The Art vs. the Artist

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Revelations of sexual misconduct have roiled the entertainment industry, among others, in recent months. The allegations of sexual harassment, assault, and intimidation against producer Harvey Weinstein seemed to have unloosed a dam in Hollywood, and numerous directors, actors, and other entertainers have been accused of using their positions to abuse women.

In light of the accusations, networks have been cancelling TV series and specials, and no doubt the fate of some feature films hangs in the balance. I’m heartened by the change in attitude towards sexual impropriety in the workplace; it’s long overdue. But I wonder how to balance our admiration for the talent and artistry of a person with the ugly reality of his behavior in real life.

For decades there has been debate about such figures as Roman Polanski and Woody Allen and the degree to which we should ostracize their work out of protest at their sexual misdeeds (although in the case of Allen, many people see nothing wrong with his dating and eventually marrying his ex-wife’s adopted daughter. I would not be one of those people.) Heavyweights in Hollywood have always stood up for these men, even though Polanski had to flee the country on a statutory rape charge. But the question is, should we not see Chinatown, The Pianist, or Rosemary’s Baby – or indeed even recognize their greatness as films?

Sometimes the rejection of an artist’s work is based on unambiguous factors. Leni Riefenstahl, for instance, used her directorial talents to create propaganda for Hitler and Nazi Germany. It also doesn’t take much hemming and hawing to denounce D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a film that glories in the creation of the Ku Klux Klan. But what about the well-known anti-Semite Richard Wagner? His Nineteenth Century operas and other classical music are renowned works of art. Should we protest any productions of his work today, knowing what we know about his bigotry and xenophobia?

Over the years people have boycotted entertainers for political reasons. In fact, it seems like the entire world of the arts is fraught with politics these days. In fact, recently I had to stop and consider whether someone might be offended if I gave their child a book written by Bill Nye, the Science Guy. But short of objecting to the content of a specific book, movie, or other work of art, I’m not sure I want to let my personal opinion of an artist affect my appreciation of their work.

I don’t have the answers here. It seems to me that works of art should be judged on their own merits. Yet I would be hard pressed to attend a Louis C.K. performance these days. And should I finish binge-watching House of Cards or shun the series in protest over Kevin Spacey’s lame excuses and rationalizations for preying upon young men? Do time and distance make an artist’s work more palatable? I just don’t know.

Still, I am glad to see the cult of celebrity being shattered a bit to allow victims the ability to confront abuse and intimidation. After all, actors, directors, comedians, musicians and other artists are only human. They should be held to the same laws and standards as other humans, famous or not.

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Hamilton

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I’ve finally seen it. After months and months of hearing and reading all the hype about the theater sensation of the new millennium, I finally went to see Hamilton.

My husband had surprised me on Mother’s Day with tickets to the play at Chicago’s Private Bank Theater. Our seats were fantastic – dead center and so close I could see the actors spit. My hubby took a photo of me with the stage as a backdrop and sent it to our kids with the quip: “Mom in the third row center for Hamilton: What a waste!”

See, I had been somewhat indifferent to the frenzy that had surrounded the opening of Hamilton. For one thing, the subject matter did not really interest me. A play about the life of Alexander Hamilton, one of our less vaunted Founding Fathers? Yawn. I also was not sure about the rap and hip hop infused nature of the music. I love all the traditional old musicals, such as My Fair Lady, West Side Story, etc. So I didn’t think I would enjoy a more modern twist.

Furthermore, people’s insistence that I just had to see the play, that it was the greatest thing ever, made me stubborn about not wanting to join the bandwagon. With so much hype, I just couldn’t imagine enjoying it to the level at which everyone seemed to regard it. Indeed, as the play opened, the audience roared with expectation, and I wondered whether they were just responding to the hype or had already spent thousands of dollars on repeat viewings of the pricey play.

I really enjoyed the play. I found the music and lyrics creative and fun, at turns funny and plaintive. The choreography and the characters, the costumes, the comic appearances of a snarky King George: all were well done. And I loved that the closing number was an emotional and subdued one rather than the bombastic, glittery finales of most Broadway musicals.

