Toeing the Line: An Exploration of Art, Intent, and Perception

Should an artist’s personal life or sentiments affect our perception of his or her art?

It’s an old question that can be phrased and re-imagined in many different ways. Do we truly know a text through considering or abandoning the author? Does art exist in a vacuum? What can we excuse in the name of art or its appreciation? This multi-faceted contention has far-reaching implications beyond just the realm of, say, literary criticism. If we broaden the question a bit (and lose a bit of preciseness), we can trace it back a ways into the recent history of critical thought.

If you were to survey the academic landscape over the last century or so, you would see two dominating schools of thought on hermeneutics and literary theory rising up to meet one another head on sometime between the 1960s and 1970s. One of these schools of thought, known as Formalism, had been developed by thinkers like Victor Shklovsky and other early Russian formalists around the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917. It was in large part a response to Romanticist theories of literature left over from the previous century and de-emphasized the historical and cultural contexts of the text, asserting that “literature has its own history, a history of innovation in formal structures, and is not determined…by external material history” (from Boris Eichenbaum’s 1926 essay “The Theory of the ‘Formal Method’”). This critical approach prevailed over many other methods of literary criticism for quite some time (and eventually developed in America into the New Criticism), until another set of theories on the subject began to gain momentum in the classrooms and offices of academics.

This competing collection of ideas asserted that we cannot know a text separate from its various contexts. The most effective textual analysis comes from also analyzing the life of the author, other texts from the same period, and the social, political, and economic conditions of the time. This school of thought, known as Historicism, was applied to many different disciplines and became fully rigorous in the writings of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in the 19th century. While looming figures like Karl Marx and Michel Foucault were influenced by such Hegelian notions, their application in literary criticism did not come into vogue until around the 1980s, when the New Historicism fleshed itself out in the work of popular critic Stephen Greenblatt. New Historicism is, in simple terms, an updated version of Historicism, taking into account developments in Marxist and post-structuralist thought. A new historicist (as opposed to an historicist) would be more likely to emphasize the self-constructing feedback loop between literary text and history, and less likely to offer up one unique or identifiable social or historical context.

While these axiomatic systems of interpreting art seem to fully instruct us on how to discern meaning, they fail to tell us how to answer the following question: at what point do the actions of the artist obligate us to dismiss their art? Put obtusely, can someone bad make good art?

The question becomes precise in the criticism of the work of the German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. The mid-twentieth century auteur is widely regarded to be one of the most talented filmmakers of her time, often being spoken of in the same sentences as Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock. But while her films are known for being early examples of innovative editing and cinematography, they are also known for being something else: Nazi propaganda.

Leni Riefenstahl with Joseph Goebbels

Riefenstahl speaking with Joseph Goebbels. Source.

Riefenstahl, who started her career in entertainment as an actress and dancer, eventually began directing in the 1920s, quietly gaining the attention of German elites, including one Adolf Hitler. The admiration was reciprocal, it seems, as she reportedly said of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, “The book made a tremendous impression on me. I became a confirmed National Socialist after reading the first page.” After sending a hand-written letter directly to Hitler, she was granted a meeting, and was offered to shoot a film documenting an upcoming party rally in Nuremburg. Hitler was impressed with her work and asked her to film another Nazi rally, which ended up becoming the acclaimed Triumph of the Will (named personally by the Führer), and the 1936 Olympic Games, which became the aesthetically captivating sports documentary Olympia. While later in her life Riefenstahl denied purposefully making pro-Nazi propaganda, it is known through historical documents that the films were financed by Nazi party funds and that Riefenstahl was in close communication with the now infamous Reich Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels.

The films themselves show speeches by great leaders of the Third Reich, large masses of Germans marching and cheering in the streets, and in the case of Olympia, robust and healthy German bodies standing tall, glistening in the sun as their musculature writhes beneath the weight of shot put balls and javelins. Both films have been praised immensely for the multitude of groundbreaking filmmaking techniques used in their production. Riefenstahl utilized long tracking shots, multiple crane-mounted cameras, strange camera angles, and other techniques which would influence many filmmakers to come. With all of this in mind, our appreciation of Riefenstahl’s art becomes tricky, mired in doubt. Can we separate the aesthetics from the intent? Can we even call a propaganda film beautiful?

