Dr. Elizabeth Scarbrough

FIU - Philosophy Department

Category: Artists

Moral Monsters and Magnificent Movies

Hi all! I wrote this years ago when I was working at the Grand Illusion Cinema and thinking about these issues (Midnight in Paris must have just come out). This week in class we will be talking about the artwork of moral monsters, so I thought I’d dust this off to give my students some context on the directors I would be discussing. There is a really good Aesthetics for Birds roundtable on this very issues which you can find here.

“Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that every nasty thing ever said about Woody Allen is true. What would that then imply about his movies? Can the man and his work be separated, or are the two inextricably entwined? And if they are entwined, are you – the movie goer – doing something wrong in enjoying and supporting the film? 

These sorts of debates have been going on in the super-tiny bubble world of philosophical aesthetic for decades and have been pushed to the forefront by the recent attention given to Allen’s personal life. It is important that this is not the first time in American cinematic history someone’s character has been invoked to besmirch artistic achievement.

In 1999 Eliz Kazan received lifetime achievement award at the Academy Awards despite providing names of fellow actors and directors to the House of Un-American Activities Committee in 1952. Kazan, who had been a member of the Communist Party for two years (1934-1936), turned “friendly witness” for the HUAC and named several of his friends and colleagues associated with the Communist party, effectively ruining their careers. Kazan believed either he testified or he would never make a movie in Hollywood again. His first hit after this affair, On The Waterfront, was written by (Budd Schulberg) and acted in (Lee J. Cobb) by other HUAC informants. What does Kazan’s moral digression show? Many believe it showed a true lack of loyalty, but can we see any of that in On The Waterfront? Perhaps. Brando’s character named names against corrupt labor leaders, and is doing so is valorized. Thus, the rat (in this case) is vindicated. As Jules Dassin stated, a screenwriter that Kazan blacklisted, “There is no way for the films of Kazan to be amputated from the rest of him.”[i]

The classic example given in these cases is that of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Generally regarded as a cinematic masterpiece, the movie glorifies the Nazi party. We might be able to say that while the technical achievements are no less marvelous, the movie would have been better –all things considered– if it hadn’t heralded a morally despicable cause. Or, is what we like about the picture precisely the bizarre juxtaposition between artistic exemplariness and its extreme moral wickedness? 

And of course who can forget Roman Polanski’s rape of an underage girl while in Jack Nicholson’s hot tub. The man still won the best picture Oscar for The Pianist, although he could not re-enter the United States to accept the award. Here we might ask: do Polanski’s movies glorify rape or rape culture? Does the morally objectionable thing he did seep into his work somehow? I would argue no; there is nothing in The Pianist that glorifies rape culture. In fact, the movie reminds us of what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil,” and I would say the “banality of good,” – it reminds us how people are capable of unfathomable cruelty and unexpected kindness in almost equal measure. Further, Polanski’s Repulsion is a movie that, I believe, demonizes rape culture. The protagonist of the film (if you could call her that) is perpetually terrified and lashes out in violent ways. We learn she has become this way because of what men have done to her. It is, I believe, an anti-rape movie — one made by a rapist.

And finally, Woody Allen. Ah, Woody Allen whose movies often have a ‘Woody Allen’ character in them: Alvy Singer of Annie Hall, Isaac of Manhattan, Harry Block of Deconstructing Harry, and Mickey of Hannah and Her Sisters, just to name a few. It is much harder in the case of Woody Allen to separate the man from his work because the man is literallyinhis work. In the grand tradition of other auteur directors, his work is about his life. We believe Guido Anselmi (played by Marcello Mastrioanni) is some sort of wish fulfillment on behalf of Fellini in his 8 1/2. Similarly I suspect Woody Allen’s ‘Woody Allen’ characters are half fact, half fiction. Again we can ask: is there anything about Allen’s films that glorify rape culture, sexual abuse, or child abuse? And it is here where you have to be familiar with the movies to come up with an answer. Isaac in Manhattan has a sexual relationship with a seventeen year old, the ultimate conclusion of which is (perhaps) that the child is more grow-up than the man. (See Joan Didion’s 1976 scathing review of Manhattan for more on this theme)[ii]. As a young woman watching this movie for the first time at 17, I found the premise incredibly creepy. ‘Who would want to date that guy?’ I thought. 17-year-old me shrugged it off as yet another man living out in film what he couldn’t and/or shouldn’t do in life. (To be fair to auteur directors with wish fulfillment, at least Guido’s banished women staged a revolt!) 

