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.
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!