.”

            Now, I’m sure that any Christian who gave it much though would draw a sharp distinction between the Word of God and a t-shirt saying, “Got Jesus?” But I have heard it all lumped together like that. Probably just bad copywriting which, as you say, does more harm than good.

            • orual’s kindred

              “We have a wide selection of Bibles, music, and other great Christian products to enrich your faith life.”


  • kirthigdon

    I tend to give artists a break because they often improve the lives of the general public and because their genius will sometimes lead them to more extreme misdeeds – sort of the dark side of the coin. I’m a big fan of the art of Mel Gibson while not endorsing his religious opinions or some aspects of his personal life. (There’s a lot of my own personal life I don’t endorse which is why I go to confession.) I’m not a huge fan of Polanski, although I did see one post-exile movie of his which I thought was rather good. It does strike me as unusually vindictive to hound him over sex with an underage girl which took place decades ago. In the same way, I thought the persecution of Gloria Trevi, imprisoning her for four years and eight months before dismissing all charges against her, was very evil. I think some people are out to get artists and celebrities and enjoy bringing them down.

    Kirt Higdon

    • HornOrSilk

      Since he has not done his penance for his sin, it is not “hounding him,” but wanting justice for rape.

    • jroberts548

      There’s “sex with an underage girl” and there’s drugging and raping a 13 year old. Polanski did the latter. When we talk about Polanski, we’re not talking about fornicating with a 17 year old, which might be legal in one state and criminal in the next. We’re talking about rape.

    • Mariana Baca

      Why does it have to be either/or? We can appreciate art from a criminal and still call someone a rapist if they are a rapist and even want him to answer for his crime.

      Similarly, people can judge scifi writers for their opinions separately than judging their written work.

  • Eve Fisher

    Some of the discussion here reminds me of a pastor I once knew who said that the church needed to be able to discipline sinners by booting them out until they repent. I pointed out to him that the only ones who would be booted out would be the gluttonous and lustful – addicts, whores, the usual suspects. The ones Jesus hung out with. Because the truth is, most sin is not obvious, not on the surface. Pride and envy are all very private, hidden sins, and usually the sins of the most respectable (i.e., prosperous) members of the community. Adultery rarely comes out to public view. So, if we start running litmus tests, you will get rid of the notorious sinners: but everyone already knows the notorious sinners, knows too much about them. It’s the hidden sins that rot everything away, committed daily in people’s hearts, by very nice people with grey hair and carrying knitting, in business suits and with nice cars, families who look so clean and sweet on Sunday mornings, but whose homes are full of fear and power and terrible abuse. But nobody says anything, nobody does anything, because they’re such nice people, and they would never do anything like that.

    • HornOrSilk

      The problem is, people are not judging the quality of the literature or art, based upon the person. They are, however, saying different societies can judge the actions of the person reprehensible and not fit to be a member. It’s the same if we jailed an artist for drunk driving and the artist claimed they went after him for his political views thinking we should be free to drink and drive.

      • Eve Fisher

        I would agree that the DUI artist needs some time to sober up and think. But re being reprehensible and not fit to be members of any society, as G. K. Chesterton replied to the London Times Essay contest, “What’s Wrong With the World?” “I am.”

        • HornOrSilk

          When talking about “society,” I am talking about a specific organization, the one which kicked Vox Day out for his actions. That’s the point I’m making: his actions against fellow members is what kicked him out, not his views (he held them while a member for years). They are judging for his actions, not his beliefs, and not making any claim to his artistic skill. I’m trying to show how the two questions “Can he be kicked out of this guild” and “is his work good art?” are two different questions, and a good artist could be kicked out of a guild for reasons other than art (but behavior).

          • Eve Fisher

            I agree with you 100% on that.

  • Mark R

    Yes. This is evident when studying the history of a literature. Great Polish poets and playwrights lives spanned the pre-war and post-war Communist years. They wrote both beautiful and experimental works before the war. During and after the war they mostly sided with the Left, and wrote lots of Leftish stuff. Czeslaw Milosz once wrote that propagandistic literature has no staying power from serving a temporary ideological purpose. Some were prophetic in seeing that what woukd follow Nazism would be just as bad or worse and killed themselves. Other writers advanced in diplomatic circles, some went in exile, but continued writing. If it had not been for an eventual relaxation in ideological demands in the late ’50s, they would not have neen producing once again some works that woukd still be readable today.

  • Alan Grimsley

    Pound was not a Fascist. He was an opportunist.

  • Mark R

    No. Pound thought that Americans needed culture. Where is there a cultural embarrasment of riches? Italy.

  • Alan Grimsley

    No, Pound thought government should fully subsidize arts and he saw that potential in Mussolini. He said whatever was expected to curry favor with Mussolini, and Pound also liked to hear himself talk. He was uninterested in politics except as means to get what he wanted.

  • PalaceGuard

    Actually, that was a paraphrase from Pound’s “A Pact”. And not too bad, considering I hadn’t read it in 45 years! Given Ginsberg’s consumption of various illegal substances, I’m not surprised he saw Whitman (who died in 1892) in a Cali supermarket. (Yes, I know it’s a poem!)

  • Gabriel Blanchard

    It isn’t often that one gets to read an appeal to artistic integrity on the basis of genuine, classically liberal principles. Thank you. (I don’t know if you read, but there’s an author there, Wayne Gladstone, who has something of the same style of thought — you might like him.)

  • Imrahil

    The problem seems to me that writers tend to write their standpoints into their works. (We might even say this is specially true about Science Fiction.) Hence, art is art, whether it comes from a murderer or, for that matter, from a sexual abuser. There is no simple distinction between art and propaganda; indeed the greater it is as art, the greater is its value for propaganda. Reportedly one of the best movies was a down-and-out Communist propaganda piece (i. e., Battleship Potemkin). And noone doubts that the movie Jew Süß is, purely considered as a work of art, excellent. Which is precisely why it is forbidden to see it.

    That said, if their view have no connection to their art, it’s a different thing.

  • Imrahil

    In fact, there’s not even much to say against good (artistically that is) characters who were wrestling with sin and temptation and lost, and can be pitied.

    I’m sorry to say it but I don’t think the American-Protestant-style community (Catholics joining in as far as it is orthodox) would qualify as the Christian community.

    Us Catholics have a Graham Greene, a Chesterton, a Tolkien, an Alfred Döblin, a Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen (yes the Simplicissimus is downright edificational literature, only people generally have missed that point), culturally-speaking an Ödon von Horvath, and so on to offer.
    I don’t know much about the American-Protestant-style community’s artworks, but I have read “The Shack” and I cannot imagine a Catholic to write even the orthodox parts of it – throwing in an “of course he was a decent Christian and prayed a lot but” or “she had really a relationship with God” and what not. No literal quotes.

    • Eve Fisher

      I know. Most of the American-Protestant-style is, bluntly, crap. The best is the English Anglican school: Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, Charlotte Yonge, et al. I especially love Charles William, who does not hesitate to make humans capable of all evil and still capable of redemption and repentance. Or not.