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On the Purging of the Past in Art

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, July 4, 2020

First off, Happy 4th of July to all USA Duckers!

Recently I listened to Lindsey Ellis' excellently made video essay on so-called ‘woke Disney’: the company's attempt to remake or edit or outright hide past works because they are now judged to be problematic in some way or other, by the rule of thumb of current sensibilities/approaches/ideology.

This is not a singular event. School children are deprived of being exposed to such seminal works as To Kill a Mocking Bird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to mention just a couple; or if they are exposed, it's to altered versions that distort what is the original experience.

There are several justifications given to this: anything from ‘it’s sexist/racist/ableist/anti-LGBT/violent' to ‘it’s dangerous'.

At the same time in current creations, some books, or some events, or some truths about the past are attacked and forced to be glossed over or ‘cleaned up’ through art, portraying historical situations (not fantasy, mind you) as basically modern society with weird fashion sense: mixed race socializing without a hint of racial discrimination (unless it's done by the bad guy(s)), revolutionaries who had all the correct visions (not one of them was ever sexist or anti-gay while still being correctly anti-slavery or anti-dictatorship, or correctly anti-sexist and anti-royalist/ pro-democracy while still owning slaves) rather than just a few, women that are ‘strong female types’ and are celebrated/allowed to break from their gender role with impunity (or token grumbling), and so on.

In my opinion, doing this to history and to art of the past is just as offensive and just as harmful as whitewashing or blackface or (real) cultural appropriation.

There are many reasons for this:

First off, besides its frequent intent as a form of entertainment, art is always a product of its time. We would have no Guernica if Picasso wasn't exposed to the Nazis' bombing practice on a Basque town by the same name during the Spanish Civil War, nor its visceral screaming pain at the atrocities of war. At the same time, if Belle Epoque was not saturated with optimism due to prosperity from colonialism and the Industrial Revolution, we wouldn't have those amazingly beautiful Art Nouveau pieces that still capture the perfection of complex simplicity. Nor would we have powerful expressionist works like Munch's The Scream if the turn of the century wasn't fraught with intense contrasts of prosperity and poverty, of progressivism and regressivism, of socialism and totalitarianism, of science and superstition, of sanity and insanity.

By looking at the art of past eras we understand a lot about the people that came before us and their societies. Especially when those are the societies that gave birth to the one we're living in.

Second off, by understanding where we come from, we also can start to fathom the how we got here: Rights we enjoy today, States and Countries we enjoy today and culture we enjoy today didn't just pop into the world. They were and are the fruit and toil of generations upon generations of people consistently struggling towards a specific common goal. Erase that or blunt its impact, and these amazing people are also erased or their struggle's importance and power blunted.

By learning and experiencing these stakes that they faced through art, through the works documenting that journey in some form, we have a chance to actually value what we have and celebrate and remember the people that fought for it.

Even the works that choose to be blind to some aspects of that reality are important: there's no real, abject, Oliver Twist style poverty in sight in Austen's Pride and Prejudice and that is perfect- because it gives you the experience of how it was to be a noble at that time. You were blind to all the turmoil happening at the dark corners of your city, and didn't care to try and look. And that didn't make you a bad person- just a rich one belonging to a different caste.

And this teaches us now, that supposedly we know better, why castes are so toxic to social progress of any kind, and why violence is what they lead to, and why the lower castes can absolutely believe that in the upper tiers someone said “let them eat cake”. You know now, just as you know why the nobles were so taken aback when the pitchforks came for them.

And whatever we choose to keep or discard from the past, armed with these experiences, we won't be doing it with the frivolity of the heir that inherits what he/she has not worked for, and therefore doesn't value until it's all gone.

Third off, knowing where we came from, and where we stand right now, we can determine where we want to go. History has shown society unfortunately frequently oscillates between two extremes that however remain roughly the same over centuries and centuries- only rarely do we manage to break the cycle and move to another level, where we stay and repeat it again until the next time we communaly decide to move.

Depriving ourselves, and especially our children, from the past and the experiencing of this past through art is denying them part of their identity.

Knowing how sham trials were happening in the South, and what it costs to false-report a rape, is important. It shouldn't be banned. Knowing that there was a time people said the N word without it being considered a problem, and why it wasn't at the time, is important. It shouldn't be banned.

What should be done is to expose children in school to these pieces of art at the appropriate age, and with appropriate discussions, so they can understand, compare and contrast, and form opinions. It's warning them, shocking them, and providing them with the antibodies to fascism of all forms, to sexism of all forms, to intolerance that leads to fanatism of all sorts.

Banned art, especially banned old art, is shooting ourselves in the foot. Thankfully, there's Banned Books Week.

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ShaRose49 at 1:18PM, July 5, 2020

I totally agree with you @hushicho! Well said. And I did have a chance to watch Lindsay Ellis’ video about Disney, it was interesting.

ShaRose49 at 1:14PM, July 5, 2020

I did not know about banned book week! Thanks for showing me that. And I couldn’t agree more with this post! Censorship these days can be ridiculous. My sister works for a TV station, and the city made them take some of their news coverage off the air because it was about a controversial subject. News is news, sometimes stuff happens in the world that is controversial. Anywho, I believe people should be free to have their own opionion and beliefs, so long as they don’t go out of their way to hurt/bully others or anything.

PaulEberhardt at 11:52PM, July 4, 2020

Granted, this might be more difficult to do with Confederate generals - it apparently didn't work with all those Lenins in the CIS, and I certainly wouldn't want any leftover Nazi-party barons to spoil the view around my place - but my point is still that it's preferable to try and put things in perspective instead of withholding them from future generations, if that can be achieved in any way.

