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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Should critics let nonrelated issues influence how we review a film?

Recently the members of the Online Film Critics Society pondered this question, which was suggested by OFCS member Susan Granger:

“Will Mel Gibson’s overt and confessed anti-Semitism affect your review of his upcoming film, Edge of Darkness? Does the fact that the film contains no Jewish themes affect your answer? Ultimately, can a critic can truly separate an artist from his professed prejudices and moral values? Should we let nonrelated issues influence how we review a film? Is it even possible to avoid such biases?”

Reponses from OFCSers are here.
For me, it comes down to the question about whether film critics should be “objective”… which I don’t think is possible. And I don’t think I’d want to read a critic who was “objective” — what makes critics interesting to read (or not) are our biases and the particular perspective we bring to our criticism.

In the case of Edge of Darkness, however, the only preconception about Mel Gibson that was front-and-center in my mind when I went into the movie was that he has tended to play crazy characters, or characters who pretend to be crazy for effect. (I had other unavoidable preconceptions, too, because I recently watched the BBC miniseries it’s based on.) I’ve already written my review, too, and I have to confess that even though I had previously handled that OFCS post — from emailing the members to ask the question to collecting the responses and formatting the material for posting — it just occurred to me as I write this QOTD that nothing else about Gibson even crossed my mind as I was crafting my review.

What do you think? Should critics let nonrelated issues influence how we review a film?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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  • funWithHeadlines

    I think art should be judged on its own merits. If, say, Picasso was being mean to his mistress while he was painting Guernica, should that make me like the painting any less? No, the art exists in its own universe.

    Frankly, we don’t know what actors are like anyway. We think we do, thanks to the gossip rags (which sadly now include The New York Times and network TV news), but we really don’t. We get a skewed and very slanted (and often false) view of their lives, but we really don’t know them at all. So just enjoy the art by itself.

    I’m not a professional movie reviewer as you are, MaryAnn, but if I were I like to think I could do what you do and not let nonrelated issues affect my views of a film. Hey, that’s why it’s called nonrelated, right?

  • Bluejay

    While I think it’s impossible to be completely objective, I think it’s possible to acknowledge one’s biases upfront and still attempt to keep them separate from one’s assessment of the work itself.

    I’m okay with a review of a Mel Gibson movie that talks only about craft–how well-written or well-acted it is, etc.

    I’m okay with a review that acknowledges the critic’s personal opinion about Gibson himself, but then goes on to evaluate the film on its own merits.

    I’m okay with a review that addresses Gibson’s prejudices if the critic feels that they directly influence aspects of the film.

    I’m not okay with a review that condemns the movie because of the critic’s feelings about Gibson’s prejudices, regardless of whether or not they’re relevant to the film itself.

  • Isobel

    This is why I try and avoid celebrity magazines etc like the plague. If I ‘know’ too much about an actor, I can’t do the necessary suspension of disbelief and it ruins the film for me (I can’t watch Tom Cruise anymore for example, after the scientology and sofa jumping).

    With this is mind, I would imagine that it’s nearly impossible not to let non-related issues influence the way a critic reviews a film. Even if you wanted to, it would there hanging around in your subconscious.

  • Bluejay

    Even if you wanted to, it would there hanging around in your subconscious.

    This is true too. I recognize that it can be difficult to sort out one’s feelings about a work and its creator, the more you learn about the creator. I loved Ender’s Game when I read it; then I recently found out that Orson Scott Card strongly opposes same-sex marriage, and I really don’t know what I’d think of the book if I were to reread it now. Same thing with “A Prairie Home Companion”–love the radio show, but ever since Garrison Keillor wrote some pretty nasty things about nonbelievers, I haven’t really made time to listen to it.

    If I did have to write a review of Card’s novel or Keillor’s show, though, I’d try to keep my feelings about their prejudices out of it, unless I thought their prejudices directly affected what I was reviewing.

  • e

    This came up for me because one of the lines he said in the trailer was something like “you better decide if you’re one hanging on the cross… or banging in the nails.”

    Now I kind of like it as a revenge thriller line, but how can you not connect that to Mel Gibson at least a little?

  • callie

    lets be real, anti semitism like Gibson’s is disturbing and dangerous. He should not be working in Hollywood period. He is sick and evil.

