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June 15, 2011 4:55 AM   Subscribe

Do Artists Have a Moral Responsibility in War? is a thoughtful, question raising 40 min video and podcast by NYT journalist Alan Riding.
Should Artists Speak Out Against War? Goes at some depth into the nuances of this complex question by describing the Cultural Life In Nazi-Occupied Paris
posted by adamvasco (32 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
I tend to think that everyone is morally responsible all of the time.
posted by oddman at 5:16 AM on June 15, 2011 [7 favorites]


I was just reading something about Dorothy Sayers the other day (I thought it was wikipedia but I can't find it now) that said she stopped writing...no wait, here it is:
Sayers wrote no more Wimsey murder mysteries (and only one story involving him) after the outbreak of the Second World War. In one of the Wimsey Papers (a series of fictionalised commentaries in the form of mock letters between members of the Wimsey family), there is a reference to Harriet's difficulty in continuing to write murder mysteries at a time when European dictators were openly committing mass murders with impunity; this seems to have reflected Sayers' own wartime feeling.
That said, shouldn't humans have a moral responsibility in war?
posted by DU at 5:18 AM on June 15, 2011


In "Civil Disobedience" Thoreau tells how he refused to pay a Poll Tax, because he did not wish to support the Mexican-American War. Thoreau says, "Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for, in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure." He is arrested and thrown in Jail. He could easily afford to pay the tax, but he felt it takes at least one person to stand up for what they believed. The poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson comes to visit him while he is in jail. And asks Thoreau what he is doing in jail. Why not just pay the tax? Emerson asks. Thoreau replies, are you against the war? Emerson replies, yes. Thoreau says, then the question is what are you doing out there?
posted by any major dude at 5:23 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Artists should actually keep their mouths shut. They've made themselves so unpopular over the past 75 years, that anything they say without irony is automatically not taken seriously. But everyone else, dishwashers, administrators, postal workers, human resources specialists, CEOs, programmers, fishermen, salespeople at Saks, sign painters, dog walkers, baristas, garage managers, warehousemen, cosmetologists, graduate assistants, lens grinders, copier repair people, nurses, squeegee men, landscapers, Apple Store greeters, pilots, ticket sellers, and others, should speak out against war constantly ... always ... and not let anyone get away with speaking of war as an accepted or acceptable thing.
posted by Faze at 5:24 AM on June 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


What if the individual artist supports the war?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 5:27 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


What if the individual artist supports the war?

Indeed, sometimes war is the lesser of evils.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:30 AM on June 15, 2011


"In war" is pre-9/11 thinking.
posted by Trurl at 5:38 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


The question assumes that artists have some unique role in society by virtue of being artists. That artists are somehow different than "normal" people.

On a purely descriptive level, this makes a certain amount of sense. Artists are weird. But on a moral level, this is a very strange assumption, and one, I would suggest, that only an artist would make. Why "doing art" should confer any special kind of moral duty whatsoever is beyond me.
posted by valkyryn at 5:49 AM on June 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


I'm sure that if a group of passionately engaged artists had signed a strongly worded letter to Herr Hitler in 1939, and perhaps followed it up with some really cutting edge art installations just to show they meant business, then he'd have seen the error of his ways and all that later unpleasantness could have been avoided. After all he was an artist himself, wasn't he?
posted by joannemullen at 6:04 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Do Artists Have a Moral Responsibility in War?

Flipping this around a bit, artist Nicholas Roerich advanced the idea that even during wartime, governments had a moral responsibility to protect art.
posted by hermitosis at 6:23 AM on June 15, 2011


War has inspired much great art, it should be noted.
posted by Trurl at 6:29 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


So many of these stories about art speaking truth to power involve futile gestures, certifiably unsuccessful gestures, preaching to the choir, or more-generic-than-the-artist-realizes anti-war platitudes. These stories also assume that the general public cares deeply (if at all) about what artists have to say on political topics.