Riefenstahl herself has stated that she viewed the films as documentary, simply a taking down of history. Some critics refute this claim, stating that documentary, by its nature, must be the undistorted recording of reality. The Germany which Riefenstahl filmed, they argue, is one which has been constructed like a movie set, where the marches and ceremonies were designed by Riefenstahl to better serve the image of a nation united under the Führer. But the fact that both Triumph and Olympia are often included in lists of the best films of the twentieth century, along with its constant place in various film school courses, shows that she has not been dismissed despite the part she played in the objectively unethical atrocity that was the Third Reich.

Another artist whose work embodies this complex question is Varg Vikernes, a Norwegian musician who creates music within the extreme fringe sub-genre of metal music known as black metal. Black metal, for those unacquainted with it, is a style of aggressive music which originated in Norway and Sweden in the 1980s with bands like Mayhem, Bathory, Darkthrone, Gorgoroth, and Burzum, which is the name of Vikernes’ one man black metal project, started around 1991. Burzum translates to “darkness” in Black Speech, (the fictional language of Mordor created by Tolkien) which generally reflects the movement’s overarching aesthetic and motifs.

The genre as a whole is ideologically replete, as the music rarely exists without a strong sense of culture and place. As a general rule, the black metal scene is associated with Satanism, paganism, or antitheism and is generally opposed to most major religions (Gorgoroth, Marduk). Nihilism and misanthropy are quite common, and a respect for natural elements – the stars, the moon, and the wind – is often present (Drudkh). Many black metal bands in the early 1990s wore black and white “corpse paint” on stage, which mirrored the coldness and despair that could be heard in the music; “the north” and the season of winter are often used as prevalent motifs (Immortal’s Sons of Northern Darkness). Transcendence and anonymity are important features, and some black metal artists refuse to show their faces or reveal their names (Deathspell Omega). The further one is removed from society and its systems, the more “pure” his art can be. Some black metal musicians do not play live at all (Xasthur), and often those who do consider their performances to be paramount to rituals, complete with props and theatrics (Watain). As practitioners of such an extreme art form, both sonically and ideologically, it was only a matter of time before black metal artists began to manifest their philosophies and attitudes outside of their music, in the real world.

Between 1992 and 1996 it is estimated that around fifty Christian churches were burned down by fans and musicians of the Norwegian black metal scene. Some of these churches had been around for hundreds of years, and it began to upset and frighten many people living in Norway. One of the most notorious church burnings to take place is believed to have been carried out by the aforementioned Varg Vikernes of Burzum. He even went so far as to use a photo of the charred remains of the church as the cover to Burzum’s EP Aske, which is Norwegian for “ashes”.

Varg Vikernes in prison, 2009.

Vikernes near the end of his time in prison. Source.

Furthermore, Vikernes was convicted and sentenced to 21 years in prison for the murder of another figure of the early Norwegian black metal scene named Øystein ”Euronymous” Aarseth , of the band Mayhem. After arriving at Euronymous’ apartment in Oslo on August 10, 1993, a confrontation between Vikernes and Euronymous occurred, and Euronymous’ body was found later that night with twenty-three stab wounds on his head, neck, and back. While Vikernes claims that he killed Euronymous in self-defense, most other members of the black metal community who knew the two musicians believe that to be false. Vikernes was released in 2009 after serving 15 years of his sentence. During his time in prison he wrote and published tracts on his own political and social philosophies, a mix of Germanic Neopaganism, Odinist Norse mythology, white nationalism, and occult National Socialism.

Vikernes is a polarizing figure in the metal community. He represents the line which is so often toed in extreme music, art, etc. When it comes to metal specifically, there always has to be some amount of distancing oneself from the lyrical content and its actual referent in the real world. If we didn’t do this, listening to a band like Cannibal Corpse would be near impossible. But what do I do if I like the music, but I don’t believe at all in the sentiments behind it? If I continue to listen, am I doing something…unethical? Up to this point, no consensus has been achieved regarding the question, and it seems likely that it will remain open for debate as long as humans place value on the freedom to create without constraint.

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