CW: Discussion of Politics, Bigotry, Anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment, Racism, Anti-Semitism, Spoilers for Attack on Titan.
Disclaimer: This blog contains my own opinions and experiences, anything described as ‘Fact’ is so considered within the limitations of my own strenuous research.
‘The Long Awaited’ – by Patricia Piccinini
Just of late I’ve been thinking about the ongoing argument of ‘Separating the Art from the Artist’ and the times and properties where that can and cannot be justified. A couple of things have prompted these thoughts: the Harry Potter property and its controversies, the ongoing popularity of Attack on Titan, among other things. There are questions around ‘What is art?’, ‘Why do we create art?’ and such that roll into the discussion so maybe start there.
What is Art/Why do we create Art?
Without diving into centuries of well established philosophical argument I think it can be widely accepted that art is an ‘Expression’. It’s an expression of something that has meaning to the artist, a place, a person, a feeling for example. ‘But What about Portraiture?’ you might ask, well. Perhaps painting images of people for money is an expression of the artist’s desire to eat, live in comfort and continue to create other forms of art? Art by it’s very nature is subjective, it defies regimented definition, this is why someone might offer thousands of pounds for a light switch in the Tate Modern or dispose of vintage paintings worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. One of my college Media lecturers said that, ‘Media is about provoking a response’ and art is much the same except it’s a response to something that has provoked the artist.
Given this very limited definition I would raise the argument that Propaganda, while it can be artistic, isn’t really art but Media no matter its form. As stated above, art is about the artist’s reaction; the painter, the author, the director has been moved by something to create a piece in response. Our society demands we earn and so art becomes a thing for public consumption, it is commissioned, it generates revenue but, if distilled down to its core, can art really be generated by someone who doesn’t believe in what they are doing or, more extreme, opposes it vehemently? Propaganda is about generating a response or, in fact, eliciting the same response in the audience, that the creator feels on a certain subject.
So, on separating the art, let’s open a grab-bag of creatives who have come into the orbit of my experience and maybe generated some controversy of their own.
In 1977 at forty-five years of age, married and internationally renowned painter Pablo Picasso seduced 17 year old Marie-Thérèse Walter, drawing her into a long-term affair that, even at the time, was illegal and immoral. They were together from 1926 until 1940 and had a child. The affair was a long-held secret. Although Picasso was invested in divorcing his then wife (Olga Khokhlova – a Ukranian ballet-dancer) Khokhlova was opposed to the idea, holding Picasso’s works hostage until an agreement was made. The divorce was never actualised, but she and Picasso were estranged and, for all intents and purposes, separated. Picasso is a problematic figure. No doubt he tried to use his notoriety to impress Walter (although she didn’t know who he was, he had to take her to a bookshop to show her) and he is widely considered a misogynist and narcissist. Still, he had a long-term platonic relationship with Gertrude Stein, a pioneer of gay culture, and painted her portrait six times. Can we separate the art from the artist? No, the stories around the art inform them, Picasso’s paintings of Walter and Stein are informed by understanding the depth of feeling involved.
Sleep and Portrait of Gertrude Stein – Pablo Picasso
Feeling B was a punk-rock band formed on the Communist side of the Berlin Wall in 1983. After writing a song about the Rammstein air-show disaster (in which over 70 people were killed when an aircraft ploughed into the crowd) they became know as ‘that band with the Rammstein song’ and eventually industrial metal group Rammstein was born. Rammstein has often been associated with the Far-Right. Their shows have been described as reminiscent of the Nazi Nuremburg night rallies, their costume and styling and the pounding rhythms of their songs seen as militaristic alongside the fact that, contrary to wider industry marketing practices, they record and distribute their songs in their native german. Are Rammstein the darlings of the Alt-Right? Good heavens no! A punk rock band formed under the oppression of the communist regime was never going to go facist. Rammstein draw on German culture and history to inform their punk-styled anti-establishment material. In 2019 in Poland (as anti LGBT+ laws were on the rise) they flew Pride flags at their concert. The same year, two members of the band kissed onstage in Russia in protest to the anti-LGBT+ laws coming in there too.
