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August 01, 2006

Do The Failings Of A Man Reduce The Power of His Artistic Works?

This question has long fascinated me. I suppose Goldstein would have much to say about it, had he not been forced into blog-exile by a vile lunatic.

For some time I've been meaning to re-post this very interesting article from Salon. You don't have to click on an ad to read it (not until, that is, they realize how very relevant it is as regards the current Gibson contretemps.

I don't usually link Salon, but this is an interesting story. Not a new story, by any means, but a good recap of an old story.

Forrest Carter was the bestselling author of "The Education of Little Tree: A True Story," a literary phenomenon that was published 25 years ago this fall and is credited by many as the book that touched off the boom in what is still referred to in publishing as "Native American Lit." Carter also wrote another famous book, "The Rebel Outlaw Josey Wales," whose eponymous ex-Confederate superhero was played by Clint Eastwood in the most influential western since "The Searchers."

But "Forrest Carter's" most memorable creation was himself. "Forrest Carter," revered author of the beloved "Little Tree," was actually Asa Carter -- virulent segregationist, former Klansman, speechwriter for George Wallace and professional racist. In both incarnations, Carter is the focus of new interest. Diane McWhorter's critically acclaimed history of the civil rights struggle in Birmingham, Ala., "Carry Me Home," has revealed more about the role of "Ace" as a warrior for white supremacy, while the 25th anniversary publication of Forrest's "The Education Of Little Tree" -- minus the "True Story" subtitle -- continues to exalt him as a pillar of New Age wisdom and a multicultural hero.

For a man with just three slim volumes published in his own lifetime, Forrest Carter made a significant impact on American culture. (A fourth book, "Cry Geronimo," published posthumously, has influenced two screen depictions of the Apache chief.) "The Education of Little Tree," about an orphan boy named Forrest who learns about life from his sage Cherokee grandparents, has never been out of print since it was first published in 1976 to rave reviews in the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly and elsewhere. According to an editor at the now-defunct Delacorte Press, the book sold more than a million copies in hard and soft covers before the University of New Mexico Press picked it up in 1985. Since then, it has become the biggest seller in the publisher's history and one of the great publishing successes for any university press, selling more than 1,440,000 copies in paperback and at least 56,000 more in cloth.

The sales for "Little Tree" don't begin to tell the story of the book's influence. Schoolchildren have been so moved by it that they have formed Little Tree fan clubs. For years there were rumors in Hollywood that Robert Redford, Kevin Costner, and even Stephen Spielberg were interested in filming "Little Tree"; many think "Little Tree" helped shape the depiction of Indians in Costner's "Dances With Wolves." In 1991, 15 years after its publication and 12 years after Carter's death, "Little Tree" won the coveted Abby Award and climbed onto the New York Times' bestseller list.

Even though "Little Tree" was publicly exposed as fraudulent the very year of its publication, most readers simply refused to believe the evidence. This despite the fact that the Asa/Forrest Carter scandal was known far and wide, at least in academia: The distinguished African-American literary critic Henry Louis Gates wrote a widely discussed piece about it, for example. (In one of the many peculiar twists of the Asa-Forrest saga, some teachers acknowledge the controversy and include it in their lesson plans.) But while some know about the book's peculiar history, years after the exposé many, perhaps most, new readers and fans who discover the book through the well-received movie version for young adults don't even know there's a controversy. That "The Education of Little Tree" was written by the same man who immortalized George Wallace by writing his racist manifesto, the famous "Segregation forever!" speech, is an inconvenient fact that hundreds of thousands of people seem willing to ignore.

This is an interesting question to me. And I define "interesting questions" according to how Marlowe did in Heart of Darkenss -- mysteries with no answers.

The book is apparently (I've never read it; I hate drunken, scalping Indians) a very pro-Indian, sweet, PC, kid-friendly, tolerance-inculcating story full of life lessons and all that pro-social stuff.

It's also a fraud, as it claims to be an autobiography, which it is, incontrovertibly, not.

And the man who wrote so movingly of the White Man's Shame in subjugating the noble Indians was, even as he was writing it, a white supremacist, or at least he held non-voting shares in White Supremacy, Inc.

Does this make the book valueless? Does it diminish its importance? If the latter, by how much does it diminish the book's virtues?

If a gorgeous and wondrous piece of art is created by someone known to be vile, hateful, and an a dispicable human being, does that change the fact the work itself is gorgeous and wondrous?

