A struggle with, and an appreciation for, what Alyssa Rosenberg and her blog does. This may be one of the more “two-handed backhand” compliments Alyssa Rosenberg receives on her blogging. Please do keep in mind that I’m genuinely a fan. Also, this post is long and roundabout, as per the usual Blaise Pascal reasoning.
I didn’t watch the Grammys, but I hear Chris Brown was on a lot. In case you don’t know, Chris Brown is an R&B singer and, from everything we know, a terrible person. The fact that Chris Brown featured so prominently made a lot of people indignant, even though being a good musician has very little to do with not being a terrible person. As mentioned in connection with Chris Brown, Lead Belly actually killed somebody, which doesn’t make his music not great. Luckily (from a philosophical if not auditory standpoint), Chris Brown isn’t a very good musician, thus this version of what Scott Lemieux terms “The Polanski Problem” is a very simple one to resolve.
But not all of them are. Scott merges the problem of artists who are terrible people with the politics of artists and their art. As it happens, these are somewhat different questions in their specifics, in that terrible people often have politics I agree with very strongly and vice versa, but I think his rationale in conflating the two questions is that one is likely to have the same answer to both of them: if you can enjoy the work of someone with a deplorable personal life, then you can enjoy the work of someone with despicable politics. What he has to say generally on the “Polanski Problem” I agree with wholeheartedly.
Thus, it is often frustrating to me to read Alyssa Rosenberg’s blog, because it is all about whether a certain artwork has progressive politics, and whether it was made by a progressive person, and whether the act of making it has featured progressive politics (e.g. are women, minorities, unions involved?). While Alyssa is often not satisfied with “bad”* art simply for “good”* politics, she often does disparage art simply for having bad politics. She is explicitly political in her suggestions (e.g. see here), and it seems like when treating something she enjoys, she will try to make the case that it has good politics, even if that case is weak. As cultural criticism, it can come off a little Stalinist. At the very least, since I am able to enjoy art with terrible politics, this is not the thing I’m most interested in seeing someone discuss about art and culture.
Like me complaining about the Economist being economics-centred, this criticism is silly – the Center for American Progress is a political institution, and the politics of art is exactly the blog’s point. Publications and blogs have particular vantage points and themes, and these can be completely valid, only they are not the vantage points I am most interested in. So why read it? As mentioned, I don’t read the Economist (except for the obituaries), but I do read Alyssa’s blog. The difference is that in Alyssa’s case, it’s not just some other vantage point. It is one that, while sometimes grating, is helping make the arts, and the world, better.
So if I wasn’t watching the Grammys this weekend, what was I doing? As it happens, I had guests staying over and one of them suggested that I watch (and watched with me) an episode of late 70’s british sitcom Mind Your Language. Now, I’ve never been a particularly big Monty Python fan, but I guess the reason they were so well-loved is that stuff like Mind Your Language was the alternative at the time. It’s not even that the show is so ridiculously racist (which it is) that is the problem. It’s that because the entire focus is on ethnic gags, there isn’t anything else there. The Spanish dude who just says “por favor?” instead of everything – there’s not a joke there, it’s just a guy who keeps saying “por favor?” The Chinese girl who rotates l and r in every word (and the Japanese guy who does the same), these aren’t jokes. If we didn’t have Alyssa Rosenberg to point out that this is unacceptable, we’d never move beyond this. We need to demand more. Someone needed to be shaming the makers of Mind Your Language for a more interesting television show about race to be made. Someone needs to shame Chris Brown, and if that is impossible, shame people into not encouraging Chris Brown. The person who is doing the shaming isn’t someone whose opinion on art I would trust strongly in an aesthetic sense. Privately, I might think Chris Brown’s music is awesome (as mentioned, it isn’t). But publically, that shaming role is vital and necessary. I’m glad Alyssa Rosenberg is out there.
Also, another point in favour of Alyssa’s blog is that she put up this video of George R.R. Martin adapting nursery rhymes to Westeros:
* scare quotes implicit for all instances of good and bad in this post