Does ideology matter in art?

In the comments on my post about preparing your child for the coming anarchy an interesting side conversation broke out, one that I thought deserved its own post. The consensus of the commentary on that post was that reading was an important skill to encourage critical thinking and an interest in the world. Then controversy arose when one commenter called Orson Scott Card “a Motherf*cking Bigot” and I agreed. I said:

I couldn’t believe it. After reading Ender I was like “This book is great! Who is the authour?” and turns out he is a hardcore Mormon religious nutbar. I almost regret looking it up because now I find it hard to enjoy his other writing.

M-BONE related his own experience of being put off by HP Lovecraft’s anti-semitism. Lexington Green on the other hand, chided us:

An artist’s work, his art, is what matters. All the other stuff that he does is irrelevant. Judging Card or Lovecraft for their political views is like saying that a brilliant brain surgeon’s work is diminished because he cannot make a good ham sandwich. Further, artists are often weird, out of step people.

Thus the question: should the ideological and political background of an author influence the reading of his work?

I think this is an interesting line of debate, and would like to continue it here in a new thread. Below the fold I have reproduced the relevant comments from the parenting post. Read through and post your thoughts below.

@Lex Art for art’s sake is one thing, but any critical assessment of literature must take account of an artist’s background and worldview. Obviously, some background is more relevant. To take your example, I would have no problem with a ham-sandwich challenged surgeon, but would have a BIG problem if he thought there was an afterlife and any final responsibility or “judgement” of his scalpel-hand laid with his imaginary friend in the sky.

Let me qualify my previous statement about the brain surgeon, I think it came off a little too broad. Whether or not the surgeon’s background is religious or not doesn’t matter. What would cause me concern is if his previous record wasn’t sterling, and he tried to console me before an operation by telling me that everything will be all right because Jeebus loves me. That, in my opinion, would make his background relevant.

I think some of Card’s later works, those dealing with Ender’s guilt, reflect this point of view.

“Lovecraft for their political views is like saying that a brilliant brain surgeon’s work is diminished because he cannot make a good ham sandwich.”

Different with Lovecraft. Many of his works have clearly racist descriptions of Africans, anti-interracial marriage themes, etc. Also, when you know that he is paranoid about “ghastly” foreigners polluting pure American blood, you have little choice but to read his stories about creeping demons from across the sea, the stars, or dark conclaves of “alien (foreign in this case) filth” kidnapping American children, much differently. It might be different with Card, but with Lovecraft, it is in the work and the biography just makes it more obvious.

“… any critical assessment of literature must take account of an artist’s background and worldview.”

I don’t agree. The work can be assessed as it is, without any reference to the author, who he is, where he came from, or what he claimed to be doing. Often I see elaborate works of biography of authors, which is not bad, but most of us would be better off reading their books.

Do you really thing a surgeon who was, say, a practicing Catholic would do a worse job, or be less likely to try to keep you alive, than an atheist?


Do you really think a surgeon who was, say, a practicing Catholic would do a worse job, or be less likely to try to keep you alive, than an atheist?

That is not at all what I am saying. I am talking about when it is appropriate to examine the background of the “artist” doing the work. In the case of the surgeon, if he is doing a good job, no problems. If he has a string of bad cases we are bound to ask “Why?” If I find out that he is a recently converted Buddhist and believes whole-heartedly in reincarnation, I might surmise that he doesn’t take his job in this life seriously enough. I know that sounds like a stretch. I am just trying to use the metaphor that we established earlier. There are millions of Catholic medical practitioners doing a great job in the US today. That I would not, and could not, deny. That said, there are many cases of religious worldview interfering with medical practice. The recent case of the Oregon couple who relied on prayer instead of medical care comes to mind. This is why the case of Francis Collins is so worrisome. I think many scientists thought that the “Gog and Magog” years of Bush were behind them, then this guy comes around.

Anyways, back to your comment “The work can be assessed as it is, without any reference to the author.” On this sparse level, you are absolutely right. A work should stand on its own, and work on its own internal logic. But not all novels are “Lord of the Rings”. To analyse shortcomings we must go beyond the text. I think that is the point where we look to background, intellectual and political environment, etc: when there seems to be a leap of logic that does not make sense based on the text alone.