Does a work stand or fall on its own merits, or is it partially judged according to the character flaws of the man creating it? And, again, if the latter -- how much weight do we give to such extratextual considerations? Much weight, enough to condemn the entire work, or very little, deserving only of a brief mention in the introductory materials?

I don't know. To me, these are such abstract and arcane questions I cannot even begin to grope at the answers.

But Russ Douthat Can: SunComprehendingGlass quotes conservative film critic Russ Douthat standing for the proposition that of course considerations of the artist as a human being should be disregarded in an evaluation of his work.

Really? Always? Even when said beliefs directly implicate aesthetic choices he made in his works? Even when a plausible case can be made that his more noxious beliefs actually affected what he put up on the screen?

Making this more explicit: I, and other conservatives, dismissed arguable instances of unnecessary antisemitism, or at least instances of gratuitously sticking it to the Jews, in The Passion because we assumed there was no ant-Jew animus behind those aesthetic choices.

Now that Gibson is revealed to, in fact, have at least some degree of anti-Jew animus, doesn't that undermine the assumption that our defense was based upon?


I don't find this as easy an answer as Mr. Douthat. Which is not to say I disagree with him. I said I couldn't answer it myself; doesn't mean I'll insist that no one else can offer an answer.


Surrebuttal to Commenters Rebuttals: Many commenters note, correctly, that many great artists were right bastards. Indeed, I'd bet dollars to donuts that most of them were.

But this seems to miss the point. Let me sharpen my question: Do the failings of a man, which seem to directly inform the aesthetic choices in his work, reduce the power of that work?

The Education of Little Tree is not merely a nice little book written by a bad little racist. It is, in fact, a book largely about multiculturalism and tolerance. Doesn't the fact that Asa Carter seemed not to believe in such things at all (except, perhaps, with the one exception of the Indians, the one nonwhite race he fancied) sort of cast doubt on how seriously we should take his otherwise impeccably-PC message?

Gibson's aesthetic choices as regards his depiction of Jews as vicious and venal in The Passion were defended because we assumed he had no antisemitic animus. Now that he is revealed to have such animus, doesn't this re-open the question of whether the arguably antisemitic imagery of the film was, indeed, deliberately antisemitic?

Artistic intent matters. As an extreme case, I asked, hypothetically, if I wrote a pro-liberal, conservative-bashing book, well-received by the literati and liberal critics, and then revealed that I had intended the entire book as a hoax to see how easily liberals could be chumped into praising a work that confirmed their political beliefs -- wouldn't that book have to be read rather differently after my admission it was intended as an ironic fraud from the very beginning?

Surely no liberal could read it the same way again. Nor could any conservative, for that matter. Conservatives would look again to a book they had initially despised and read it as a delightfully subversive punking.

Intent must matter to some extent, surely.

The Woody Allen Example: Is there anyone who can manage to put out of mind Woody Allen's numerous "jokes" about the sexual desirability of underage girls now that we know those weren't so much "jokes" as sexual longings disguised as jokes?

Manhattan is all about his affair with the then-underage actress Stacy Nelkin. I believe Mariel Hemmingway's character "Tracy" actually had to be aged by a couple of years to make the film less objectionable.

There's one line in one of my favorite Woody Allen movies, Bananas, that I read totally differently now that I know about Allen's jailbait problem:

"All children... under sixteen years old are now... sixteen years old."

That's a pronouncement from power-mad dictator of the banana republic in the film.

Before the Woody Allen/Sun Yi scandal, I just took that as a throwaway bit of nonsense.

Now I take it as a longing to immediately, by fiat, declare all children, no matter how young, to be legally of the age of sexual consent.

How could I not interpret that line differently, knowing now what I now know about Woody Allen?

Surely there must be other former fans of Woody Allen who now find themselves cringing at "jokes" that once seemed to be perfectly harmless silliness.

In Case Anyone's Keeping Track... Eight of Sullivan's last nine posts have been about Gibson and gay marriage, or both.

Yeah, I'm covering this too. But, not to bat myself on the back too hard, but 1, I was engaging in a colloquy with commenters over a couple of posts, and 2, this post makes a broader and more interesting point than anything St. Andrew can manage in his latest full-bore freak-out.

Oh, and I'd've moved on with new stuff, but my router went down for about 45 minutes or so. Very annoying.


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posted by Ace at 12:41 PM

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