  • sam

    I don’t think that movie critics should let outside issues get in the way of doing what they normally do–i.e. evaluate the movie, assess it as a piece of entertainment. If it’s a religious-themed movie, like “Passion of the Christ” then yeah, Gibson’s opinions are obviously relevant. But in some action thriller? Not at all.

    On the other hand, as a moviegoer and an orthodox Jew, I lost any inclination to see this film the second I saw Gibson’s name on it. He’s not getting any business out of me. But that’s an entirely different question, isn’t it?

  • Les

    A review should be based only on the merit of the film, because there isn’t a star, director, producer, writer in Hollywood, or a person in the world for that matter, that hasn’t had an unkind, biased and hateful thought at one time or another. The only difference is our thoughts are not made public.

    One has only to log on to any Jewish website to see the hatred and persecution of Gibson. The writers and following comments are made by people who are stone cold sober and know exactly what their saying and there is no apology forthcoming.

    The hypocrisy is disgusting!

  • “Whether or not audiences will be willing to embrace Gibson again remains to be seen. “I would hope people would be gracious and give me a chance,” Gibson told the Los Angeles Times in a recent interview.” (from the AFP this morning)

    In this case darker forces may at work. Even if a critic is completely objective and forgets all his off-camera antics, but pans the movie on its own merits (as a warmed-over “Payback” for instance), the machinery is already in place for him to spin it as a bunch of hard-hearted critics who can’t forgive him and continue to persecute him, blah, blah, blah. Yeah, we need a few more choruses of “Mel Gibson: Victim”.

    I don’t think it’s possible to be completely objective (and yes, what a bore that would be). We all bring baggage into the theater, even critics. I guess it depends on the individual point of view. A friend and I were talking around the holidays and she said she had a hard time enjoying Bing Crosby movies because off camera he was such a lousy husband and father, but I’m much less bothered by that, and tend to look at his movies as a whole, and like them very much. Maybe the passage of time helps, and maybe Mr. Gibson’s body of work will be better appreciated after he’s gone, but it’s certainly difficult to like him here and now.

  • Lisa

    Generally I think a critic should try to be as objective as they can be and separate the art from the artist – however we are all human beings. That being said, I would run from any future Polanski movie.

  • JasonT

    I think part of the review process involves out preconceptions of the actors involved, if any. When I see a Tim Burton movie for example, there are certain things I expect to feel.

    In this case, I now associate Gibson with bigotry and insanity, and this colors every experience I now have with him – including rewatching his older movies. That isnt to say I cannot enjoy Braveheart, but it certainly affects my choice to spend money on his future works.

  • Mo

    Short answer? No.

    If I liked rap music, I would still not buy Chris Brown’s album, because he beat up his girlfriend. I would not be able to listen to that album without my stomach churning, and I don’t want to send the message that domestic violence is something that’s easily forgiven especially when the artist still doesn’t ‘get’ it.

    If I was asked to write about my opinion on Chris Browns’ album, I would write about the album. I would go through each song, talk about which songs worked and which didn’t, and comment on how the album worked as a whole. My stomach would still churn a bit listening to it, but if a song was good I would say so. I would try to be objective. I might mention that outside events made my stomach churn when I listened to it, so that people would know I was incapable of being entirely objective. I would probably end by encouraging people not to buy the album because it’s by a guy who beat up his girlfriend. But I would not say that the album wasn’t good because I took what he did into account when judging the album.

    That’s the best way I know to explain my definition of objectivity, and yes, that’s what I expect in a review of any sort of art.

    Or for another example, I don’t like it when someone in the press slags off a Coldplay album because they don’t like the songs on it, but if they can give legitimate reasons why they don’t like it, I can still respect their opinion. What makes me really angry is when (as is common) a journalist says that a Coldplay album is terrible because the lead singer married Gwyneth Paltrow. She has nothing to do with the music. Its fine if they don’t personally like Coldplay because of her, but when they say that music they would like in a different context is artistically terrible because of her…. grrr. (And the next critic who says that Coldplay fans cut their wrists for entertainment… *shakes fist*) There is a big difference between street cred and artistic merit.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    “A [person] goes to the movies; a critic must be honest enough to realize that [he or she] is that [person].”