Not sure what your reference to the Lord of the Rings means. If any book needed the biography of the author and a study of its influences, it is LOTR.

The idea that the focus should be on the text is not some knuckle-dragging view. Cleanth Brooks and the new critics took this view, as did, in a different way, Leo Strauss and his followers, and in yet a different way, certain postmodernists (whom I only know indirectly) who treated the text almost as a found object and claimed (I think rightly) that the author’s statement of what he was doing or trying to do in a particular writing is entitled to know special privilege. What he wrote is what is on the page and either successfully speaks for itself or it does not — at least in the case of artistic literature that has no ulterior object beyond artistic gratification.

The value of this approach is that the reader does put himself in a false, presumptuous stance of thinking that he knows better than the author what the author wanted to say. Take the book seriously as it is. The personal psychology of the author is a distraction and in any case can never really be known, whereas every word and comma and space and paragraph indentation of the book is fixed and known and shared.

An over-focus on the author’s political views, sexual orientation, favorite kind of ice cream, etc. Is less useful to understanding the book than reading the book, and if it is good, reading it again carefully.

Lovecraft could have been a fascist, a communist, a drag queen, a successful insurance executive, or a war hero, and we may learn the odd new, stray fact about him personally — but “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” is immutably the same, whoever and whatever the author was.

I would say “to analyze shortcomings” we look at the text and say, based on aesthetic judgment, that it is or is not well executed; or based on moral criteria, that it does or does not depict something in an offensive way, or make an argument whose ethical thrust we disagree with. Possessing these criteria is in a sense “going beyond the text”, I suppose. Again, the milieu of the writer may be of interest, much less so his specific biographical details.

All that said, a “fannish” devotion to a writer’s works usually leads to a fascination with his personality and biography, though it is usually a let-down, since most fiction writers spend their time writing, which is boring to read about.

But, this question of how to approach a book is all a matter of personal style, I suppose.

“Lovecraft could have been a fascist, a communist, a drag queen, a successful insurance executive, or a war hero, and we may learn the odd new, stray fact about him personally — but “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” is immutably the same, whoever and whatever the author was. ”

I don’t agree. If Hitler had gone on to become a famous stand up comic and advocate for harmonious race relations, we would read Mein Kampf as parody, no? On a similar level, if Anne Frank had survived the war, would her diary really mean as much to readers? Could it possibly? Some works gain their aesthetic interest because of how they fit with an author’s biography.

While the “nothing outside the text” readings are valid as literary criticism, I’m a historian and tend to approach works of literature as both aesthetic and historical documents and according to the mainstream of humanities empiricism/pragmatism/positivism, text and context have to be considered together. I think that this is the way that most readers approach literature – assuming that we get something of what critic Umberto Eco called “the empirical author” meant when writing.

“word and comma and space and paragraph indentation of the book is fixed and known and shared. ”

But the meanings of metaphors and themes are by no means shared or fixed. In addition, the “nothing beyond the text” style of criticism also denies the idea of words possessing authentic shared meanings, negating, in effect, the idea that the words of the text have verifiable meanings (or signifier / signified relations) outside of the text either. Is the “intent” of a work / author knowable? No, on a philosophical level it is not something that is objectively empirically verifiable. Can we get some insight into meanings at the time that the work was written? I believe that we can and that this can be an important experience.

M-Bone, Lovecraft, unlike Hitler, never killed anybody. Mein Kampf is a political tract meant to have a political impact. Mein Kampf, unlike “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, makes no sense divorced from purpose and context.

That is a totally different question from “understanding” a work of fiction.

I do not say “do not read biography of authors and pay no attention to context.” I disagree with the comment that it is necessary to do these things with regard to literature. I go further and say that a lot of time and energy is expended on matters that are ancillary to the literature and do not do much to illuminate the value and impact of the literature.

So, I still say that if we knew nothing about Lovecraft’s biography and private views, his stories would have the same merit they do on their own terms. Further, the fact that the man had bigoted views, not uncommon in his day either, does nothing to diminish the value of his writing now. The same is true of Dostoevsky and Joseph Conrad and Isak Dinesen and Flannery O’Connor and any other fiction writer whose work has artistic merit but whose moral or religious or political views are at odds with current, poliically correct orthodoxy.

