Thought / #ethics

Would King David have watched Woody Allen films?

What do we do with great art made by not-so-great people?

Fri 12 Jan, 2018

Towards the end of last year, a friend pointed me towards an article in The Paris Review entitled ‘What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?’ Weinstein and Spacey had recently been exposed and other members of the America’s entertainment aristocracy were being called out one by one.

In the article, Claire Dederer reflects more widely than the villains of the moment, considering the likes of Roman Polanski, Wagner and Woody Allen, to ask the question: what can we do with great art made by not-so-great people? She writes:

‘They did or said something awful, and made something great. The awful thing disrupts the great work; we can’t watch or listen to or read the great work without remembering the awful thing. Flooded with knowledge of the maker’s monstrousness, we turn away, overcome by disgust. Or … we don’t. We continue watching, separating or trying to separate the artist from the art. Either way: disruption. They are monster geniuses, and I don’t know what to do about them.’

As I read the article, I found myself thinking about Psalm 101. In the second verse, King David outlines the governing concern of the psalm:

I will be careful to lead a blameless life…

So how did David show this care?

I will walk in my house 

with blameless heart

I will set before my eyes

no vile thing (vv 2-3)

Now, I have no idea whether David was thinking about works of art here, but he certainly felt there was a link between not looking at certain things and living blamelessly before God. But how did he decide if something was vile? Well, interestingly, he immediately moves from things to people:

‘The deeds of faithless men I hate;

They shall not cling to me.

Men of perverse heart shall be far from me’ (vv3-4)

Now here’s the link with the Paris Review article. The people who Claire Dederer calls monsters, David calls faithless, and he doesn’t want them to cling to him, he wants to keep them well away from him, in regards to the deeds they do. I don’t think it’s too much of a jump to apply this to the things they make as well.

And what is his alternative?

‘My eyes will be on the faithful in the land,

That they may dwell with me;

He whose walk is blameless

Will minister to me’ (v6)

So ‘what should we do with the art of monstrous men?’ Well, many have taken this psalm to give us David’s answer. Have nothing to do with it, instead dwell with people who are faithful. Let them minister to you through their work.

I’ll be honest, I have mixed feelings about this interpretation. I have found this psalm a helpful guide to my artistic consumption or non-consumption over the years, but I’ve also found it a little confusing. The devil, as they say, is in the detail. For David, the faithless weren’t doing satanic rituals or sexually assaulting women. They were ‘slandering their neighbour in secret’ (v 5) and they had ‘haughty eyes and a proud heart’ (v 5). He doesn’t write ‘no-one who uses his power to exploit women shall ever produce movies streamed on my TV’, but ‘no-one who practises deceit will dwell in my house; no-one who speaks falsely will stand in my presence’ (v 7).

So, is it that no liars, gossips and braggarts are allowed through the door then? Follow that through and you’ll have no friends, quite apart from how sparsely populated your bookcase, CD cabinet or DVD collection is.

Apply it a little more strictly to give yourself a real headache. Let’s say that you should steer well clear of poets who have a track record of moral monstrosity. Well, you wouldn’t just be cutting down on your Byron and Ezra Pound; you wouldn’t be reading this psalm either! Adultery and murder, anyone?

So, we need to be careful not to over apply this psalm, however, the basic points still stand.

Firstly, we need to be careful to live righteous lives. The puritanical abstinence of our forebears has been replaced by an unthinking consumption for many Christians today. This doesn’t seem like a very good idea at all.

Secondly, who we spend time with, in terms of close friendships but also through the things those people make and may well deposit in our homes, will affect how we live- positively or negatively. As Paul told the Corinthians: “Bad company corrupts good character.” (1 Corinthians 15:33) This should factor in our thinking.

Again, we have to think this through. This doesn’t just apply to the Roman Polanskis and Kevin Spaceys of this world. Interestingly, Dederer’s article moves in a surprising direction. She ends up turning the sights on herself and concluding that actually we’re all monsters in our own uniquely deviant ways. As Christians, we may not put it in those exact words, but I think we’d be largely on the same page. If I watch Woody Allen’s ‘Love and Death’, I must be aware that something of Woody Allen will rub off on me, and I must ask the question, from what I know about him: do I want that to happen? However, when I watch any film or listen to any song or read any poem, something of the maker of that piece will rub off on me. As the work is set before our eyes or ears, that artist will, in a sense, dwell with us.

Very simply then, when considering what for me is a ‘vile thing’ (and surely I must have a category for such a thing even if I cannot apply it to anyone other than me) one of the factors should be ‘who made it?’ It is not just the content that is relevant, but the author, and if I conclude that the author wouldn’t be the kind of person who would help me lead a blameless life, well that may be an indication that their work may be worth avoiding.

Another key idea in the psalm is the idea of who will minister to me, and this is important too. There’s some art that I won’t go near. Not much actually, but some. There’s other art that I’m prepared to dabble in, carefully (I hope) sifting out the bad and holding on to the good. Then, there’s the art that I actively let minister to me. The songs that are constantly on my mental playlist, the films that I rewatch and quote ad nauseum, the books that I let get under my skin. Those works are different. I want to be much more careful about those. This is where I’m sensitive to letting monsters in. I’m not necessarily using Dederer’s categorisation here either. But, as a rule of thumb, I think if hanging around with that person wouldn’t help me love Jesus more, well then I probably don’t want them ministering to me through their artistic creations.

And this leads neatly into one final observation. We should ask ‘what do we do with the art of monstrous people?’ but we should also ask ‘what do we do to balance out the ‘deeds of faithless men’ that will probably ‘cling to me’ to some degree, whether I like it or not?’ We cannot live in a state of quarantine. This doesn’t mean we don’t try to avoid ‘vile things’, but I think it means that we are even more proactive in setting our eyes on ‘the faithful in the land’. I know it may sound basic, but this has always been one of the many reasons why at this time of year, I’m very keen to make sure my year’s Bible reading plan is sorted. As we seek to carefully lead blameless lives, we need to be constantly ministered to by God’s word. It’s true, the individual authors don’t meet the requirements of Psalm 101, but as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit, God uses them to minister to us in purity in a world which is rotten, in truth in a world full of smooth talking crooks, and in wisdom in a world that seems to have lost its mind, as well as its soul.

I know it’s not rocket science, but in a world full of monsters, who’ll invade our homes, whether we like it or not (in a sense, there’s one there already!) we mustn’t take our eyes off God’s own faithful witness.

So, what do we do with the art of monstrous men? Well, we decide whether 2018 will be a Genesis to Revelation year or will we try that Murray M’Cheyne plan that Bible teachers always tweet about at the beginning of January.

What’s your plan?

I rap. I write. I help run Sputnik. Yes yes y’all.

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