June 6, 2013

Quick Hits, of a Mostly Familiar Nature

Here are a few brief stories that caught my attention while I was away getting’ matrimonyed. A couple of them tap into things I’ve written about before, so they’re a bit familiar. I’m working my way back into things, obviously.

Public Art for Fun & Profit

Back in April I wrote about the latest example of now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t public art that was creating a stir. In that case, it was a Banksy mural in the London neighborhood of Harringey that appeared, as much of his stuff does, overnight. Several months later it disappeared just as suddenly. At the time, there were issues over who removed the mural and what it’s fate might be.

Flash forward to last Sunday, when “Slave Labor (Bunting Boy)” fetched a cool $1.1 million at a private auction in London. That came after an initial auction in Miami was scuttled at the behest of the Harringey town counsel. Not surprisingly, the ones selling the mural were the owners of Wood Green Investments, who owned the building upon which it was installed. They were entirely within their rights to do so.

Art Is Not the Artist

I’ve argued before that it’s best to separate an artist from his art. I don’t really begrudge people who can’t or won’t do that, but I think it’s a bit short sighted. You cut yourself off from a lot of interesting art if it all has to pass through some kind of ethical litmus test. Besides, on a practical level, I’d rather you not read what I write because it sucks instead of the fact that I’m a Democrat/atheist/prog fan/DC United supporter.

Here’s a recent example of where getting up on your high horse might not be that good of an idea. A grad student at Northwestern, a member of the University Chorale, objected to being required to perform a particular piece, Howard Hansen’s Song of Democracy. Not because it was too difficult or aesthetically poor, but because the lyrics for that piece were taken from a Walt Whitman poem and Whitman, as were many of his contemporaries, was a big-time racist. The professor threatened to fail the student, but it’s unclear how the dispute was resolved.

It’s one thing to object to performing something that in and of itself is racists, sexists, whatever. But backing up further and requiring ethical purity from the original author is composer is really asking for trouble. As my friend who was recently-doctored in conducting pointed out, such a litmus test would eliminate most of the cannon of established Western music.

I’d go on to argue it would do the same with art, literature, and nearly any other endeavor. And while nobody can take away your right to take umbrage at such things, aren’t there more important things to worry about than whether the lyricist of a song you have to sing in class was a douchebag a century and a half ago?

Oh My, Sexy Werewolves! In Prison!

Finally, here’s a fun story that actually raises important issues of free speech and criminal justice. An inmate in California has won the right to possess (and read, presumably) a book called The Silver Crown. Why did he have to go to court in the first place?
The 262-page novel tells the story of Iris, a werewolf hunter who ends up falling in love with one of her prey. The book contains ‘a great number of graphic sexual encounters, one per chapter through most of the book, including detailed descriptions of intercourse, sodomy, oral-genital contact, oral-anal contact, voyeurism, exhibitionism and ménage à trois. Semen is mentioned,’ Richman wrote.
The judge also notes that the book doesn’t advocate or advance violence and the sex isn’t really all that weird and doesn’t include, for example, bestiality (unless, the judge explains, you include the werewolves!).

Prisons generally aren’t keen on letting inmates have possession of sexually-related materials. The wife used to tell me about dealing with those kinds of regulations during her days at Borders. So it’s a bit of a pleasant surprise to see a court not simply bow down to the prison’s regulations.

But what’s really amusing is that you can tell the judge wasn’t all that happy about having to deal with The Silver Crown in the first place:
’Personally, we would be hard-pressed to say The Silver Crown has ‘significant’ literary value and is a work ‘of great import,’ Richman wrote. But, he concluded, ‘we cannot simply dismiss the work as nonserious literature because it deals with werewolves and other paranormal creatures and activities. For better or worse, some segment of the population is fascinated by werewolves and other mythical beings. ... Werewolves, in fact, have played a role in popular fiction for centuries.’
I’m not sure anyone who writes about himself in the third person gets to knock anybody else’s literary choices.

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