So, to bring this back to the point of the post, when your child is old enough to like H.P. Lovecraft — age 12 or so — go ahead and let him read it if he wants to.

Looking forward to Younghusband’s post.

About Younghusband

Sir Francis Edward Younghusband (1863-1942) was a British explorer, army officer, military-political officer, and foreign correspondent born in India who led expeditions into Manchuria, Kashgar, and Tibet. He three times tried and failed to scale Mt. Everest and journeyed from China to India, crossing the Gobi desert and the Mustagh Pass (alt. c.19,000 ft/5,791 m) of the Karakoram mountain range in modern day Pakistan. Convinced of Russian designs on British interests in India, Younghusband proactively engaged in the nineteenth century spying and conflict over Central Asia between the British and the Russians known as the Great Game. "Younghusband" is a Canadian who has spent a number of years bouncing back and forth between his home country and Japan. Fluent in Japanese and English with experience in numerous other languages from Spanish to Georgian, Younghusband has travelled throughout Asia. He graduated with an MA from the War Studies Department at the Royal Military College of Canada, where he focussed on the Japanese oil industry and energy security issues. He has recently returned to Canada from Japan, and is working in the technology sector.
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23 Responses to Does ideology matter in art?

  1. Younghusband says:

    I agree with Lex that there should be a clear divide between works of fiction and political tracts. Explicitly ideological works and works of non-fiction must be read critically, and thus the background of the author is of utmost importance.

    In fiction, I think it can be important for the reasons I stated above, but also because often works of fiction, especially scifi, are social commentary. This makes it borderline ideological, which means it is imperative to know where the author is coming from.

  2. Lyman Stone says:

    I stumbled across this blog somewhat randomly, as it washed up on the shores of the Internet sea, but it looks quite interesting. So I’ll go ahead and contribute my $0.02.

    I tend to agree with Lexington Green and Younghusband, but it seems to me that their argument has a certain logical necessity to it. If we say that the author’s background is unnecessary for understanding a piece of fiction, we need a new way to reconcile ambiguities. Most books, even great ones, have ambiguities of meaning that can and do lead to starkly different conclusions. It seems to me that, if an appeal to authorial identity is denied, the remaining options are either a postmodernist reader-response approach, or an even greater dependence on and appeal to form (a sort of hyper-structuralism), or else a return to the author as an authority with a will and, crucially, an intent, and to look for the intention of the author, and use that stated intent, if discoverable, to illuminate the text.

  3. I like what Raymond Chandler is supposed to have once said: If you liked a book, don’t meet the author.

  4. adam a. says:

    You know what would be a fascinating thought experiment.

    Take both of the arguments and apply them to architecture.

  5. Chief Wiggum says:

    This reminds me of the music of the great composer Richard Wagner, who was a rabid anti-semite who went way beyond the normal parlor anti-semitism of his day, publishing vile tracts and speaking publicly against jews. His music was banned in Israel for decades. It made news when the Israelis relented and allowed his music to be performed in Israel.

    If you had cancer, would you take medicine that would cure you if it had been invented by Dr. Mengele? I would.

  6. Tom says:

    Have you ever read Paul Johnson’s The Intellectuals? The whole book is essentially about bad people making great art. Bismarck’s dictum applies to more than laws and sausages.

  7. A.E. says:

    I think it also depends on to what degree the line between the art and the person is blurred. Card’s work has always had some elements of his rather nutty views in it, but his later work, especially the civil war book, are basically driven by it.

  8. CarlosBA says:

    Thanks Younghusband for posting this. There has been a huge conflagration regarding this very topic in the speculative fiction (SF/Fantasy/Horror) blogosphere. Google ‘Racefail 09′.

    I agree with Younghusband’s view that the original ‘ham sandwich’ analogy is faulty. To equate one’s ability to slap together a delicious snack with the very real consequences that racist views have, especially in medicine, is a bit disingenuous.