    Yeah, yeah, I know that’s one of Ebert’s favorite quotes and this is MAJ’s blog, but I think it’s appropriate to this discussion.

    Let’s turn this around for a moment. Harrison Ford is a beloved actor with (almost) no blemishes on his public persona. Hollywood Homicide is still a terrible movie.

    If an honest critic should not be expected to positively review a movie they hated even though it stars an actor they like, then how is this situation any different.

    Furthermore, a critic is under no obligation to be impartial or even fair to an artist. Th crtics ethical obligation, if one exists, is to provide their response to the reader. And if an artist creates this kind of negative baggage, it’s the artist’s fault, not the critics.

    And finally, we come back to this bizarre idea of “objective criticism of art.” Ironically, and objective review of this movie would be required to make mention of Gibson’s recent P.R. troubles.

  • Bluejay

    Mo makes a good point: there’s a difference between supporting (or not supporting) an artist because of his/her views or practices, and recognizing the artistic merit of the work itself. It’s possible to admit that a work of art is good while refusing to give the artist your money because you dislike him/her for other reasons.

    I think the larger idea here is that we should try to separate the messenger from the message. We can knock Thomas Jefferson for owning slaves, but that doesn’t take away from the Declaration of Independence being one of the best things ever written.

    Having said that, I can also see how knowledge of an actor’s personal life can also enhance one’s appreciation for a movie. Part of the fun of Iron Man is seeing the Tony Stark character seem to wink and comment on Robert Downey Jr’s personal problems; and part of the fun of Harold and Kumar is seeing Neil Patrick Harris play someone so hilariously unlike himself.

    (Although, if the films deliberately cast those actors precisely for that kind of audience reaction, I guess you could argue that knowledge of the actors’ personal lives become an intentional part of the films’ experience, and so is fair game for reviewers. But would a viewer with no knowledge of RDJ’s or NPH’s personal lives enjoy those performances any less?)

  • Bluejay

    And finally, we come back to this bizarre idea of “objective criticism of art.” Ironically, and objective review of this movie would be required to make mention of Gibson’s recent P.R. troubles.

    Perhaps, but it wouldn’t be required to therefore say that the movie is terrible because of those troubles. It would be terrible (or good) because of other things–storytelling, dialogue, etc. It’s probably impossible to be 100% objective, but I think the attempt is worth making. That’s part of what critical thinking is about.

  • CB

    I don’t really care either way as long as people say why they think what they do.

    Not everyone thinks that we should separate the message from the messenger. If someone wants to say that the new Gibson movie is crap and you shouldn’t see it because Gibson is an asshole, that’s fine with me. From their subjective perspective, the movie is unenjoyable because their awareness of its creator’s problems makes it unenjoyable. That sounds like a perfectly valid opinion to me. In fact, you could say that it’s an “objective” fact that an actor/director’s politics can make a movie unenjoyable for some people.

    I would just want to know that this is why they found the movie unenjoyable. As long as they aren’t trying to cover up the fact that they can’t get over who is in the movie, that’s fine with me.

    Me, I usually can separate message from messenger. For example, I think Orson Scott Card is a world-class twit, an asshole, and that his personal politics are both offensive and stupid. However I think the Ender’s Game series is wonderful, because in it there are people with a wide variety of viewpoints and they all try to make moral choices in extremely complicated situations and then have to deal with realistic consequences of their choices. He doesn’t try to make things seem simple or black-and-white… like he does in real life.

    On the other hand if someone said to me “I can’t stand Ender’s Game because Card is a raging homophobe”, I’d respect that.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    It’s probably impossible to be 100% objective, but I think the attempt is worth making. That’s part of what critical thinking is about.

    Except that’s ridiculous. I also think you’re confusing “critical thinking” and “art criticism”, not to mention confusing “objectivity” and “honesty”.

    Here’s an objective review of Avatar:
    Avatar is written and directed by James Cameron. It is Cameron’s first non-documentary feature since 1998’s Titanic, and his first science fiction film since 1991’s Terminator 2. It stars Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, and Zoe Saldana, among others. Weaver previously appeared in Cameron’s Aliens from 1986. Worthington appeared in last year’s Terminator: Salvation, although Cameron was not involved in that sequel to his 1984 film, The Terminator. Avatar is being presented in 3-D. Cameron has stated that he and his production team have employed new technologies in creating the three dimensional effects. Avatar has a running time of 160 minutes.

