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Artist, Art, and Appreciation: Where Is There Space for Morality?

photograph of Polanski at Cannes

Roman Polanski, who confessed to drugging and raping a 13-year-old in 1977 and has had a new rape case brought against him this year, did not attend the Césars on February 28th. Protests denounced the 12 nominations his film, titled “J’accuse” and known in English as “An Officer And A Spy,”, received.

“By supporting the aggressors, by celebrating the aggressors, one does not allow the victims to speak out. Their word is denied,” Celine Piques of women’s activist group Osez le Feminisme said.

The entire academy announced their plans to step down following this year’s ceremony in response to disagreements over how to handle cases like Polanski’s. He has only avoided prosecution for his confessed crimes because he fled the US in the 70s; he is still wanted in the US.

“Distinguishing Polanski is spitting in the face of all victims. It means raping women isn’t that bad,” Actress Adele Haenel told The New York Times earlier this week. When Polanski won for best director, boos and shouts spread across the audience, and Haenel walked out, accompanied by others.

Despite the messages of the protestors, the history of resistance against working with Polanski, and France’s Culture Minister speaking out the day of the Césars to say that awarding Polanski with a Cesar would “send the wrong signals,” Polanski continued to characterize his absence from the awards as an attempt to avoid a “public lynching” by feminists.

Putting Polanski’s victim complex and reprehensible tone-deafness aside, we can attend to a common struggle that humans and cultures experience when it comes to valuing art.

It is a hallmark of societies since the Neolithic period that we produce art. Visual art, physical art, music – we are creative creatures that appreciate beauty. Further, so long as folks have theorized, we have come up with views about why we create art, what it is that makes things beautiful, and whether there is distinctive value in such objects and activities.

Cases like Polanski and “J’accuse,” and a disappointing number of others (R. Kelly, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, the list goes on), brings to the fore the question of how our moral evaluation of the creator of art influences or assessment of the art itself. This isn’t a simple question, however, and some distinctions serve us well in tackling the question.

First, there are different ways that something can be valuable. An action, object, or person, can be valuable because it serves a purpose and thus be instrumentally valuable. Or, such things can be valuable because they have moral worth: they could help someone in need, reduce harm, or contribute to a flourishing life. They could be morally valuable. They could be valuable because they are beautiful, or elevate our aesthetic experiences or understanding; this is roughly what we mean to capture when we say that something has aesthetic value.

At the Césars, the protestors claimed it was morally wrong to publicly appreciate Polanski’s art because of our moral evaluation of him as a person. Let’s consider the possible interactions of moral value and aesthetic value.

Some art is revealing in its engagement with immorality in its very content. For instance, part of what makes the work of art valuable is the immoral nature of the work itself: the anti-heroes or villains that play central or significant roles, or immoral actions that are key to the plots. Through exploring the more terrible parts of our natures and horrible things that humans can do, we may gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and each other. For some, the immoral content of a work (its lack of moral value) will impact the aesthetic value of the artwork. Most, however, can acknowledge the value in, say, the villainous Raskolnikov, or disgusting Humbert Humbert, or bullying and two-faced Snape.

However, perhaps it makes sense to be troubled by art with immoral content. If it has immoral effects like bringing out immoral aspects of the audience, or promoting immoral ends, we may have pause about the attitudes we see as appropriate to have towards the art. This conclusion rests on the empirical claims that appreciating or engaging with art that has suspect moral content does promote such ends, however. And there may be a spectrum of appreciation involved with recognition of aesthetic beauty that makes such empirical research difficult. When we recognize the narratives of Dostoevsky and Nabokov as immoral,should that diminish our appreciation of their beauty or technique? Or does it perhaps have implications for the behaviors we ought to consider morally appropriate to take up in relation to such works of art? In other words, there are, roughly, two stances here: we can take aesthetic value and moral content to be independent, or we can take aesthetic value to depend on the moral value of an artwork.

This brings us to another important part of assessing appropriate ways to engage art: its context. Art has performative force, whether it be visual art, performance art, music, or what have you. The context in which it exists is part of its nature and when we characterize the meaning of a work in order to determine the aesthetic or moral attitudes that are appropriate to have towards it, these features must be taken into consideration as well. A painting that is critical of a political leader has different meaning if presented in the square outside the building housing the governing body (where it may constitute a threat), or in a textbook. A piece of music by a classical composer performed for family and friends may not carry the same social messaging as the same music selected as the highlight of an orchestra’s season, where the historical lack of diversity in such selections can make this choice controversial.

These aspects of a work of art, the content and context, can affect how we value it. Or, we can attend to these aspects to consider what attitudes it is appropriate to have towards the art itself. (Or perhaps these amount to the same thing – what is the difference between “valuing” and having an attitude toward something?)

With these distinctions in mind, let’s return to the Césars. A third and controversial issue is how the features of the creator can affect the value of the art. The debate over the extent to which the author’s intention affects the meaning of a piece will continue to loom over discussions of art, but for cases where engaging with the art amounts to engaging with the creator, and praising or celebrating the art means elevating the creator in the community, profession, or culture, the question is less theoretical.