    The ‘cure for cancer’ analogy is also too simplistic. Racism in medicine doesn’t (usually) express itself in the medical outcomes of one patient or the decisions of one practitioner. It isn’t a matter of whether or not you would take Herr Mengele’s cure-all, but rather, if you even had access to it, or if it addressed the medical idiosyncrasies of your genetic heritage.

    People can write anything they want, that much is true. Whether or not it gets published, and what positive or negative reactions it receives, is a reflection of the privileges that author has.

  9. M-Bone says:

    “Mein Kampf is a political tract meant to have a political impact. Mein Kampf, unlike “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, makes no sense divorced from purpose and context.”

    Would like to be jumping in on this more quickly but am netless at the moment….

    In any case, the critical schools that you mentioned above – the “nothing outside the text” philosophies – also deny any substantial philosophical difference between fiction and non-fiction. I take it that you don’t agree with this. I don’t agree myself. If that is the case, you seem to be taking one part of those critical programs and abandoning others. That is fine for your reading style, which you do not need to justify to anyone else, but it does make your overall argument about author positions less convincing.

    A slightly different take on the issue of importance of author biographies to make my general point – do we read a novel like Norman Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead” differently knowing that the author has military experience and wrote that novel to help to make sense of that experience compared to a war novel by someone who has no war experience? Would we read a novel by a 19th century Russian about their own social environment differently than a novel by a 21st century American about 19th century Russia? I think that in these cases, outside the text context plays an important role in the way that the vast number of readers approach books. The temporal context of authors is part of biography as well and is a vital part of the way that we understand literature.

    As for Lovecraft…. There is a Lovecraft story where a British explorer goes to Africa and has a child with some sort of monstrous “Ape Princess” which spawns a line of insane and deformed children. Does knowing that Lovecraft was sickened by interracial marriage really have nothing to do with this story as literature? Isn’t casting aside ideological considerations when reading this story simply a form of whitewashing?

    What about this description of an African American’s corpse from “Reanimator” – “He was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms that I could not help calling fore legs, and a face that conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon. The body must have looked even worse in life — but the world holds many ugly things.”

    This is not a monster or anything, he is describing a human being here. When I find something like this in literature that I otherwise enjoy, it leads me to ask questions and those answers are often to be found outside the text. I think that those types of questions are a healthy part of critical reading.

  10. M-Bone says:

    Bit more time online….

    Concerning ideology and literature – I’m not sure that we can draw such a firm line between non-fiction and fiction here. What about works of fiction that were designed to influence people like, say, the socialist writings of Zola or 20th century Soviet literature?

  11. wufiavelli says:

    Enders game is not my favoirte of scotts works. One called harts hope is. But in regards to his biggotry i would say it does not. He wrote a book called Song Master which dealt with homosexuality. It was actually an interesting take especially coming from hardcore mormon. The books also delves into creepier areas, but it is still a decent read.

    Alot of people disagree with his views and still enjoy his writing.

  12. M-Bone says:

    This discussion seems to have branched off into two different tracks. #1 – can we appreciate art by bad people? #2 – should we read literature in an ideological way?

    I’ve mostly been writing about #2. My position on #1 is that if the racism / homophobia, etc. does not enter into the literature in any way that we can detect, that nothing about the author’s background should get in the way with our enjoyment of the work. I originally expressed no opinion on Card. The problems that I have had with Lovecraft and the reasons why I chose to apply a historian’s methodology to his literature is that I found the racism in the the books first and chose to investigate the author’s background to see if my suspicions about him were correct (and I think that we can safely call Lovecraft a “racist” – there have been studies of him that have established that his racism went way beyond what was normal for “his times” in the way that he chose to express it in private letters).

    Now an additional point on #2 – I don’t think that we should draw such a firm line between clearly ideological non-fiction and fiction which should not be read in an ideological way. There are many works of fiction that were written to convince audiences (often in a very polemic way) to follow certain ideologies – Zola’s socialist fiction and Soviet literature are two examples. In these cases, I feel that the background of the authors is very important to keep in mind when reading the works.

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  14. T. Greer says:

    You ask an interesting question. To answer your query we must clear muddied waters by stepping away from literature, a medium that is clearly ideological, to other forms of art instead.

