Society

Let's Not Let Political Correctness Ruin Art

Too often works of art are being judged not by their aesthetic or intellectual merit, but on how closely they toe a certain ideological line.

M.L. by L.d. V.
M.L. by L.d. V.
Gaspard Koenig

-Essay-

PARIS — Harvey Weinstein has not only earned himself a healthy dose of infamy, but also immortality — as an inspiration for contemporary artists.

David Mamet's latest play, Bitter Wheat, features Barney Fein, a predatory producer played by John Malkovich. The play, currently performing in London, takes a critical view of the character's cynicism and brutality. In the meantime, at the Basel International Fair, visual artist Andrea Bowers is paying tribute to the #MeToo movement with an exhibit of photos and public texts of Weinstein's victims.

But in both cases, the authors' good intentions backfired. Bitter Wheat, which I found ingenious and subtly comical, was unanimously condemned by critics for not exploring the feelings of the young woman harassed by Fein, while Andrea Bowers had to hastily remove the photos of a journalist who could not bear to see her trauma exposed in public.

Since when should art reproduce a social norm?

These are clear cases of the "sprinkler getting sprinkled" (l'arroseur arrosé), as we say in French. Works created to support the morals of the time end up getting disgraced for not doing so sufficiently.

What better way to illustrate how much #MeToo has penetrated the creative world? Spotify banished R&B singer R. Kelly, accused of sexual abuse, from its algorithms; Abdellatif Kechiche caused a scandal in Cannes for including female eroticism in his new film Mektoub My Love.

Museums are now being asked to sort through their paintings. Under public pressure, the Manchester Art Gallery has removed from its exhibition the pre-Raphaelite painting Hylas and the Nymphs, by J.W. Waterhouse, who had the impudence to represent graceful women immersed among water lilies.

Painting Hylas and the Nymphs by J.W. Waterhouse — Photo: Manchester Art Gallery

Literature is not spared: American publishing houses hire "sensitivity readers' whose job is to ensure that texts do not offend anyone. Censorship feeds self-censorship: My own publisher questioned, with regards to my last manuscript, whether the adjective "redheaded" to designate a woman was not "a little sexist"...

Works are no longer judged on their aesthetic or intellectual merit, on their ability to disturb us or to show us the complexity of human feelings, but on their ideological correctness. We might end up with post-its pasted on books and paintings, just as the Church had the naked bodies covered on Michelangelo's Last Judgment.

This isn't about denying the importance of #MeToo in completing the long process of gender equality. But since when should art as a refuge for rebels and iconoclasts reproduce a social norm, regardless of how legitimate that norm may be?

An art that does not offend anyone is not worthy of its name.

This disturbing process of moralization is denounced with his usual talent by Bret Easton Ellis in his latest book (and first essay), White, which promises to become the bible of all liberals who are afraid of the ravages of good thinking. The American Psycho author is well placed to observe the evolution of the U.S. art scene over the past 30 years. He sees this "growing inability to accept points of view that differ from the status quo of moral superiority" as a new kind of fascism.

But tolerance is not imposed authoritatively. In the name of what vision of progress can we call for censorship, mob up on people in social networks, or silence speakers? As a unabashed homosexual, Easton Ellis protested against the perpetual victimization of various communities. He regrets that artists can no longer "go to the dark side, explore taboos, make inappropriate jokes or put forward opposing opinions." An art that does not offend anyone is not worthy of its name.

"Abdellatif Kechiche caused a scandal with his new film Mektoub My Love" — Photo: IMDB

Easton Ellis summarizes his thesis in one sentence: "Look at art, not the artist." Basically, we are plunged back into the unending quarrel of the Contre Sainte-Beuve, in which French author Marcel Proust refuted the work of the French literary critic, Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, who saw the work of writers as a reflection of their personal lives.

Today, the new censors would like to treat the artists' creations as a reflection of their political opinions, judging each other by the yardstick of the others. What we need, rather, is to remember Proust's arguments, which is that the two should be dissociated.

Kanye West supporting Trump doesn't take anything away from his rapping. Conversely, the fact that Mektoub My Love embraces a resolutely male fantasy bias does not detract from Kechiche's talent. Indeed, let's have less Sainte-Beuve and more Bret Easton Ellis!

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Society

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel

-Essay-

BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.


Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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