What’s interesting to see is how people responded in these three cases. In the case of Kazan, people who attended the Oscars but who were outraged that the man was receiving an award refused to clap when he was honored: a small, silent protest captured aptly by the cameras for the viewers at home In the case of Polanski, a documentary film was made examining his arrest and subsequent abscondment (Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, 2008). And in the case of Woody Allen, some people have boycotted his films since the first allegations of child abuse came out (for example, my mother), but most have ignored the issue. 

Do you praise the work and demonize the man? Do you boycott anything related to Woody Allen, as my mother has done for decades? Do you watch the movies, and discuss the moral implications with your friends afterward? Do you try to separate, the best you can, the artist from their artwork? This is your – the movie goers — choice. Being reflective about this choice is a good first step.”


[i]http://www.cnn.com/SHOWBIZ/Movies/9903/16/kazan.oscar/).


[ii]Find it here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1979/aug/16/letter-from-manhattan/

Here are some relevant articles:

On John Wayne, Cancel Culture, and the Art of Problematic Artists

Aesthetics for Birds: The Art of Immoral Artists

Dylan Farrow’s Open Letter

What Do We Do with the Art of Monstruous Men?

Imaginative resistance and the Woody Allen problem

These are a few of my favorite (Basel) things…

Art Basel (and Art Week) has come and gone and I thought I’d share a few of my favorite things. This list is composed of items I’d purchase (if (a) I had the money, (b) I felt that private ownership of art treasures was morally unproblematic). In a world where philosopher-teachers made enough to purchase fancy art, here are a few works I wouldn’t mind hanging on my mantel:

 

  1. First up is this small Alberto Burri. I saw a Burri retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum and was blown away. His work is so visceral. This piece uses paint, plastic, and I believe vinavil and combustion cellotex. For scale reference, it was slightly larger than a sheet of paper and I think $140,000 (a steal compared to the other artworks on this list). If only.

    Burri

  2. Second is this really beautiful Marc Chagall. I was staring at it when they put the “red dot” on the tag (the red dot means the painting sold). While I don’t know the exact price it sold for, it was estimated to sell for over $2 million dollars. Chagall’s work is so beautiful and important that it worries me that so many of his paintings are in the hands of private collectors. We will just have to trust the largess of the rich and assume they will continue to exhibit his work. There is, obviously, an incentive for private collectors to exhibit their artworks: the more they exhibit and loan their art, the more the art appears in exhibition catalogs, and the more the art appears in the catalogs and the press, the more it appreciates in value. So, with that in mind, I hope you get a chance to see this beautiful Chagall in person!

    Chagall

  3. For my third pick, I choose this Gabriele Münter. A German painter, this canvas was huge (which was unusual for her). It’s titled “The Letter (The Invalid)” and was painted in 1917. I can’t quite describe why I find it so striking, but I do. This one was too (alas) outside my financial reach at $3 million (I don’t think it sold). While she was one of the founding members of the Blaue Reiter group (1911) her work has been overshadowed by her relationship with Vassily Kandinsky – a common story for women in art history.

    Münter

 

And now you know my mundane (but expensive) taste in art!

Q&A with Artist Fereshteh Toosi

I’m so thrilled that Fereshteh Toosi took the time to answer some questions for this blog.  For those of you who do not know her, Fereshteh is a local Miami artist and a member of the FIU faculty.  She joined the art faculty here at FIU in 2017. Since moving to Miami, Professor Toosi has been active embedding herself in the local arts scene. Most recently she has won a prestigious “Ellie” award – she is the recipient of the 2018 Creator Award. She has also published in the Miami Herald and participated in O, Miami’s poetry month.  She runs the Nature Connection Arts Lab where she designs contemplative, sensory outdoor experiences (that you can join her on)! I urge you to check out her work on her website.  I believe her work would be of special interest to folks interested in environmental ethics, or the relationship between art and environmental activism.