Yet I wouldn’t say Hamilton is the best musical I have ever seen. While I got the gist of the theme as being about an improbable hero, I found the story less than compelling. I realize that the author, Lin-Manuel Miranda, was working within the limits of real history. And I did appreciate the underlying messages of inclusion and of fighting for one’s ideals – particularly in the current political climate that exists in the U.S.

I think my enjoyment was hampered in part by all the hype. The way the audience reacted to certain characters appearing on the stage was over the top. It was as if they were all in on a joke to which I wasn’t privy. I felt more like I was at a showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show than at a Broadway musical. And the underlying insistence from everyone I knew that I just had to love it put me off a bit.

Still, I’m glad I was able to see the musical sensation of a generation. I have no doubt that in many ways, Lin-Manuel has opened the genre of the Broadway musical to further invention and creativity. Perhaps he will also be responsible for keeping the genre alive for the millennials coming of age in the next decades.

Have you seen Hamilton? I’d love to know what you think.

Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing

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Watching the hit TV series Scandal is one of my guilty pleasures. One of the things I love best about the show is the music, which consists mainly of 1970s soul. On the most recent episode, the main character, Olivia Pope, keeps having flashbacks to the moment she was abducted and to the song that was playing on her stereo at the time: “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” by Stevie Wonder.

The irony of that song choice is not lost on the audience, and it struck me in a rather personal way when I thought about it after watching the show. Worry is one of my constant companions. Whether it be about all the things I have to do before my senior’s high school prom and graduation, helping my eighth grader juggle three sports and demanding schoolwork, or whether my college senior is safe down in Austin, Texas, where one university student was recently murdered and another succumbed to a poison gas leak – I can’t seem to turn off the anxiety.

I will wake up in the wee hours of the morning with a palpable sense of dread, and the wheels in my mind will start spinning. Even my dreams reveal my worry wart nature. I usually dream of being unprepared for something: a class I have to teach, a party I’m giving etc. I worry about everything from looming deadlines to my kids’ safety to the possibility of getting cancer. Ironically, all this worry is what will probably make me sick.

There are numerous passages in the Bible that discuss worry. Mostly they say not to do it. St. Paul, for instance, exhorts believers, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” (Phil. 4:6) In the gospels, Jesus is continually telling his followers, “Do not be afraid.” I just have a hard time following this advice.

Maybe the reason I like escapist entertainment like Scandal is that I’d rather watch the trials and tribulations of fictional characters than dwell on my own. Enjoying the love triangles, political intrigue, and danger, as well as the funky soundtrack, sure beats waiting for the other shoe to drop.

 

Scary Sixties Music

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When I think of popular music from the 1960s, bouncy, happy tunes come to mind: “Help Me, Rhonda,” “Twist and Shout,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Most of us think of the Sixties as a simpler, more innocent time in the world of music.

The other day, though, I heard the old Monkees TV series theme song and was a little creeped out with the following lyrics:

“Any time
Anywhere
Just look over your shoulder
We’ll be standing there”

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Can you imagine Mickey Dolenz peering in your window at you? I shudder at the thought.

Hearing those lyrics reminded me of a Beatles song from the Sixties called “Run for Your Life.” It’s a bouncy little ditty, so I never really reflected on the lyrics. Here are some of them:

“I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man.
You’d better keep your head, little girl, cause you don’t know where I am.
You better run for your life if you can, little girl,
Hide your head in the sand, little girl
Catch you with another man
That’s the end (uh), little girl.”

And I thought Eminem’s spouse abuse raps were bad!

For some reason, there were lots of songs about death back in the Sixties (apart from Vietnam War protest tunes, that is). The song “Leader of the Pack” is about a boy from the wrong side of the tracks who dies tragically in a car crash. And “Ode to Billie Joe” features both suicide and infanticide.

But the ultimate creepy song that haunted the Sixties for me was the ghostly “Laurie” by Dickey Lee. If you haven’t heard it, give it a listen.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M0N4nyYS5aA&list=RDM0N4nyYS5aA#t=113

So next time you go romanticizing the feel good songs of the 60s, remember: “Strange things happen in this world.”