The Artist vs. The Art Itself
Richard Brody makes an odd claim in this month’s issue of The New Yorker. He posits that because Alfred Hitchcock’s directorial technique was a direct offshoot of his “own ugly fury,” that it should be less revered by current directors and critics, and that the admiration of Hitchcock’s craft is a dangerous affair. He writes:
The cult of Hitchcock, which presses directors’ ideas and critics’ taste toward his hyperrational craft and conceals his tormented frenzy, tends to thrust some filmmakers’ impulses, and the critical response to some of the best modern films, to the sidelines.
A pretty bold – and completely unsubstantiated – assertion.
Regardless, it raises an interesting question: should an artist’s personal life influence the way we view the art itself?
I like the art of Jasper Johns, but I know nothing about the artist. Not a thing. Perhaps I should, and perhaps I’d be better for it, but would anything I discover change the painting that I admire? It would still be the same art, the same use of colors, the same shading. My perception of the artist might change for the better or for the worse, but I would hope not my admiration for the art itself.
I heard Beethoven’s third symphony for the first time in 1986 and over time began to admire it greatly (as a young rock and roller, classical pieces sometimes took their time). Later, I learned that it had originally been dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte for his anti-monarchy idealism, only to be withdrawn. Should this matter one iota to my admiration for the piece?
I think not.
Awards for art, movies and books should be viewed in a similar light. Casablanca isn’t a better film for having won Best Picture, and Do the Right Thing isn’t a worse film for not having won the same award (or even nominated!). They are both brilliant in their own right.
Then again, I can think of examples when my admiration for a song was actually enhanced once I learn the story behind it. There’s no way you can tell me that Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” isn’t that much more beautiful, compelling and heartbreaking when you learn that it was written for his dead son, or that Lyle Lovett’s wonderful album, The Road to Ensenada, isn’t given a bittersweet tinge after learning that it largely chronicles his breakup with Julia Roberts. One of my all-time favorite songs, Jackson Browne’s ”I’m Alive,” is even more compelling to me when I consider his breakup with Daryl Hannah.
What can I say? Pop music for me is sometimes a substitute for People Magazine!
On occasion I learn about the inspiration behind a song only to wish I hadn’t. I recently read about the Ben Folds song, “Eddie Walker,” a wonderful tune for which I created my own story, and although the true inspiration for the lyrics isn’t in a completely different universe from my own interpretation, it still clouds the mental image I’d formed and will probably do so forever more. For this reason, I admire artists who let songs be once they’re composed and refuse to offer insight into their origins.
And then there’s the ugly side. Hitchcock’s purported sexual harassment, for instance. But many artists have an ugly side, and it would be silly for us to view their art through that lens. Roger Waters has said some pretty controversial and stupid things over the years, but I still think The Wall is still brilliant. John Lennon used to hit his girlfriend. I still love “A Day in a Life.” I haven’t spent a penny on Elvis Costello since he told an audience at The Chicago Theater to “fuck off,” but I certainly can’t claim that I don’t still love his music. Hell, you couldn’t pay me to see a Mel Gibson movie, but there’s no denying the fact that the guy can act and direct.
My father and I recently corresponded about this subject, and he wrote: “Does it matter what Brahms' psychotherapist thought was behind his compositions? Was Shostakovitch mentally ill or sexually repressed? Who cares? You love his 5th Symphony for what it is. And Wagner: let's not even get into his politics. Too much analysis and not enough appreciation and enjoyment.”
Too much analysis and not enough enjoyment. There you are.
Perhaps Richard Brody should do as I did two nights ago and rewatch Vertigo – perhaps with his daughter as I did – and enjoy it for what it is: a perfectly-executed telling of a creepy story. If someone thinks it’s the best film of all-time, fair enough.