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Friday, December 26, 2008

Art and Artists

This mornings Boston Globe told us that Eartha Kitt and Harold Pinter had passed away.  On page A-1 Mr Pinter got the bigger splash, but Ms Kitt came back in the Obits, as my wife pointed out to me.

Fortunately, my wife pointed it out to me, because I was in high dungeon about Mr Pinter, who, as Roger Simon says, "hated us," getting the big billing. I was going to write to the editor. One of the great things about having freedom of speech and freedom of the press is I can write a letter to the editor--and in the case of The Boston Globe even get it recorded in their weekly chart of letters. That said, I am still not sure what the horizontal axis on the Globe weekly letter chart means. I think it needs to be explained.

I have liked Eartha Kitt ever since my parents bought the record of "New Faces of 1952." On it Eartha Kitt was a terrific singer. If I had never heard Edith Piaf, it would have been enough to have heard Eartha Kitt.

But, back to Roger Simon, his Christmas post on Pajamas Media explores the question of art and politics. Having been taken to the woodshed early in my blogging career (last month, I think) for panning a show before I saw it, I am using Mr Simon as my point man on Pinter. The original post is here and below is a fairly extensive quote from Mr Simon.

What we are facing here, I submit, is what we might call the Ezra Pound Perplex or, alternatively, the Leni Riefenstahl Dilemma? Forget the Nobel Prize, which has indeed become a racket, assuming it was ever anything else. Pinter’s death raises a more important question. What do we do with great artists whose political ideas are anathema to us? How do we regard their work?

I don’t think we have much choice but to take it on a case-by-case basis. Riefenstahl is easy. She put her immense cinematic talent (her gifts were larger, I think, than either Pound’s or Pinter’s) at the behest of the most heinous of genocidal dictators. She deserves consignment to the Ninth Ring of Artistic Hell. Of course, Pound was to some extent similar, enamored as he apparently was with Italian fascism. But, perhaps because I always found his poetry too prolix for my taste (or intelligence), I remain somewhat agnostic on his confusing politics. Nevertheless, they leave a distinct distaste in my mouth that has prevented me from delving into Pound further.

Pinter is many degrees different. His politics, I think, was mostly governed by chic, veering as he did to the left in the 1980s to be part of the typical London theater crowd (cf. Vanessa Redgrave). It’s not surprising really that his work was already declining at that point. I would imagine that he was tremendously frustrated by that decline. Pinter was a minimalist and it’s hard for minimalists to evolve without eradicating what they do. So he became something of a crotchety old political man, attacking Thatcher, Blair or whoever else he could blame. But does that invalidate his previous work? Not for me. Art is a larger tent than that. I will forgive Harold Pinter his political excrescences on his death.
So, I give due respect to Mr Pinter for his talent, but the truth is, I like Eartha Kitt so much more.

As an aside, Harold Pinter's widow is Lady Antonia Fraser. To quote a commenter on Roger Simon's blog: "there is a wonderful, interesting historian. I love her books and recommend them highly."

Regards : -- : Cliff

1 comment:

Craig H said...

I agree, Eartha Kitt was something special. Interesting how artists' politics can make them for some, and break them for others.

For myself, I recall her becoming pariah in the sixties for standing up to Lady Bird Johnson, in her own White House no less, with a quote something to the gist of: (courtesy of the AP who remembered it) "You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. They rebel in the street. They don't want to go to school because they're going to be snatched off from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam". (She didn't work for years after that one...)

The CIA and FBI investigations that went on for years all branded her as profane and promiscuous, but the people who loved her as an artist understood her differently. I think we're all a little bit better off for being able to appreciate art for art's sake, and we should all ask ourselves what sort of a country we'd prefer to live in, that someone expressing their opinions should have to endure what she did for it.

The difference for me is that Riefenstahl used her artistic abilities for profane purpose. Eartha Kitt was just an entertainer, and a fine one at that.