Either way, didactic art typically tends to be less like Guernica and more like papier mache puppets at a march. Also, despite what Rider says, there's lots of it.

A lot of this talk of the moral duty of artists has more to do with artists trying to assert their own importance in a world where those in power don't typically listen to or care what they have to say. I'm reminded of Aki Kaurismäki's numerous refusals to accept American award nominations or to show up at American film festivals. I respect his principles, and obviously he should do what he wants with his life, but his protests seem much more for himself than anything else.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:32 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Faze: " should speak out against war constantly ... always ... and not let anyone get away with speaking of war as an accepted or acceptable thing"

I had an interview back in 2006 with a business owner who was wearing a Minutemen cap and whose company truck had a few right-wing stickers on it. Somehow the wars (they were still mostly popular at the time) came up, and I was surprised to hear myself saying out loud, in a job interview, that both wars were bullshit from the start and continued to be bullshit.

I got the job (still here) and was told that my candor (even if he didn't agree, then) won the day.
posted by notsnot at 6:37 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Why "doing art" should confer any special kind of moral duty whatsoever is beyond me.

Well, they have a more platform as well as a medium that is denied to the great unwashed masses. That said, pressure brought to bear can make social commentators out of the most unlikely people. Think of Otto and Elise Hampel, the inspiration of Hans Fallada's fact based novel, who left anonymous denunciations of the Nazi regime during the war. Of course, they did not ahve the burning need of seeing their name in print which it was suggested the writers lives for. (Silly writers then. I mean to say, the builders of cathedrals and much else besides did not feel the need to have their names on their work.)

I will take small issue with his comment that the US and the UK have no experience of occupation. Parts of the current US were essentially "occupied" by the British during the revolution and the distinction between patriots and traitors was as stark as anywhere else. Post Civil War south was referred to as military districts and was indeed occupied. Colored sensibilities there for years to follow. The Channel Islands were occupied during WW2, and you could argue England itself after 1066. It requires historical imagination, granted, but if one has any emotional connection to one's own history, the difficulties of how does one live under unwelcome rule are definitely there.

not let anyone get away with speaking of war as an accepted or acceptable thing"

As long as it is sometimes a necessary thing, it will de facto have to be acceptable.

Though it is rarely strictly necessary.
posted by IndigoJones at 7:03 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Which artist and which war? Isn't the REAL question here "Do artists have a moral obligation to agree with my political views?"
posted by happyroach at 7:18 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I really suggest listening to the video / podcast before kicking off a discussion about something different
Oddman as you started the derail maybe you could define and expand your view of moral responsibility. What if you are a dancer or a musician? Do you work to feed yourself and family or do you starve? What do you do to survive under occupation. Please note the word "nuance" in the post. Many artists were shot as collaborators, many industrialists and financiers were not.
posted by adamvasco at 7:19 AM on June 15, 2011


During the martial law in Poland or "Polish-Jaruzelian war" as it was flippantly called many artists boycotted all forms of officially sanctioned artistic activity, performing only underground, sometimes literally, in churches and basements. They are remembered for their unwavering defiance.
Others refrained from taking part in any celebrations or performances that were organized by the regime or from showing in the TV or other media controlled by the government, but continued to play in theaters and sometimes at festivals, often risking their career to say a few words of truth. They are remembered for their courage and for their creations.
Others sided with the regime - out from fear, for comfort or profit or following their conscience. Their attitude is remembered too, but they are not ostracized as one might think, with an exception of a very small group of the most servile and corrupted.
While they influenced the people at the time, as I can attest even though I was just 12 then, their creations and attitudes are seldom remembered today. So what I want to say is that artists, like everyone for that matter, should follow their conscience, because while others forget, it will stay with them to the end.
posted by hat_eater at 7:26 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


They've made themselves so unpopular over the past 75 years, that anything they say without irony is automatically not taken seriously.

