Tuesday, June 09, 2009


Social conscience and art

In his blog, Bill Irwin writes about singer Beck Hansen, and those who avoid his music because he follows Scientology.

I think Beck is a great artist and am coming to more fully appreciate the depth and beauty of his music. To make his Scientology connections a litmus test for whether or not I listen to him makes no sense to me. I have no problem with various religions coming under scrutiny and being criticized. I do have a (very big) problem with followers of various religions being stigmatized for their beliefs.

I have very mixed feelings about this sort of thing. I similarly know Jews who won’t listen to Wagner’s music because "he was anti-Semitic," or because "Hitler liked it."

On the surface, I agree with Bill. It would be silly to do a background check on all artists, and only listen to the music (or view the paintings or sculpture, or watch the films or plays) of those who agree with me politically, spiritually, morally, or whatever. Some people won’t see Tom Cruise films because of his outspokenness about Scientology. Some won’t see Mel Gibson films because of his drunken tirade.

Johann Sebastian Bach was a devout Lutheran, and wrote a great deal of church music — hundreds of church cantatas, many oratorios, masses, and so on. There’s no doubt that I don’t share his piety and that his music doesn’t move me with its focus on God and Christianity. Yet his Mass in B minor is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. I love the Saint John Passion and Saint Matthew Passion, as well as the Magnificat. I listen to my recording of Emma Kirkby singing Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen (Hail to God in all the lands) with delight, but with no interest in praising God. To Bach, it was about God, and about the music. To me, it’s just about the music.

And, as Bill says, people may consider Scientology to be kooky, but is it really any kookier than anything else? If you’re not a follower, it doesn’t seem to me that the story of Xenu is any stranger than the story of Jesus, what with the son of God thing, and rising from the dead, and taking away our sins, and all. Can your thetan reach nirvana, after all, to mix a bit of Buddhism in? Is bringing life to Earth in DC-8 jets really sillier than a talking snake or a non-burning burning bush?

The thing that gives me pause, though, is that it’s not just a question of “kooky” beliefs or whether I agree with them. Scientology can be very aggressive about preventing its followers from leaving, reportedly to the point of making them prisoners. And it’s certainly aggressive in filing lawsuits to silence its critics. Does that take Scientology to an OT level that makes it different? There are certainly Christian sects that also take aggressive action to pen their flock.

What would I think of avoiding the work of an artist who supported, say, IRA bombings, or one who supported ETA or Aum Shinrikyo... or the Westboro Baptist Church? If doing that is reasonable, then how do I decide which associations are severe enough to merit a boycott, and which should I accept as merely being “different” — disagreeable to me, perhaps even odious, but not bad enough to say that I won’t listen to musicians who side with them?

Will I stop seeing Jim Carrey movies because of his anti-vaccination activism? You know, I just might.

Generally, I try to make my decisions based on the individual artists. I find that Tom Cruise disturbs me, but John Travolta does not... and it’s a matter of how they each behave as individuals, not because of their association with Scientology, per se — but his association with Scientology certainly has a major effect on Tom Cruise's weirdness. I judge Isaac Hayes more harshly since he left South Park, reportedly because they had an episode ridiculing Scientology. Because, you see, he seemed to have no problem with their episodes ridiculing Judaism, Catholicism, Islam, or Mormonism. South Park tosses equal-opportunity insults around, and it’s hypocritical not to be bothered until they get around to you.

So I have very mixed feelings. I know neither Beck’s music nor how Beck behaves publicly with respect to his Scientology beliefs. I think I’d most likely agree with Bill, and wouldn’t use that association as a reason not to listen. But because I don’t dismiss it as “just a religious belief”, I don’t think the question is always straightforward.


Sue VanHattum said...

I have a friend who did leave scientology, and still values some of what she learned through them, even though she sees them as very cultlike.

I'm not up on popular culture, so I had no idea about all these people publicly into scientology. That is a bit scary.

The other issue for me, in regards to dealing with art influenced by unfortunate beliefs, is that I figure there's a somewhat subconscious component to it, that I can expect to absorb some of the sexism, racism, homophobia, and general weirdness of worldview, as I watch, listen, and interact with it.

Interesting piece, thanks!

WM Irwin said...

I don't see any substantive disagreement between you and me on this topic, Barry.

I do think that Cruise has a tendency to be preachy and arrogant, but he would be like that regardless of whatever he chose as a "cause". I agree that Hayes acted hypocritically, just as followers of other faiths do when they put down religions not of their own but act overly sensitive about others critizing their own faiths.

What I resent is the imposed scrutiny on anyone exposed as belonging to a fringe religion like Scientology, with everything they subsequently say or do filtered through it and blown up out of proportion. And, of course, this knee-jerk shunning that some engage in against them.

It is part of the artist's natural, honest self-expression to express personal feelings about religion in their works, be that artist a Scientologist, Pagan, atheist, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, etc. And part of "receiving" art (as I see it) is to avoid confining oneself to works that one already personally resonates with. If Beck does believe in some of Scientology's ideas, should he include that in some form within his music? If those ideas truly make up part of the person known as Beck, then sure! Why should my exposure to a fringe faith be confined to a choice between that faith's official public relations machine and those bitterly opposed to it?

Barry Leiba said...

«fringe religion»

Well, that people so readily shun "fringe" religions points out something I've often said: we don't actually have religious tolerance. What we have is tolerance of "approved" religions, and little tolerance at all for the ones that aren't on the approved list.

«Why should my exposure to a fringe faith be confined to a choice between that faith's official public relations machine and those bitterly opposed to it?»

Or to any faith... or philosophy, for that matter. What people think/believe/contemplate is a continuum, and we shouldn't look to put everyone in one pigeon hole or other.

Maggie said...

I have a problem with people who are anti-science, or who promote views that in my opinion are harmful to the public. That would be Tom Cruise and any of these anti-vaccination nuts, for whatever reason they might be anti-vaccination nuts. It doesn't have to be religious. I don't see Mel Gibson films because I think Mel Gibson is a very violent individual, and it comes through in his films. (I *have* seen Mel Gibson films, I won't see them any more.) The passion is his favorite part of the Jesus story? There's a lot to like about Jesus in his teachings. Mel Gibson's favorite thing about Jesus isn't his teachings, it's the violent way he died, or some superstitious nonsense about the violent way he died saving Mel's own soul. I do not want to validate a person like that by giving him my money. So my choice is I think more about how the celebrity uses his platform, because sadly, they have a loud voice that people listen to. I'd love to boycott Oprah for promoting idiot Jenny McCarthy, but unfortunately I already boycott Oprah because I simply have no interest in anything she has to say.

Barry Leiba said...

Well said, Maggie. And, yeh, I, too, already have nothing to do with Oprah, so it'd be hard to have less.