To, as a community, celebrate art by a powerful and immoral creator is, to many, morally reprehensible. This is distinct, it seems, from the judgment that the art is immoral. Rather, it is closer to a judgment about whether it should have been produced in the way that it was.

The film was the product of more than just Polanski’s efforts. A full cast, production team, and crew of people put forth extensive work in order for this artwork to be released and then nominated at the Césars (though they did not attend). Jean Dujardin, who was nominated for best actor in this film, was among those who worked on “J’accuse” and did not attend the ceremony. However, he posted on Instagram, “By making this film, I believed and I still believe I made more good than harm.”

Dujardin seems to have made the judgment that the aesthetic value of the art outweighs the negatives of working alongside, appearing to be indifferent to the wrongs of, or being part of celebrating the work of, Polanski. These are three ways of assessing the “harm” Dujardin could speak of. The “good” presumably is the work of art, which, according to the Césars, is a good film. But the cost of the good film is having a self-avowed sexual criminal in a position of power and influence in the film community for colleagues to work among. The cost of the film is to have those without the power and choices Dujardin has appear indifferent to such harms in order to succeed professionally, and for the outward effect of this appearance for other victims of gender-based violence to receive this appearance of indifference from the film industry. And the cost of the film is to have other films, not facilitated by people with this history, further marginalized by the communities that celebrate art.

Race, Authorship, and ‘American Dirt’: Who Owns Migration Narratives?

photograph of border wall stretching into the distance

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of our discussion questions, check out the Educational Resources page.


Fiction allows both readers and writers to inhabit perspectives wildly different from their own, which is perhaps one of its greatest attractions. However, this sense of fluidity has limitations, which are constantly being redrawn and contested within the literary community. For example, it’s hotly debated whether it’s possible, or even valuable, for a white author to inhabit the perspective of a person of color, or for an American to authentically reproduce the perspective of a Mexican migrant. What agendas do such appropriated narratives serve, and what do they tell us about what it means to be an author?

These questions can be explored through Jeanine Cummins’s novel American Dirt, and more broadly, through the storm of controversy surrounding the novel. American Dirt, published in January 2020 by Flatiron Books, tells the story of Lydia, a middle-class bookseller who flees Mexico with her young son after being targeted by the drug cartel that murdered her husband. Jeanine Cummins, the half-Irish half-Puerto Rican author, researched the novel for seven years, taking frequent trips to Mexico and conducting interviews with undocumented migrants to give her story a veneer of authenticity.

Almost immediately after the book was released, it inspired outrage in both professional critics and general readers alike. The most galvanizing of these reactions was Myriam Gurba’s review of the novel, in which she accuses Cummins of

“1. Appropriating genius works by people of color

2. Slapping a coat of mayonesa on them to make palatable […] and

3. Repackaging them for mass racially ‘colorblind’ consumption.”

Like many critics, Gurba takes issue with American Dirt’s reliance on racist cliches, labeling it thinly-veiled trauma porn geared at middle-class white readers rather than an authentic depiction of displacement and oppression. Many also took issue with the claim on the jacket of the book that Cummins’s husband immigrated to America illegally, a vague statement that purposefully lends more authority to her writing. However, the jacket fails to mention that her husband is a white man who immigrated to the States from Ireland, not Mexico.

Outraged with the commercial success the novel, 124 writers signed a letter urging Oprah Winfrey to remove American Dirt from her book club list. In the letter, the writers explain that,

“Many of us are also fiction writers, and we believe in the right to write outside of our own experiences: writing fiction is essentially impossible to do without imagining people who are not ourselves. However, when writing about experiences that are not our own, especially when writing about the experiences of marginalized people, still more especially when these lived experiences are heavily politicized, oppressed, threatened, and disbelieved—when this is the case, the writer’s duty to imagine well, responsibly, and with complexity becomes even more critical.”

Cummins writes in the novel’s defensive afterword that “the conversation [surrounding immigration] always seemed to turn around policy issues, to the absolute exclusion of moral or humanitarian concerns,” and that she only “wished someone slightly browner than me would write it.” Her stated aim is to encourage readers to sympathize with migrants through Lydia, a character whose “respectable” middle-class values will remind them of their own. Some of the books defenders have cited that approach as a necessary evil. On an episode of NPR’s “Latino USA” podcast, Sandra Cisneros, one of the novel’s few vocal advocates, argued that American Dirt is

“going to be [for an audience] who maybe is undecided about issues at the border. It’s going to be [for] someone who wants to be entertained, and the story is going to enter like a Trojan horse and change minds. And it’s going to change the minds that, perhaps, I can’t change.”

In other words, Cisneros is arguing that white authors can reach audiences that non-white authors won’t have access to, and that it’s a worthwhile task to move these audiences emotionally, even if harmful tropes are employed to do so.