Rammstein in the music video for Deutchland – Warner Music Group
I watched the first season of Attack on Titan on Netflix and I loved it. I was coming back into Anime after a long hiatus and there was a lot of hype at the time. Stylistically AoT had a strong identity, a sort of Napoleonic war era feel but with the addition of ravenous man-eating giants of Titans. I also felt the story was well told with lots of opportunity for development both for the characters and the world. Then came the wait, when would season two be released? As I waited I searched and found one hell of a rabbit hole. You see, the light-novels the Netflix animation was based on were far progressed and boy-oh-boy was it problematic. Hajime Isayama’s work takes place in a world where a people knows as the Eldians had the power to transform into Titans. This ability was used to subjugate another race of people, the Marlyans. Eventually the Marlyans overcame the Eldyans, consigning them to an island where all knowledge of their past is suppressed. They believe themselves to be the only people on the planet and the titans to be monsters. Any Eldyan left on Marley is consigned to a ghetto and forced to wear a yellow armband embossed with a styalized star… yeah, let that sink in. The show’s protagonist, Erin Jaeger, goes on a journey from orphaned boy determined to wipe out the Titans, to secret weapon with the power to become a Titan, to military leader determined to re-establish the Eldyan empire… Of course, creator Hajime Isayama would never answer questions about the strong pro-military, fascist, anti-semitic elements of the piece, saying only that it was ‘not his place to influence the viewers’ perception of the piece’, (I paraphrase, but that’s the gist). One character, General Dot Pixis, is aknowledged to be based on real life Japanese General Akiyama Yoshifuru, who oversaw atrocities committed against Koreans and Chinese during Japanese occupations in World War 2.
Dot Pixis and General Akiyama Yoshifuru – Images courtesy of Netflix and Wikipedia
The first album I ever bought for myself was Back into Hell, one of a slew of Hell Bat themed albums produced by Arista Records after the overnight success of the Steinman/Meat Loaf collaboration ‘Bat Out of Hell’. I followed Meat Loaf for a long time, after he dissappeared from the scene until he reappeared after a long absence with ‘Welcome to the Neighborhood’ in 1995 with Geffen (after Sony spent a large portion of the 80’s/90’s suing Meat for all he had) and onward. I’ve seen ‘Bat Out of Hell the Musical’ twice. I regarded Steinman’s lyrics as something of an oft-light-hearted take on the American teen romance, interspersed with some truly moving works and real jump-up-and-dance numbers. I never really paid attention to either artists’ politics. They met in LA in the 70’s and nothing they performed together seemed too politically motivated, I just enjoyed the music. Imagine my disappointment when, during the Covid crisis I discovered that Meat was a fairly active voice for the anti-mask, antivaxx movement. Given that he collapsed on-stage in Pittsburg in 2022 from an asthma-attack I’d have hoped he wouldn’t have fallen to that side. I will admit I haven’t listened to any of the Jim/Meat collection since Meat passed, I can’t really distinguish between the grief and the dissappointment associated with his views on Covid vaccination. It’s a complicated issue with many personal facets.
Of course, the big one doing the rounds is J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter. I’ve often been advised to keep my council. I am, after all, only just starting out in an industry where once Rowling was queen, and her followers are still many, vocal and, at times, capable of hateful and hurtful things (but they are not in any way exclusive in that department). Still, I know many people who were, or are, invested in the Harry Potter intellectual property. For whatever reason they cannot bring themselves to be parted from it. For myself, I avoided the furour surrounding the Potterverse. I’d read ‘The Worst Witch’ by Jill Murphy and graduated onto the socio-politically savvy works of Terry Pratchett. To me Rowling’s works were a poor pretender, the accusations of rampant plagiarism steered me away. Eventually I watched the movies, with friends and family, but still didn’t really get the hype. What I saw was a Totalitarian State, hidden behind the curtain, who tarred the wider humanity and those of mixed-pareantage with racial slurs and hate-speech, a world populated with thinly veiled stereotypes where a creep and an abuser was hailed as a ‘tragic hero’. Then it started, retroactive claims of representation, a rise in transphobia, back and forth, the fan-base laying claim to the works, celebrities coming out for or against, ‘cancel culture!’ on the rise and decried at length, and on and on. Most recently ‘Hogwarts Legacy’, a game rife with anti-semitism, helmed by controversial figure Troy Leavitt (Controversial?! He spoke out against GamerGate and the #MeToo movement!) until his departure in March 2021. It seems from her most recent social media that Rowling refuses to allow herself to be separated from her art, stating that the continued consumption of HP merchandise shows public support for her anti-trans views (‘or, at least, isn’t a deal-breaker’ in her words). Rowling continues to espouse her rhetoric of hate to anyone who will listen and uses the continued success of the Potter-verse to justify herself and lend herself relevence.
So, when can we separate the artist from the art? As with many things, it just isn’t that simple. Is the artist using their art and platform as a means to harm others? Is it art or is it propaganda? I think I’d rather hang a Picasso in my living-room, than make room on my shelves for a brand new set of Harry Potter books, and I’d much rather listen to Meat Loaf or Rammstein, than watch Attack on Titan again. Like anything, Art itself isn’t inherently evil, neither is it inherently good, something made as propaganda for the purposes of hate can still have artistic merit, or be used for satire. Rammstein famously used sequences from Leni Riefenstahl’s 1936 film Olympia, a Nazi propaganda film promoting the Berlin Olympics of 1936, a film which is also number 37 on the BBC list ‘Top 100 Films Directed by Women’. But sadly, in the case of HP, the damage is ongoing, the hurt and the hate is real, and the artist will not step away from her platform.
Is it ‘Cancel Culture’? Or is it ‘Consequence Culture’?