    There you go, not one subjective statement. Now tell me, based on that, do I think Avatar is a good movie or a bad movie? I can’t see how you could tell. So I ask you, how is objectivity a worthy goal in criticism?

    Another hypothetical – three critics give similar reviews of Edge of Darkness, in terms of character, plot, direction, performances. Critic A gives it 3/4 stars, but makes no mention of Gibson’s arrest. Critic B also give 3/4 stars, concluding that “the film works for me in spite of my distaste for Mel Gibson’s recent public behavior.” Critic C, meanwhile, gives it 2/4 stars, commenting that “in the end, I was never given a reason to forget that this is Mel Gibson, the man who made those awful statements.” Are any of these critics wrong? Frankly, I think these are all valid critiques. What’s more, I am grateful to both B and C for pointing out the elephant in the room.

    At the risk of backpedaling, the idea the “art exists in its own universe” is a valid theory of criticism. But so is the theory that art exists in this world and carries the baggage of the artist. There is no objective truth here, only opinion.

  • Bluejay

    @Dr. Rocketscience: Maybe it helps to define terms; here’s my try.

    By “objectivity” (in the context of art criticism), I mean that we seem to have general, agreed-upon principles–or at least broad guidelines–by which we recognize what constitutes good writing, good acting, etc. They are not absolute truths, nor are they necessarily constant from place to place or from time to time. But they allow us to make certain value judgments and comparisons, such as: Jane Austen is a better writer than Dan Brown; Martin Scorsese is a better director than Brett Ratner; Meryl Streep is a better actor than Liv Tyler.

    This doesn’t mean that we should like Austen better than Brown, etc. There are plenty of people who prefer The DaVinci Code over Pride and Prejudice, and they’re entitled to their preference. But being objective means recognizing that some works and artists measure up to certain agreed-upon standards of craft better than others, without invalidating whatever personal response (positive or negative) they may evoke in us.

    Your three hypothetical critics may very well have all written objective reviews if they considered how well the different elements of the film were put together and how the film measured up to the general idea of “what makes a good thriller.” It doesn’t mean they all have to like it equally, and they’re all entitled to take their personal opinions of Gibson into account when giving their scores. If they’re honest and upfront about those opinions, so much the better. So, yes, they all can have valid critiques, and they can also be objective (to me) if they discuss the film on its merits.

    Being objective allows the commenters on this site to agree that Avatar has great special effects and a cliched story–which doesn’t prevent us from having a wide range of responses to the film.

    Being objective allows us to recognize that some beloved works from our youth may be schlocky–The A-Team, Howard the Duck–without diminishing our affection for them.

    Being objective means that we can find a masterpiece boring but still recognize why it’s great; and that we can allow ourselves to love something that’s crap without feeling the need to hail it as a masterpiece. In other words it means acknowledging our own responses to a work in the context of other factors, while doing our best to distinguish them from our assessment of the merits of the work itself.

    …Hmm. I think a hole in my argument is that my definition of “objectivity” depends on agreed-upon standards of craft. But who agrees, and what if one disagrees? Maybe the only thing that can be said is that a lot of people agree that “these” qualities are good, and “those” qualities are bad; but I can see a lot of wiggle room there.

    Oh well; just trying my argument out loud. I’ll be happy to be convinced otherwise. :-)

  • Bluejay

    @CB (Tue Jan 26 10, 6:36PM):

    I think that, like you, I’m cool with a reader’s or viewer’s opinion so long as the reasons for it are clear. It’s just that–to use your Ender’s Game example–I’d say that your response is an “objective” one, while the response of the person who can’t stand the book because of Card’s (unrelated) homophobia is not. You’re both entitled to your opinions; I just happen to think that one is based on an attempt to “objectively” assess the book, and the other isn’t.

    I guess I would hold a professional critic to a higher standard, and prefer that he/she approach a work with your attitude rather than the other person’s.