Seriously. Like when Elizabeth Taylor spoke out about the AIDS crisis, and the US government went from fully funding research and treatment to refusing to help people with AIDS. OW DID THAT BACKFIRE!
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:43 AM on June 15, 2011


But everyone else, dishwashers, administrators, postal workers, human resources specialists, CEOs, programmers, fishermen, salespeople at Saks, sign painters, dog walkers, baristas, garage managers, warehousemen, cosmetologists, graduate assistants, lens grinders, copier repair people, nurses, squeegee men, landscapers, Apple Store greeters, pilots, ticket sellers, and others, should speak out against war constantly ... always ... and not let anyone get away with speaking of war as an accepted or acceptable thing.

Well, generally you can bribe the well-paid among this group to support your wars in exchange for tax cuts or, generally, the social esteem one gains for supporting a war as the "mature thing to do."

Artists, on the other hand, have very little to lose, which is why their moral obligation is probably higher. Dishwashers, et al. will likely risk being fired by their more conservative, war-supporting boss for opposing the war because it would endanger his tax cuts, so they're a bit more constrained. This can always happen.

despite what Rider says, there's lots of it.

This, too. Do artists really need to be told they need to oppose a war? Actually, yes, but the topic of this 40 minute(!) podcast seems to have totally missed the point. Opposing a war by artists -- especially the successful ones -- should have entailed a general strike in every industry that depended on them. While the market is flooded with aspiring and low-paid actors, the talent available from the A-list is pretty limited. Why were big budget movies even being made if there was an artistic consensus against the war?
posted by deanc at 7:44 AM on June 15, 2011


hat eater, I've often wondered how liberal artists like Sean Penn, Matt Damon, Simpson writers etc. can reconcile the fact that even though they know Rupert Murdoch is spending billions to destroy liberals in America they still have no shame turning around and make him millions by working for subsidiaries of Newscorp. Seems to me that if liberals decided tomorrow to stop working for any business connected to Murdoch his empire would crumble around his ankles. Artists have immense power in our society and it seems to me that if they really want to effect change, they need to start calling each other out for their cognitive dissonance.
posted by any major dude at 7:46 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Seems to me that if liberals decided tomorrow to stop working for any business connected to Murdoch his empire would crumble around his ankles.

Nah. Talent needs Murdoch more than Murdoch needs talent, and there are plenty of people in Hollywood that agree--or are at least not diametrically opposed to--his views that he wouldn't have any trouble keeping things going.
posted by valkyryn at 7:53 AM on June 15, 2011


A general strike of all dishwashers would be much more effective than a general strike of professional artists and other related craftsmen. It's equally realistic, too.

Also, if the A-listers quit, they'll just create new A-listers, and most of America's moviegoing public would probably prefer the new "patriotic" ones anyhow.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:01 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Indeed, sometimes war is the lesser of evils.

Not only that, what if an artist supports the worst of two evils? The assumption is that artists have special insight into what's good for humanity. But there's no reason why this must be true, other than the assumption that if they spend all their time drawing pretty pictures or writing fancy words, they must hold the key to the betterment of his fellow man. Once in the "should" territory, what does that even say about art and how we view it?
posted by 2N2222 at 8:07 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


I don't think Murdoch empire can be undone by a boycott, or rather that such a boycott can be succesfull. Even the regime in Poland had not much trouble finding artists to work with, although it often had to pay more for less.
By the way, I noticed that I contradict myself (I wrote that the artists are remebered for something, and then that they're seldom remembered). That's not because I contain multitudes, although that might certainly be the case. Rather, I meant that their behaviour during the martial law seldom defines how they are perceived today, because their other deeds quickly overshadowed their past.
posted by hat_eater at 8:11 AM on June 15, 2011