Bob Miller, the president of Flatiron Books, issued a statement to address the controversy surrounding Cummins’s novel. He claims that Flatiron

“made serious mistakes in the way we rolled out this book. We should never have claimed that it was a novel that defined the migrant experience; we should not have said that Jeanine’s husband was an undocumented immigrant while not specifying that he was from Ireland […] We can now see how insensitive those and other decisions were, and we regret them.”

Miller acknowledges the validity of Cummins’s critics and the myopia of the publishing industry, stating that,

“the fact that we were surprised [by the controversy] is indicative of a problem, which is that in positioning this novel, we failed to acknowledge our own limits. The discussion around this book has exposed deep inadequacies in how we at Flatiron Books address issues of representation, both in the books we publish and in the teams that work on them.”

At the same time, he laments that “a work of fiction that was well-intentioned has led to such vitriolic rancor. While there are valid criticisms around our promotion of this book that is no excuse for the fact that in some cases there have been threats of physical violence [against Cummins].” In lieu of the planned book tour, the author will attend a series of “townhall meetings, where [Cummins] will be joined by some of the groups who have raised objections to the book.” Miller claims that this alternative “provides an opportunity to come together and unearth difficult truths to help us move forward as a community.”

The controversy surrounding American Dirt ties into a perennial debate on the relationship between identity and writing. In an article on the ethics of authorship for The New Yorker, Louis Menand explores two competing models of how identity impacts authorship. In the late 20th-century, the “hybrid” author was championed by white literary theorists. In that model, the author is a nebulous being with no fixed racial or gender identity, as such things were considered extraneous to the meaning of the text. The author can and should inhabit any role, regardless of who they are. But because of our growing consciousness of racial and gender politics, according to Menand,

“hybridity is out; intersectionality is in. People are imagined as the sum of their race, gender, sexuality, ableness, and other identities. Individuals not only bear the entire history of these identities; they ‘own’ them. A person who is not defined by them cannot tell the world what it is like to be a person who is. If you were not born it, you should not perform it.”

Menand’s description of intersectional authorship (and “intersectional” may not be the most accurate word to describe this model) feels almost petulant. Those who criticize insensitive portrayals of race or gender are cast by Menand as greedy gatekeepers, and those who are forced to write in such a climate are fettered by their identity. In actuality, the hybrid model allows harmful stereotypes to be reproduced by even well-meaning authors under the guise of imaginative fluidity. Furthermore, the intersectional model does not exclude the hybrid one as completely as Menand assumes, as authors can both inhabit different perspectives and remain sensitive to issues of race.

This point is evident in the critical reaction to American Dirt. Parul Sehgal, reviewing American Dirt for the New York Times, writes,

“I’m of the persuasion that fiction necessarily, even rather beautifully, requires imagining an ‘other’ of some kind. As the novelist Hari Kunzru has argued, imagining ourselves into other lives and other subjectives is an act of ethical urgency. The caveat is to do this work of representation responsibly, and well. […] Cummins has put in the research, as she describes in her afterword […] Still, the book feels conspicuously like the work of an outsider.”

The issue that Sehgal, and many other critics, have with the novel is not that Cummins made an attempt at inhabiting another perspective, but that the attempt was made without sensitivity to the political implications of the act. The letter addressed to Oprah further speaks to this criticism; the coalition of writers explicitly acknowledge that fiction is a place to explore identity, but explain that Cummins’s novel fails to give her subject the weight it deserves as a political issue. As Sehgal says,

“[American Dirt] is determinedly apolitical. The deep roots of these forced migrations are never interrogated; the American reader can read without fear of uncomfortable self-reproach. It asks only for us to accept that ‘these people are people,’ while giving us the saintly to root for and the barbarous to deplore—and then congratulating us for caring.”

In other words, such subject matter will always be political, and it is Cummins’s inability to acknowledge that which ultimately dooms her novel.

The publishing industry’s whiteness, as Miller acknowledges, plays a large role in what kind of stories considered worth telling, and writers should be allowed to take on different perspectives to broaden the horizons of the literary world. Writers are even morally obligated to acknowledge issues like immigration, to foster the growth of sympathy and connection between disparate groups. As British literary critic Frank Kermode said, “fictions are for finding things out, and they change as the needs of sense-making change. Myths are agents of stability, fiction the agents of change.” But ultimately, we cannot pretend that an American author appropriating the experience of an undocumented migrant is somehow not fraught with political meaning, just because it’s happening in the pages of a book.

Should Musician’s Intent Matter to Political Campaigns?

One should never underestimate Donald Trump’s taste for showmanship. Long synonymous with his brand, the candidate’s tendency towards spectacle was on display throughout the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last week. Seasoned politicians like Paul Ryan shared stage space with sports stars and soap opera celebrities. Highly stylized film trailer-esque clips emphasized the nominee’s expertise in a variety of areas. And, when Trump made his first appearance, he walked onstage to blinding lights and fog, a podium rising from the floor in front of him. In the background, Queen’s “We Are the Champions” sounded throughout the convention floor.  Continue reading “Should Musician’s Intent Matter to Political Campaigns?”