Out in the Open

When artistic pleasure is a moral minefield: Feeling bad about good art

How the simple pleasure of a movie or a song becomes a moral minefield
Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. (Annie Hall)

Below is a transcript of producer Geoff Turner's audio essay on feeling bad about good art:

The first time I heard of Woody Allen, I would have been eight-years-old.

It was the night of the Academy Awards in 1978 and it was probably the first time I had taken the slightest interest in the show.

But you see, Star Wars was up for Best Picture, and like I said, I was an eight-year-old boy.

And of course, Star Wars was as near as I could tell, the greatest movie ever made, so it absolutely was going to win.

Jack Nicholson delivered the bad news: 

And this perceived injustice instilled in me a deep bitterness towards this Annie Hall movie, and whoever had made it.

Of course I'd never actaully seen it, but even the idea that little guy with the glasses could be a leading man?

It took nearly a decade to get over this first grudge, but eventually I learned to love Woody Allen. Especially Annie Hall, the movie that beat Star Wars.

If you've never seen it, it's a romantic comedy and it's worth watching just to see how far the genre has fallen since. 

It's witty and wistful, it features independent women who have inner lives and motivations other than creating the perfect wedding day.

I fell in love with other Woody Allen films too — Radio Days, Hannah and Her Sisters. But Annie Hall was always the pinnacle of his work and I could watch it again and again.

But then something happened.

It was those allegations, and I emphasize that they are allegations that Allen has vehemently denied, that made it nearly impossible to enjoy Woody Allen. I pretty much just stopped watching his films. I just don't want to feel bad about something that gave me so much joy.

And I don't actually know if this makes any sense.

It's not necessarily any simpler when the case is cut and dried, like say with Roman Polanski.

He was convicted of sexual interference with a 13-year-old girl, and he ran away from the sentence. And what's worse, he's been defiant and unrepentant about the crime.

But have you seen Chinatown? It's really bloody good.

And even if deep down the artist is a monster, does it actually have any bearing on their art?

There's just about no way to deal with that question without mentioning Richard Wagner. 

Wagner was a hugely influential musical revolutionary.

He was also a vehement anti-Semite. 

There's debate as to whether that anti-Semitism is actually expressed explicitly in his art.

But Adolf Hitler himself was obsessed with Wagner from the age of 12. All that is more than enough to poison his art for many people. To this day, any attempt to perform Wagner in Israel results in passionate protest.

Wagner doesn't make me wrestle with my conscience because his music mostly just leaves me cold, but sadly, I have plenty of guilty pleasure to trouble me.

Consider Brown Sugar, by the Rolling Stones:

It is the Stones at or near their peak, definitive rock and roll that's been a staple of classic rock radio for nearly 50 years.

But in case you haven't listened closely to the lyrics, let me read the first verse and chorus to you:

Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields
Sold in the market down in New Orleans
Scarred old slaver knows he's doin' alright
Hear him whip the women just around midnight

Brown Sugar, how come you taste so good
Brown Sugar, just like a young girl should

You can remove just about any two lines from that and you'll still be left with at least two deplorable thoughts. But I'll bet it gets your toes tapping. I play that song willingly and I enjoy it, and I'm not the only one.

Lauretta Charlton is a New Yorker writer who also happens to be African American and she wrote a piece for Vulture with the title "Brown Sugar" Is a Dirty Song About Slavery and Sex, and I Love It.

In it she writes: "When I hear 'Brown Sugar,' the outrage hits me like a postscript, and by that point I'm too busy clapping and singing along to be indignant."

And granted, Lauretta Charlton is in a much better position to calculate the merits of that song. And now I probably sound like a middle aged white guy rationalizing my amoral cultural choices, but I'm actually struggling here. 

And in a way, Brown Sugar is an easy one. The lyrics are so out of whack with my moral compass that I can treat it like an aberration — an excusable transgression.

It's a subtler example the really bothers me.

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down by The Band is a roots rock masterpiece.

It's a vivid and evocative.

The Band's soaring harmonies behind Levon Helm's ragged ass lead vocals —  it just gives me shivers.

And yeah, the sorrow in the song is about the end of the confederacy and the fall of Richmond and Petersburg to the Union, but I always thought, it was written by a Canadian, so it's gotta be okay right?

That's what I thought until I came across a piece Ta-Nehishi Coates wrote about the song in the Atlantic. It ran in 2009,  but I only discovered it recently, and it put the whole song in a shadow for me.

In his piece, Coates reprints a letter from Chaplain Garland H. White, a member of the First Indiana Colored Volunteers.

They were among the first to enter Richmond after it fell to the North. White described his elation at the moment.

"In this mighty consternation I became so overcome with tears that I could not stand up under the pressure of such fullness of joy in my own heart."

In other words, any song about the fall of the South should be a song of joy.

Just like with Brown Sugar, the particulars of the song had become sonic wallpaper to me. After reading Coates, it suddenly dawned on me what it might be like to hear a folk rock song about the melancholy last hours of the Third Reich.

But I just listened to the song again and it still gave me shivers. Thanks to decades of oblivious enjoyment the song has access to my reptile brain. It's just that now the shivers have to live along with a churn in my gut.

I wish I could get to some place where I have some absolute ethical clarity about morally problematic art, or inspiring art by morally problematic people. Or even why I can't abide Woody Allen but I give the Stones a pass. I guess that`s privilege for you: I get to decide how bad I'm going to feel about something I enjoy.