Singleton, however, argued that the film should be included precisely because it was so racist and defamatory – it would, he said, serve to remind future generations of their bigoted antecedents. An informed citizen must be aware of the racism embedded in such works so as to be able to produce an informed critique of them.
The operas of Richard Wagner continue to prompt the same type of questions about separating politics and ethics from art. Art, it is argued, exists in a world entirely separate from the artist who produced it. If we were to censor the works of all those who are racist, antisemitic, sexist, or homophobic then a whole slice of world culture would be confined to the scrapheap.
Long before Roland Barthes wrote The Death of the Author, artists such as James McNeill Whistler were arguing that art should stand alone. The New Critics of the 1950s strongly endorsed this idea – insisting that art should be enjoyed without recourse to the historical or biographical context of the artist. Mostly southern white men from the Ivy Leagues, they argued that art was a pure cultural product that should not be muddied by “politics”.
Not everyone agreed with them. In the 1970s, African American, Native American, queer and feminist critics argued forcefully against their stance, pointing out that it is easy to insist upon the purity of art when you are part of a cultural elite unaware of the historical realities of racism, poverty or homophobia. The job of the audience is not to turn a blind eye to art’s context, but to educate themselves about it.
I agree with them. Suggesting that one should enjoy art without thoughtful consideration of its context is asking the audience to turn off their intellect: don’t think, just enjoy. It is an extremely condescending viewpoint, not least because the people advocating it tend to come from the privileged classes. What are they so afraid of? What is wrong with encouraging people to think critically? Why not discuss Wagner’s rabid racism alongside his sublime music?
by, Leah Garrett, Loti Smorgon research professor of contemporary Jewish thought and culture at Monash University