    Michelangelo’s David needs no biography to be properly enjoyed. Many of the sculptures themes – the idea of youth’s beauty, or of the natural perfection of the human body – are clear from one look at the statue. In this, the statue stands on its own; the circumstances of its production are not needed to make it great.

    Yet knowing the story behind the sculpture can very well increase one’s appreciation of it. That Michelangelo used David to represent his fledgling Republic of Florence, to commemorate his belief that Florence should (and was) modeled after the young David, surrounded by Goliaths and in need of leaders as “watchful” as his statue. A bit more than we usually read into the statue? Certainly. But am I the only soul who values the statue all the more now that I have a sense of the emotions involved in its creation?

    This applies to more than sculpture. Does not “Eroica” mean more in light of Beethoven’s admiration of revolutionary ideals? Does not the poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” or the magazine piece “How to Tell a True War Story” possess more power once you realize they relate true events, that truly happened to Wilfrid Owen and Tim O’Brien?

  15. 机票网 says:

    I guess it really matters a lot…

  16. For the curious, my blog article on Card (mentioned here), is accessible at . Do excuse the language. :)

    To me an author’s point of views don’t always matter, nor do those of anyone else in the entertainment industry. I can disagree with Dennis Miller, for example, but still find him entertaining. Heck, I even enjoy the occasional Tom Clancy book, and I’m liberal enough to basically be a socialist, so there you are.

  17. UNRR says:

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 8/30/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  18. Peter says:

    De gustibus non est disputandum

    As entertaining and informative as this discussion is, it has no conclusion. My advice is that art is inspired, but one should not discover the inspiration (and that includes the ideology of the creator) in order to appreciate the creation. The background information may enhance the appreciation, or diminish it, but it really shouldn’t have anything to provoking the appreciation.

    This is how I have always tried to listen to music.

  19. Psudo says:

    The political views of an artist direct what and why he creates what he does, and what he will do with the success he attains if his artistic career is successful. Thus, his political views extremely matter.

    On the other hand, maybe my opinion doesn’t matter. After all, I’m a hardcore Mormon religious nutbar. It’s funny that you see prejudice in Mormons but not your own prejudice against Mormons.

    Beyond that, here are a few other points, mostly relating to Chris’ blog post:
    – Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are typically just fine with being called “Mormons”. The name is usually shortened to “The LDS Church” for convenience’s sake, it is the largest denomination in the latter-day saint movement, and the one which OSC and I both belong. Adherents to Community in Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and the second largest denomination) typically find it to be offensive, as they seek to be more like mainstream Christians. The rest of the denominations are small enough that it will probably never be an issue unless you go seeking them out.
    – Orson Scott Card’s book “Empire” is not exactly about a civil war between conservatives fighting liberals. It’s about a civil war between urban sensibilities and rural sensibilities. Yes, there’s a correlation between the two, but there’s also a difference.
    – Is it inherently immoral to disapprove of homosexual behavior? What is OSC advocating that isn’t the equalivant of the other side of the debate advocating the end of the LDS Church’s tax exempt status?
    – The guy pictured with the caption “What, me rape?” is not a member of the LDS Church, or the Community in Christ, but heads an even smaller denomination that even Mormons believe is a cult. It’s called the Fundimentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and his name is Warren Jeffs. Mostly-Mormon Utah was the first state to try, convict, and sentence him for the rapes. (Coincidentally, his trial was held in my home town.)
    – OSC is condemning behavior while you (Chris) are condemning opinion and expression. Who’s more authoritarian here?
    – The US Constitution actually failed to protect the Mormons from being treated as equals back in the 1840s. But OSC’s not talking about the Constitution as it currently exists, but as it could potentially be amended. Surely you can’t doubt that the constitution could be amended to the point that it no longer protected liberty.
    – Hey everyone, which article do you think is more hateful, the one OSC wrote or the one Chris wrote? Chris’ at least had more direct, personal attacks, malice, and name-calling, so I vote his.

    I disagree with OSC about the actions of these judges. I don’t find their actions to be illegal, unconstitutional, or dictatorial. However, you’re not being any more reasonable in your criticisms of him.