PaulEberhardt at 11:38PM, July 4, 2020

Statues and monuments might have been designed as glorifications of things we disapprove of today, but that's not necessarily a reason to tear them down. In Bremen where I live there is a huge brick statue of an elephant that used to be a monument to commemorate the German acquisition of African colonies, which gave port cities like Bremen a huge boost in prosperity. It was built in the early 1930s by colonial lobbyists to promote getting them back. Of course it has been the subject of similar controversies, but people came up with something better than demolishing it: they rededicated it as an anti-colonialism monument in celebration of Namibia's then newly-gained independence and as part of a European campaign called "cities against Apartheid". It still reminds us of where a considerable part of Bremen's past prosperity came from, just from a rather different angle, and whenever a kid asks what this elephant is supposed to mean, people are a good deal less ashamed to tell them.

Gunwallace at 9:21PM, July 4, 2020

The problem with history is that it is a foreign country, as the saying goes. People did things differently, for different reasons, in different societal systems. Scratch the surface of almost any historical figure and you’ll find things that are horrid by today’s standard. So where do you stop? Only put up monuments to the current generation? Even then, some wouldn’t last more than a few years. Just imagine a world with people tearing down J. K. Rowling statues everywhere right now. On the other hand, I can perfectly see why statues of Confederate figures are being targeted. They are not there are historical learning tools; they are there as glorification of a slave-owning, racist past.

Gunwallace at 9:21PM, July 4, 2020

Yes and No. The problem is when, as @hushicho quoted ”If some refuse to learn from history … all of us have to repeat it”. I own a copy of Mein Kampf I bought when at university. It’s an important book to study and understand the mindset of the times. However, I can see why many booksellers have stopped carrying the book. It’s being bought completely unironically by a new generation of Neo-Nazis. However, banning or editing works like Huckleberry Finn or To Kill A Mockingbird seem to be missing the point, especially since the only time most people will ever read them is in school. It’s a lost educational opportunity to put the historical racism and sexism and society in context. And it seems there is no end to the level of censorship … deleting cigarette smoking in old films, that just seems silly. Will they take out the sugary foods from Willy Wonka next?

hushicho at 8:09PM, July 4, 2020

To bring out an always-relevant quote that has shown its perpetual value in my lifetime, at multiple occasions: "those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it." And that's unfortunately not just referring to the specific people who do not learn; it's everyone. If some refuse to learn from history and continually deny its lessons, ALL OF US have to repeat it. I'm sick of it. Censorship is not beneficial for society. Education should be the emphasis, so that people can learn and, thus, become better, developing beyond the mistakes that previous eras of people made...and not simply making them disappear in the mainstream. By trying to erase them retroactively, it only means that people will be unequipped to deal with them when they inevitably manifest. And they always do.

bravo1102 at 2:54PM, July 4, 2020

When Broadway was on, there was a new production of To Kill a Mockingbird that got a lot of great reviews. It brought the work back into to spotlight and I had thought people would see the work for what it is. But the ignorance of the cancel censors has struck again. We're sorry Harper Kee and Mark Twain we're just too stubbornly stupid to understand what you wrote so we'll just cancel it because we only want our echo chamber safe space.

Tantz_Aerine at 1:02PM, July 4, 2020

I think there's a discussion developing here on the whole statue-toppling/defacing situation. I do have some views on that too, would you guys be interested in an article like that? When I wrote this one I was not thinking of the BLM protests and statues issue.

PaulEberhardt at 11:04AM, July 4, 2020

Anyone who wants to ban To Kill A Mockingbird for being racist has evidently never read it and should be glad that "reckless idiocy" hasn't been identified as a crime yet (possibly because no country would ever be able to provide enough prison space). Blotting out the past means teaching kids to take everything for granted, as if people didn't keep doing that too much anyway! If history has taught us one thing then that civil rights, freedom, equality, democracy and all that tend to disappear with alarming swiftness as soon as people start taking them for granted. (Btw. in my country "To Kill A Mockingbird" was required reading for all English graduation classes last year. The only reason it isn't now is because the mandatory reading list changes every year to give us teachers some variety, but there's always something on the list where they clearly had in mind what I just said above. Their faults lie in different areas, but that'd be too far off the topic.)

Ironscarf at 7:57AM, July 4, 2020

I've learned a lot of history I didn't know about before in the last few weeks and the people I learned it from are being accused of trying to erase history. That doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

Scott D at 6:18AM, July 4, 2020

There's a phrase over here - "You don't even know you're born" - which describes somebody as ignorant of their good fortune, and what others have gone through without that fortune in order to provide it for successive generations. These are those moments when the clarion cry of "you're erasing our history!" actually apply. We need to be able to examine the past and learn from what our ancestors did wrong - knowingly or otherwise - or we cannot grow as a society. There were fundamentally good people who lived in less enlightened times, when the language was different, when views were different, when religion was different, when possibility was different. It's okay if suddenly that heroic figure isn't squeaky clean anymore. It doesn't devalue the good, it just reminds us of the existence (and necessity) of progress. Context is vital. If children are forced to live in ignorance, none of them are going to know they're born.

Andreas_Helixfinger at 1:40AM, July 4, 2020

I think I watched that video essay myself back in fall of 2019. Its really good. And indeed, erasing or altering or neglecting art and art history of the past, just to suit modern sensibilities, is both foolish and fatal. The works of the past should be left unaltered and accesible to the public so that we may see it and learn from it. It should never be censored or left out, nor should it ever be held up as unquestionable. If we in any way blind ourselves to the attitudes of those who came before us, we blind ourselves to the attitudes that we hold now, and consequently, the attitudes that may be held by those who come after we're gone. All in all, great article👍

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