  • Paul

    Some artists would say that an artist’s values cannot be seperated from their work, that the artist’s values are the beginning of their work. If the artist values money too much, they will swiftly become an imitative hack. If the artist values morality, she might write the comedy of manners like Jane Austen, or the tradegies of Shakespeare. If the artist values the subjective experience, you get Henry James. I know I’m picking writers, but that’s what I know more about.

    Different genres have different assumptions that underlie the plots, shaping the plots from below. For example, most action movies pretty much assume that violence is an acceptable, even preferable, method of solving problems. And on this website there has been a lot of discussion of how the underlying sexism of Hollywood’s backstage culture shapes the movies it produces.

    If you guys swore to never see a movie produced by a sexist again, how many movies could you actually see? And how do you judge someone like Gene Roddenbury, who had a wife, a mistress, and cheated on them with at least two other women, and yet created a show which included professional women in the military, kicking off one of the most feminist TV shows in history?

    On the other hand, actors. Do you judge a puppet show by the puppets? A little, maybe, but there are more important human factors involved. Fortunately for me, I tired of Gibson before his infamy so I don’t have to make that particular choice.

    When I started reading Orson Scott Card’s political commentary, I was dismayed. I couldn’t understand how such an empathic writer could be such a … well, whatever. But then I read an essay that dug into “Ender’s Game,” and she had found underlying values, unstated in the book, that shaped the story of the book, I thought, yeah, the guy who wrote this book could also support the Iraq War and be against gay marriage.


  • Der Bruno Stroszek

    This is a good thread. I’d say, for me, there are three rules you should consider when bringing an actor or director’s personal life into a movie review:

    1) Is it something the viewer might not know if I didn’t point it out?
    2) Is it something that can be ignored while you’re watching the film?
    3) Is it something that actually casts an interesting light on the film?

    As an example of Rule 1, Jennifer Aniston released two films (Derailed and The Break-Up) whose themes revolved around infidelity or divorce just after her marriage to Brad Pitt ended. You don’t need to point out that these movies are connected to her personal life; she was even saying as much in interviews.

    If, on the other hand, one of those movies ended up with her male partner going off with a glamorous eccentric actress with a brood of adopted kids, it would be fair play to say to readers, “Look, you might not be able to leave your preconceptions about Jennifer Aniston at the door here.”

    Likewise with Mel Gibson. From what I see of the trailer and from what I know about the series, I don’t think there’s any reason to bring his anti-Semitism into play in a review. But if Edge of Darkness ends with Mel’s character discovering that the people behind the conspiracy are an covert international group who rig the world’s financial systems, it might be worth mentioning because it invokes Rule 3 – it would be interesting to consider his anti-Semitism in light of the plot of the movie.

    For a movie that breaks all three of these rules, take a look at MaryAnn’s review of Jeepers Creepers 2. A lot of it addresses the director Victor Salva’s previous conviction for child molestation. This is something that many viewers may not know (1), is something that is hard to ignore given the eroticisation of young men throughout the film (2) and casts an interesting light on the story Salva is telling (3).

  • CB

    @ Bluejay

    Except my opinions about the book aren’t objective and I’m not trying for them to be. There’s no such thing as an objective opinion, and there’s doubly nothing like an objective assessment of art outside of “the book is 298 pages long and printed on 5×7 paper”. Art is subjective, that’s all there is to it.

    In fact there are some (like art historians, or at least a certain one I met) who would say that you can’t appreciate a work of art without taking into account the context in which is what created, including the creator’s thoughts and beliefs.

    So it’s fine to say that you prefer an approach like mine. If it’s more useful to you, then that’s good. But it’s not the only useful kind of review. What if someone would want to avoid Card’s work because of his beliefs but weren’t aware of them?

    It’s all subjective.

  • Bluejay

    @ CB: Yeah, I see what you’re saying.

    Maybe “objective” is the wrong word. I think I’m struggling with a gray-area concept here. Obviously by objective–in this particular discussion–I don’t mean just-the-facts (although of course that’s what it is, in the scientific sense).

    I guess I’m just of the opinion that it is possible to talk about a work of art on its own terms, and I’d prefer it if critics included such a discussion in their review. They don’t have to only talk about it; they can bring in all sorts of context (here we are with context, again!) and have all sorts of factors influence their assessment, as long as they make it clear that that’s what they’re doing–as you’ve said.