  20. Imaging this: The complete works of Tolstoy were found in a safe-deposit box as manuscripts that no one had ever heard of before, by an unknown author, and published to astonished reviews in Russia, and switfly translated into English, where the discovery of these previously unknown gems met similar acclaim. We know nothing about Tolstoy’s background, religion, political views, beyond what we can discern (guess) from the fiction itself.

    Is War and Peace any less good? Is Anna Karenina diminished as art? Is Hadji Murad less of a tragedy? Is The Cossacks less accurate a picture of unrequited love?


    Art is good because it captures some artistic truth in a compelling and powerful way. Any political or didactic purpose or effect is secondary, and only works if the primarly element — artistic quality — is present. If it does not speak for itself, it does not speak at all.

    The sad delusion that the personal is political, that family life is politics, that art is politics, that sex is politics, that religion is politics, that everything is a power struggle, has led to a terrible coarsening of life and a degree of vulgarity in the way that people think about each other and deal with each other that is obvious even over the course of my 46 years.

    None of this means that it is not interesting to know the biography of artists we admire. I just read a book about Evelyn Waugh’s family, for example. But all of that secondary stuff is secondary in the strict sense — ancillary, not strictly necessary, dispensible.

    I respect the contrary views that are in the majority here, and I understand them. But I do not share them and I am not convinced otherwise.

  21. M-Bone says:

    Lexington – You certainly make some very good points and likely would not have elicited a critical response from me without the reference to postmodern criticism. Few discussions involving that tend to go in the right direction anyway.

    As I hope that you see from my more recent comments, I’m not advocating book burning or anything. Beautiful prose (a subjective judgment) doesn’t suddenly become less beautiful because it was written by a racist or a crackpot. The same goes for all sorts of themes and images.

    However, I’m still not sure that we have a great deal of ability to make aesthetic judgments without some reference to author and context. The common joke is that if the work of Tolstoy or Tolkien or any number of others were submitted to a publisher today, it would NOT come back with fantastic reviews, it would come back with a note suggesting, “to cut half the text and get back to me.” Or maybe nothing at all. Now publishers are businessmen, but can we really argue that the vast majority of readers, even critics with a highly developed reading sense and experience, wouldn’t feel the same?

    There was a notorious / hilarious scam in Australia a few years back where the work of Nobel Prize winner White was submitted to publishers in slightly changed form and universally rejected.

    This sort of thing happens all of the time.

    So do aesthetic qualities necessarily jump out at many readers as a form of commune with artistic truth? I would argue that we forgive some of Tolstoy’s realist/descriptive excesses because of how we place him in literary history, what we know of his life and the context in which he was publishing, and most importantly, the way that we think of his seminal influence on the novel. Books can only be great in relation to other books. I’m not sure if you follow the Japan stuff as much as many readers here, but would “the greatest keitai novel of all time” mean anything at all? Another medium with a shallow history, video games, has recently been dropped from Hugo consideration. History gives us a sense of broad aesthetic continuities over time (and of course, discontinuities in the form of innovations are also only evident in historical context and in relation to broader genres and media).

    Old books get rediscovered all the time. It is very, very rare that we find something that gets any attention. This results, I believe, from an environment in which our subjective aesthetic judgments are bound in by our sense of history and continuity, which from the first efforts to devise a theory of aesthetics from the time of Aristotle and his (rough) contemporaries contexts and traditions have been central to that endeavor.

  22. Jerry says:

    Woah, I didn’t know HP Lovecraft was such a racist. When I lived in Houston, I knew two white guys who loved his stuff, and over the years they kept dropping “pro-white, anti-everyone else” views. Maybe it was just a weird coincidence, but I wonder if they knew of Lovecraft’s views and became bigger fans of his work because of them.

  23. M-Bone says:

    Hard to say Jerry. I think that it is entirely possible to read a lot of Lovecraft and not pick up the race vibe (will still read a lot of it, what I can’t go back to is being a fan of the writer). It is absent from much of his work and the ones where he is most over the top (like the Reanimator thing above) are not some of his better or more widely-read stories. In Lovecraft’s defense, he also hated “white trash” (although he blamed racial mixing for part of the problem) so I doubt his work has much potential to gain traction in racist culture that exists in a subset of that group now.