An unconvincing case for cancel culture

In this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, Barton Swaim reviews Erich Hatala Matthes’s Drawing the Line: What to Do With the Work of Immoral Artists From Museums to the Movies. While not a defense of cancel culture per se, Matthes attempts to provide a framework to help answer the question of which artists should be “canceled” and why.

All cultures censor things. They have always prohibited certain works from being published or viewed, but this has almost always been because the works were inherently damaging, or so it was claimed, and usually to the young. I wrote this eight years ago:

I think censorship should be avoided whenever possible, and there are a lot of examples of school boards too eagerly censoring this or that book, often for reasons that have little to do with propriety. Political censorship is becoming increasingly problematic elsewhere and may become a problem here, too.

But censorship can be a good thing, too. Originally to censor meant to assess, to value. It’s a form of the much touted but rarely practiced “critical thinking,” which used to be called “judgment” . . . It protects the innocence of the young and, in moderation, is one of the oils of a civilized and pluralistic society. Where to apply that oil, of course, is difficult to determine in a society of widely divergent morals, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be applied at all.

This is different from “canceling” a work, which usually has very little to do with the work itself. Canceling is usually about censoring a work because of a “problem” in the artist’s life, not a problem in the work itself.

In his review, Swaim writes that not only does Matthes fail to define immorality, but his argument for why certain works should be canceled mostly begs the question:

He asks us to distinguish between Caravaggio, the Italian Baroque painter, and the French Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin. Caravaggio once murdered a man; Gauguin, a married man with children, moved to French Polynesia and cohabited with indigenous adolescent girls. Why are there efforts to cancel Gauguin—literally cancel exhibitions of his work and more generally demote him from his venerated status—but not Caravaggio?

The answer seems obvious to me, but I will let Mr. Matthes reply. The difference, he explains, “concerns the nature of their immorality and what it represents.” “While it is obviously unjust to murder another individual in a crime of passion, as Caravaggio did, the incident reflected only Caravaggio’s aggressive and sometimes violent demeanor rather than a larger societal injustice. Gaugin’s [sic] actions, in contrast, are part of the broad systemic injustice of colonialism. . . . Moreover, Caravaggio’s crime isn’t obviously relevant to the interpretation of his work, whereas Gaugin’s [sic] paintings have been criticized as the epitome of Western white men depicting ‘exotic’ women of color primarily as objects of sexual desire.”

Leave aside the misspelling of Gauguin’s name; the entire chapter on cancel culture assumes vastly more knowledge and good faith on the part of cancel mobs than they have or want. The people who demand the cancellation of art exhibitions and the demotion of popular authors don’t care about the fine distinctions between crimes that relate to works of art and those that don’t. They have no regard for the works of art they mean to eradicate and no understanding of the abstractions—”colonialism,” “systemic injustice”—they wave around like weapons.

Cancel culture is largely about judging and punishing people and not, as is the case with censorship, protecting them.

In other news

In praise of evening walks:

Peter Davidson has long displayed a kind of genius for writing about subjects that are both deeply fascinating and tantalisingly elusive, things that stick in your mind but that, in some ways, you feel to be hardly there at all. He wrote a wonderful book about the idea of things being thought of as northerly, for instance, and another about the ways in which painters and writers have been drawn to imagine the exemplarily indefinable moment of twilight. His new book, a very handsome and generously illustrated production, is about a topic which is, if anything, even harder to pin down: the night-time experience of gazing at an illuminated window.

“Almost 25 years ago, a Swiss art collector bought a Lucian Freud painting — a full-length male nude — at auction. He then received a call from the British artist, asking to buy it from him. The two men did not know each other, and the collector politely refused, as he liked the picture. Three days later, he claims he received another call from a now furious Freud who told him that, unless he sold it to him, he would deny having painted it.” He did, but three experts have authenticated the painting.

Whether you love or hate the Beatles, James Delingpole writes, Peter Jackson’s documentary is “more mesmerizingly watchable than six hours of musicians noodling around over two weeks’ rehearsal for a really-not-that-good album has any right to be.”

Stefan Beck reviews Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Crossroads, which will be the first in a trilogy called “A Key to All Mythologies,” a “homage to the Reverend Edward Casaubon’s scholarly enterprise in Middlemarch”:

Crossroads is hard to put down, hard not to like, but hard to enthuse about, too. Franzen’s plot, with its flawless pacing, skillful misdirection, and big barn-burning set pieces, is everything we expect from what he calls a “contract” novel, one in which the reader’s pleasure is paramount. But his prose is nothing to write home about, not even if home is a dull midwestern suburb. It is difficult to read Crossroads without missing the linguistic and theological treasures of another bad-priest novel, John Updike’s A Month of Sundays. Franzen is too cautious. His nonstick prose lacks any burrs or imperfections for the mind to seize upon. Too many sentences are technically sophisticated but devoid of personality.

Dan Chiasson reviews the third volume of Robert Frost’s letters, which show him “at the height of his artistic powers while suffering a series of losses almost unimaginable to the fortunate among us.”

“The world’s best chess players are too good to win,” Oliver Roeder writes in FiveThirtyEight: “Since Friday, Norway’s Magnus Carlsen and Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi have been spending their days in a glass box in Dubai, vying for the 2021 World Chess Championship. It’s a title that challenger Nepomniachtchi is hoping to wrest from Carlsen, the world No. 1, who has held it since 2013. But neither has yet yielded any ground, and Tuesday’s Game 4 ended in a 33-move draw over 2.5 hours, the quickest game of the match so far. After four consecutive draws, the score sits level, 2-2. The best-of-14-game match could stretch until mid-December.”

Last this week, I complained about long end-of-year book lists but noted how I always read John Wilson’s yearly list at First Things. It is personal and eclectic — the best kind of list. John hadn’t published this year’s, but he has now. Give it a read!