    I think I may also be fine with the idea of “it’s all subjective” in an everyday, “live-and-let-live” sense; but I also wonder if taking that idea to its logical end would mean abandoning agreed-upon cultural standards, and whether that’s a good thing. Are all opinions valid? What constitutes an invalid opinion? Does it make it harder for us to talk about art in any context larger than our own feelings about it? Could we no longer agree that Shakespeare’s plays are great or that the Sistine Chapel is a masterpiece, and that someone who says they’re crap is “wrong”? (Or maybe the idea of consensus itself is overrated?)

    In fact there are some (like art historians, or at least a certain one I met) who would say that you can’t appreciate a work of art without taking into account the context in which is what created, including the creator’s thoughts and beliefs.

    I don’t know. I’d have to think about that. I think I appreciated “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (which my parents played for me) before I knew anything about Strauss or watched 2001; and I really liked “Kind of Blue” even before I read the liner notes about why it’s such a milestone in jazz. (And I’m not sure that the liner notes greatly added to my enjoyment.) My daughter thinks Michael Jackson’s music is awesome, without knowing much else about Motown or the music scene in the 80s or the unsavory bits in MJ’s later life; while I myself still think his music is awesome, knowing all of those things. Maybe it’s possible to appreciate something even without full awareness of its context.

  • Aaron

    I give the (white) USA another 50 years before it implodes under the weight of it’s own stupidity. Hope you’re all fluent in Spanish, losers.

  • Paul

    Hey, Aaron, that’s off topic. You need to find one of the political threads, usually filed under Obama’s weekly addresses.

  • Alma

    I think an artist’s background should affect my views of his/her work because even though many post-modern Americans would attest to the contrary, nothing in this world is really unrelated. It is a western cultural bias to think that the ‘objective’ and the ‘subjective’ are neatly divided into such polarized categories, and I think any mature adult who has experienced the myriad complexities and difficulties of life would have a harder and harder time accepting such a polarized life-view as they inevitably grew older.

    Not only does the West harbor this polarized view, but also has an extreme partialness toward the ‘objective’ and scientific, and tends to sneer down upon it’s supposed opposite. Therefore, any film reviewer who incorporates honest emotion into her review, or infuses it with past subjective experiences, etc. is inevitably looked down upon as being biased, childish, and invalid as a reviewer. The first commenter who wrote about Picasso and his mistresses…yes, the fact that he was mean to his mistress during the creation of said painting would definitely affect my view of his work, because how could such a prevalent attitude existing in said artist NOT be infused into his work? It would shape and color the entire piece. Just like Roman Polanski’s rape of that girl would affect my view of his work and just like John Lennon’s abuse of people in his life, while simultaneously propagating ideals of love and harmony, would affect my view of the validity of his work. That sort of uber-complexity (it’s just so complicated man!!?!)is difficult for some people to accept but you know folks, we live in a complex world and sometimes we have to grow up already and be adults and say “Yes. This person did ‘x’ and ‘y’ in his/her life and it affects how I view them and their work” and just get on with it.
    That’s why I love MaryAnn, because she’s honest and sincere. She doesn’t pretend to be a holier-than-thou ‘objective person’ who thinks the rest of us are idiots for actually, you know, having emotions and personal morals and things.

    I am sorry but this sort of objective attitude toward things that insists on being removed from human emotion and the complexities of life really gets to me.

  • I give the (white) USA another 50 years before it implodes under the weight of it’s own stupidity. Hope you’re all fluent in Spanish, losers.

    * Cough * Pendejo. * Cough *

    Sorry, MaryAnn. I got a troll caught in my throat…

  • @Alma: while you have a valid point that the personality and character of the artist does affect his/her work — i disagree that it necessarily must affect the reaction of the viewer. most people, upon viewing a piece of artwork of whatever form, have very little information or understanding of the actions, character and life of the artist. most viewers can only react to a work based on their *own* character, viewpoint, likes/dislikes, etc. which is what i think we in the “west” (what a ridiculous generalization) mean when we say “objective”… we don’t know the life of every artist whose work we view, but we should try to look at that artwork with an understanding that we are looking at it through our *own* life biases.

    and because an artist’s life can be complex, and we all have our foibles, bad habits, and contradictory aspects to our personalities, it is even more important to set aside whatever little you may know — or think you know — about a particular artist and look at the work as to how it affects *you*.

    your meaningless and needless diatribe against those in the “West” for their supposed biased viewpoints displays your own — whatever point of the compass you come from.