1. How did you become an artist?

As a child I liked planning birthday parties for my siblings, making dioramas, photocopying zines, and pressing perfume from roses. I cherished a book called Concoctions which I never returned to the library. It had recipes for things like toothpaste putty and invisible ink. I also took a lot of music lessons and dance classes and I was a yearbook editor in high school, which meant doing a lot of graphic design. All of this influenced the way I make art now, especially because my high school visual art classes were pretty narrow. Like a lot of places, the teacher focused on realistic representation and since that wasn’t my interest, I was unsure what role art would play in my future. I went to a pre-college art program at the art school in Portland Maine and I met students who introduced me to a creative world that was beyond my hometown, but I still wasn’t sure that there was a place for me as an artist. Because I didn’t grow up in a big city, I hadn’t been exposed to a lot of contemporary art in galleries and museums. In college, I learned more about the various ways contemporary artists work, and the fact that I was studying other subjects was really important too. During my senior year I finished my thesis show which was an installation in an empty swimming pool on campus and one of my professors encouraged me to apply for an exhibit at a gallery. Her vote of confidence bolstered me. After graduation I worked in Japan for a couple years and I continued to make art and music while I was there. When I came back to the States, I tried to get an office job to make money but it felt wrong. I started applying to MFA programs and being an artist is what I’ve been focusing on ever since.

2. What art projects are you working on now?

I run an initiative called the Nature Connection Arts Lab which produces performances and media art to foster gratitude, respect, and a renewed commitment to our ecosystems. I guide occasional nature connection art walks in Miami. If you want to join one you can follow the Lab on Instagram or Facebook for announcements.

My Water Radio project is a series of participatory performances during kayak outings along Miami’s canals. Participants travel, share stories, listen, and respond to the sounds of nature underwater.  I think about Timothy Morton’s book Ecology without Nature a lot. But I still use the term nature because it serves as a useful shortcut for people understand that my current work is about how humans can cultivate stronger social relationships with other species and with Earth. It’s mostly about affective experience, but being informed about science is part of it too. I want my work to contribute to the political resistance against ecological crisis.

3. How do your identities shape your work?

Our identities shape everything we do. In my art work, my identities inform the work even if an audience doesn’t notice it expressed in a straightforward way. Art shifts people’s perceptions. As someone whose identities are misunderstood or marginalized, I think about perception all the time. Some of my projects are more directly about my identity as a first-generation American, an immigrant from Iran. But those aren’t my only identities. People have certain expectations of the kind of art someone like me is supposed to be making, and it’s limiting. Everyday I do the quotidian work of being me, of holding my multiple identities, of juggling all my differences. The way I am perceived by others and how I navigate interiority and exteriority is always in the background of everything I do.

 

4. How does philosophy connect with your art work?

My first meaningful encounters with philosophy were in an English class in college, which focused on analyzing literature through critical theory that was largely informed by continental philosophy. The same texts are really important for contemporary art too. The most significant concept is probably the critique of representation. As artists we act as mediators between people and objects, or people and experiences, and we need to understand how to do that in context. If we don’t know philosophy, our art and media literacy is impoverished. I never took any philosophy classes, I was just thrown into some advanced texts. But with time and patience, I was able to connect and I fell in love with philosophy. There are huge gaps in my philosophical knowledge. But that’s ok because it means I get to explore and be exposed to new ideas.  We are meant to be in conversation and dialogue with philosophical writing. Philosophy constructs worlds and metaphors and experiments that are very similar to the methods of art. Philosophy is a really important tool for artists who want to make smart work that engages with issues and aesthetics in a critical way. It helps artists to identify and communicate the significance of our work to ourselves and to our audiences. I find it very inspiring as I consider the intentions and outcomes of my own work. It’s also part of analyzing other people’s art work.

5. What art do you recommend in Miami right now?

The Perez Art Museum has a video piece by Arthur Jafa called Love is the Message, the Message is Death. It’s here until April, don’t sleep on it!