I think we can trace the idea that artists inherently play a special moral role in influencing society and opinion all the way back to Plato's Republic (where various kinds of artists were banned or forced to produce works in service to the Republic). The general belief that special moral responsibilities inhere to artists is a very old and persistent cultural construct. It makes some amount of sense: prominent artists occupy a kind of bully-pulpit. The influence of their words and actions can have more reach than most people's. And particularly skilled artists may even be better at subtly influencing opinion indirectly through their art--or at least, it's often been suggested that they might be--than people are consciously aware. These are some of the major traditional arguments for viewing artists as more morally culpable for their own political beliefs and how those beliefs are expressed in deed. I could see making a not unreasonable argument that particularly skilled rhetoricians, for example, might have a moral responsibility to use their persuasive skills conscientiously in service to good causes, but of course, there's no iron-clad way to settle the question of what should earn the moniker "good cause," so most of it will always be left up to the artists' own conscience.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:17 AM on June 15, 2011


The problem with the examples from Plato's era is that artists working in the same media today as back then (painters, poets, sculptors, playwrights, etc.) have nowhere near the same amount of influence as they did back then. The idea that an anti-war play is going to have much effect nowadays, especially in the US, is absolutely laughable.

I agree about the responsibility of rhetoricians, however. Pundits are the new sophists.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:23 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


The idea that an anti-war play is going to have much effect nowadays, especially in the US, is absolutely laughable.

And yet, lots of artists go into art because they believe that such a thing is possible. There still exists within "artist culture" the belief that they are collectively very influential, whereas in fact we create such a large economic surplus now compared to Plato's time that we have so many artists and so much available entertainment to be consumed that the individual artist and individual artwork is not really significant or influential at all.
posted by deanc at 8:33 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


What if the individual artist supports the war?

It's easy to forget that some modernist avant-garde movements were extremely conservative and that at least one, the Italian Futurists explicitly glorified war. Even Gertrude Stein was politically conservative, and her friend, Ezra Pound, somewhat notoriously so.
posted by treepour at 10:20 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Shameful Peace by Frederic Spotts is a great read on this topic
posted by fire&wings at 10:37 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


[few comments removed - if you are not trolling it is a good idea to make it look more like you are not trolling, thank you.]
posted by jessamyn at 10:37 AM on June 15, 2011


It's easy to forget that some modernist avant-garde movements were extremely conservative and that at least one, the Italian Futurists explicitly glorified war. Even Gertrude Stein was politically conservative, and her friend, Ezra Pound, somewhat notoriously so.

Good point. And it's not as if political alignment is a simple, static property, as so many contemporary newspaper headlines would have us think. Samuel Clemens, notably, characterized himself as a 'red-hot imperialist' prior to the time of the annexation of the Philippines, when he became the Vice President of the American Anti-Imperialist League.

Artists in the public eye are just people, and people make mistakes and change their minds. Sometimes dramatically so. Artists as a class may in certain circumstances have special moral responsibilities, but that doesn't necessarily imply they're equipped with the faculties needed to perform better moral calculations. There's kind of the moral equivalent of an unfunded mandate implied.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:47 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]



Okwui Enwezor has a great essay up on moral and ethical responsibility in the arts up at Art Forum right now. It's ostensibly about Weiwei, but it reaches much further than that. Here's the opening paragraph:

"IN THESE DAYS of the Arab Spring, paradoxically hovering between revolution and repression, there is much hand-wringing in the global art world. Protests and petitions against arrests, dismissals, censorship, and labor rights have erupted, targeting countries and societies that the Western art establishment feels should be better apprised of the avant-garde tradition of artistic autonomy and liberal notions of unfettered intellectual expression. It is as if a beehive had suddenly exploded and stung the previously passive moral lions of the field, waking them from their unreflective slumber. From architects to museums, curators to collectors, art fairs to galleries, art advisers to auction houses, everyone has been feeding at the trough of surplus capital emanating from regions where consumption of art is tolerated so long as artists steer clear of political and ideological pronouncements and keep their swords of critical relevance safely in their sheaths."
posted by artof.mulata at 3:18 PM on June 15, 2011


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