  • Bluejay

    I’ve been thinking some more about this topic, so my apologies for the length of this post.

    @Alma: You’re the one insinuating that people who don’t share your opinion about art criticism are immature, can’t handle complexity, and have to grow up. Are you sure you aren’t being a little holier-than-thou yourself?

    I don’t know if your comments were partly directed at me, since I seem to be the cheerleader for “objectivity” on this thread (although I’ve already admitted that “objective” is probably the wrong word). For the record, I don’t look down on anyone who reasonably disagrees with me. I like engaging in friendly debates. The reason I sometimes post so many follow-up comments is because I like drawing out people’s thoughts, and refining or reassessing my own. People can respond or not, it’s fine with me. But I certainly don’t intend to sneer at anyone. (Well, unless they’re batshit crazy. :-) )

    To address some points you and others have made:

    I never argued that people should ignore their feelings about an artist. All I’m saying is that I’d personally prefer it if we attempted to be aware of (and clearly communicate) the difference between our feelings about the artist and about the art. And yes, I think those things can be different. Connected, but different.

    I think my problem with “it’s all subjective” is that it implies that all opinions are valid. Yes, everyone brings their own baggage to a work of art, and everyone responds differently because of a lot of outside factors. But that doesn’t make everyone’s response equally reasonable. Consider: My friend might see Julie & Julia and say, “Meryl Streep reminds me of a woman with whom I had a disastrous relationship. My experience colors every Streep movie I see, and I can’t help viewing them negatively. I think Julie & Julia is terrible.” Do I think my friend is entitled to his opinion? Yes. Do I understand where he’s coming from, and sympathize with him? Of course. Do I think his assessment of the film is valid? No. I don’t trust his review because his opinion is colored by–as the QOTD specifies–nonrelated issues.

    As for the artist’s values or views coloring his/her work: This is surely often true, but is it always true? Do an artist’s opinions in some areas affect what s/he does in all areas? Should we judge the soundness and aesthetics of a building differently if we find out the architect is a homophobe? If a writer hates Blacks but writes a story set in, say, medieval Ireland, with only white characters (which I assume is historically accurate), should our knowledge of the writer’s racism affect whether we think the story itself is any good? (I’m open to other thoughts on this.)

    Or, let’s talk music. I don’t feel that I need to research the biographies of all the musicians I listen to, in order to have a valid emotional response to the songs I enjoy. If I find out that they’re assholes, then yes, that would color my perception too–and maybe I’d choose to listen to them less, or not support them in the future–but I wouldn’t suddenly think that the music I used to love is now terrible.

    …John Lennon’s abuse of people in his life, while simultaneously propagating ideals of love and harmony, would affect my view of the validity of his work.

    Fair enough. I respect your right to your opinion, although I feel differently. I’m a Beatles fan: I love their songs, beats, energy, harmonies, chordal progressions, arrangements, lyrics, everything. And I love the way their music is associated with happy moments in my youth. (See, I can be subjective too.) If John Lennon abused some people, then I think that’s a terrible thing, and I’d think less of him as a person. But I wouldn’t suddenly think the Beatles’ chords, harmonies, and arrangements are awful. I wouldn’t think lyrics preaching love are invalid because the songwriter failed to live up to them. I wouldn’t lose my own happy emotional associations with the songs. My opinion of the musician might become more complicated, but my opinion of the quality of the music wouldn’t suddenly turn on a dime. That, for me, would be a simplistic reaction.

    And as I’ve said before, it’s possible for a good message to come from an imperfect messenger. The Declaration of Independence contains powerful ideas about liberty and equality that inspired not only the American Revolution but also the abolitionist, suffragist, and civil rights movements in the US, as well as revolutions in other countries. The fact that Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder is deplorable and should not be ignored or glossed over, but nor should it take away from the validity of the Declaration’s ideals. As MaryAnn has said, “Just because it’s a shark telling you the water is wet doesn’t mean the shark is wrong.”

