This post is a response to a blog post and a vlog post by my friend Matthew, over on his new blog, Pateman’s Ponderings. Those posts were prompted by the various reactions to Kai Cole’s publication of her account of her ex-husband Joss Whedon’s infidelity. I have no interest in contributing to that debate specifically, but as someone with Romantic and even auteurist leanings, I did want to respond briefly to some of the theoretical foundations upon which Matthew rests his response/metaresponse.
One of Matthew’s main points is that we shouldn’t let an artist, through their public pronouncements (and Whedon is a prolific public pronouncer), be the sole arbiter of the meanings of or the things to look for in their artworks. With this I agree. And it’s part of Matthew’s broader point that revelations about the private life of the artist ought to have no bearing on our critical appraisal of the artwork. I think it’s fair to say that Matthew wants to block any straight line connecting our feelings for the artist at one end with our responses to and understanding of the artwork at the other.
The point in the vlog that really gave me pause was hearing Matthew describe his crying upon learning of the death of David Bowie as ‘a ridiculous response in every way’ (‘except the human way’, he adds, I should note, but he doesn’t intend this to detract from the main point). This is an issue I think it is worth pondering a while – it’s a good way in to some larger concerns. In other words, I’m asking if it’s legitimate to try to unblock that line I referred to above, if it’s travelling in the opposite direction, from the artwork back to the artist.
When I was younger, I was an enthusiastic basketball player. My main idol, unsurprisingly given that I was an adolescent of the 1990s, was Michael Jordan. We’ll get to texts soon enough, but when I watched Jordan, I was not (whatever cultural studies might say) responding (primarily at least) to Jordan as a text. I was responding to him as a human being immensely skilled in his chosen area of endeavour. Basketball might offer some pleasures in terms of the abstract patterns of colour, light and sound it offers, but what most of its spectators are responding to is the ability of players and teams to outrun, outsmart and outskill the other team, and get the ball in the hole. As I watched Jordan, I was responding to strength, agility, dexterity, skill, and endurance, among other things. As an aspiring player myself, I was also responding to the prodigious work ethic that had produced the results I enjoyed watching. On the one hand, sport, as has been noted, is one of the few remaining arenas where meritocracy is accepted as the natural state of affairs by everyone; on the other, it is more democratic than most art in opening itself up to evaluation. Rank amateurs like myself, Jordan’s fellow professionals, and professional commentators were all similarly agog while beholding what this athlete was capable of, things which no other player at the time seemed capable of (I can still remember the near-screamed commentary accompanying one particularly sweet move. ‘How can he do that?! How can he do that? How does he know?!’). Whatever else he was, you knew that Jordan was committed to his craft, to the game, and to being the best in his field. It wasn’t a case, while watching him, of thinking, ‘Hmm, I wonder what he’s like when he knocks off for the day’: seeing what he was capable of on court, and knowing what it takes to get that good, tells you all you need to know to reach an ethical evaluation of a limited but significant dimension of the life and being of Michael Jordan the man.
Sport can be very artful, but it is not art. I can take a shortcut here and say this is so because it is not representational. (Nor is all art, but the kind of art I’ll be concerned with shortly is. Dance and music seem to me to be the kinds of performing art that invite the kinds of evaluations of their practitioners that are closest to the way we evaluate sportspeople, along the lines I’ve sketched above.) The crafting of representational art is, however, a craft, and like all crafts, to be done well, it requires dedication, and practice. I’ve been in the company of a professional television writer who described Whedon in terms similar to the sports commentator I quoted above. She expressed admiring disbelief at the sheer facility with which Whedon was able to do the writing equivalent of juggling balls, changing lanes, blending ingredients, etcetera. So, there is a craft dimension to artistic production that is manifest, that doesn’t require the hiring of a private detective to be known, and is, again, its own kind of virtue. Knowing that someone is a good writer is knowing more than nothing about them.
Let’s move back closer to Bowie and Whedon, and why they and countless other artists are important to people who are not responding consciously to their formal brilliance. I love both Bowie and Whedon (I am consciously permitting the slippage from artworks to artists to stand as part of the point I am making) because through their artworks, they tell me things that are true about the world I live in, and they contribute to my very experience of reality by making available dimensions of experience and ways of seeing (this is more true of Bowie than Whedon) that weren’t available before my encounters with them. Did they pre-calculate and verbalise to themselves the precise effect or ‘meaning’ their works would have on me or anyone else before they did the creating? That, it seems to me, is a bit like asking whether Michael Jordan had the tendency or capability to break his playing ability down into a series of descriptions of that activity. Whedon happens to be, for my money, a pretty gifted critic of his own work, but that’s not what makes his work good or effective (or at least, it’s not the whole of it).
The time has come for me to admit it. The works of art I value most highly of all are the ones that demonstrate a keen and acute moral imagination. (The first artist that jumps to mind as I write this is Jane Austen.) Such artworks deploy their form to display this imagination, which registers the finest moral gradations, complexities, and ambiguities, without lapsing into easy relativism or cynicism. As critics, we cannot properly get at such achievements by trading or applying labels. The work of evaluative criticism, I think, should not be seen as testing whether or not a particular label fits an artwork. Or rather, such a test might be a good way of structuring an exploration, but it will be the exploration itself, the evidence one weighs up and works through, rather than the conclusion one reaches, that is more likely than the conclusion itself to illuminate the value being enquired after.
Penetrating narrative fiction can be conceived of as a thought experiment presented to us by another human: ‘Imagine this set of parameters and possibilities. When placed in this constellation, this group of people might behave in this way, mightn’t they?’ The text, by such a view, is not a free-floating thing, or an impermeable barrier separating us from its creator. Rather, it is a form of communication from one human or group of humans to another – a rarefied and elaborate form of communication to be sure, but not an opaque or even necessarily an obscure one, and not necessarily less direct or authentic than other available ways of bridging the gaps between us.
So: evaluative judgments about the type of narrative fiction which engages our whole being, including our moral being. Can they be cleanly separated from evaluative judgments about the person or persons who created them? I think it’s complicated. What do you think?