    I think it’s possible to hold two thoughts simultaneously: “the artist said or did some terrible things in life” and “the artist created a good thing.” (Or: “the artist is a wonderful person with good intentions” and “the artist’s creation sucks.” Or any combination of those four.) That’s a mature and complex way of looking at things, in my opinion.

    And I won’t think you’re an idiot if you disagree. :-)

    By the way: I like MaryAnn’s reviews too, and I too appreciate her honesty and sincerity. I also think she’s capable of distinguishing between her feelings towards an artist and her assessment of the work itself, while acknowledging both if necessary. Take a look at her review of Gibson’s film: not a single mention of his anti-Semitism in it.

  • JoshB

    Not only does the West harbor this polarized view, but also has an extreme partialness toward the ‘objective’ and scientific

    God, if only this were true. That would be a world of rainbows and lollipops.

    People are free to base their artistic opinions on crystal ball scrying if they so desire. However, if they want their opinions to be useful to a general public audience they should try to view a work of art as if they have no knowledge of the artist’s personal life/views.

  • Left_Wing_Fox

    I agree that it is impossible to separate the non-related opinions we have about an artists life from any review that happens. At best, a critic will recognize and note their opinions of a performer in the review to try and put their review in context. At it’s worst, I think we get the sort of “aesthetic stalinism”, where a film is shoe-horned into a rigid world-view that tends to ignore the actual content of the film.

    As for financially supporting artists we find personally reprehensible, I tend not to put too much stok in boycotts. Part of it’s political: I think the whole idea of “voting with your dollars” is plutocracy masquerading as democracy.

    The other problem is that the cult of celebrity warps our view of the process to focus on those celebrities. We might boo Mel Gibson for his beliefs, but there are so many other executives, creatives and cast members we never hear about, which may be far worse than him, which you’ve probably supported. Statistically speaking, we’ve all supported criminals, and moral monsters just by buying our furniture.

    Prosecuting criminals is the job of the judicial system; not the market. Even convicted felons are allowed to get jobs once they get out of prison and get on with their lives; why should an artist be the exception? Political opinion and contribution is not a crime, but if you like the work of an artist but detest their politics, make a contribution to their a group that opposes them. After all, the arist is only giving a fraction of what he earns from the small percentage of the amount you’ve paid for the product. Giving even $5 to the ACLU or ADL is likely to offset any contribution your purchase of “”Lethal Weapon” contributed to Mel Gibson’s political activities.

    Ultimately, if your opinion of the artist taints your view of the work to the point where the art is not enjoyable, that’s a personal matter, and I respect that decision. I don’t feel that it’s my place to act as judge and jury on criminal matters however, and I try to offset any political damage through my purchases when I know about it. However, I have nothing but contempt for those people who think an artist is “not worth supporting”, then proceed to pirate the art. Hypocritical wankers.

  • Bluejay

    I agree that it is impossible to separate the non-related opinions we have about an artists life from any review that happens. At best, a critic will recognize and note their opinions of a performer in the review to try and put their review in context.

    But it’s not impossible. MaryAnn just proved it. Her review of Edge of Darkness does not mention Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitism, or anything else about his real life, at all. Not once.

  • Paul

    @JoshB: we had the same reaction to the idea of the West valuing being objective and scientific, that it would be a great idea.

    Just a thought: would any of you want to get fired from your job if it turned out you were a lousy spouse? Is it legal to fire someone from a regular job if they commit a crime unconnected to their job performance?

  • “Just a thought: would any of you want to get fired from your job if it turned out you were a lousy spouse?

    isn’t that what happens to US politicians who are unfaithful to their spouses when the “public” finds out? they get to have impeachment hearings, or have to resign from office…

  • Left_Wing_Fox

    Bluejay: Oops, I meant that more on a personal level than a writing level; sorry I wasn’t clear.

    Just because an author dosen’t mention their biases dosen’t mean they don’t influence the opinion on the page. Short of jumping into MaryAnn’s brain, there’s really no way of knowing whether her knowledge of Mel’s personal life might have influenced just how much focus she gave his performance in the film during her review.

    But I agree that her review of Edge of Darkness stands on it’s own merits, and is well argued. That’s probably more important than acknowledging a bias. :) I’ll also walk back my “impossible” as hyperbole.

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