Human Depravity and the Reinterpretation of Art

When Saturday Night Live came back to the air after the events of September 11th, 2001, the show’s creator Lorne Michaels, flanked by the entire cast, asked Mayor Giuliani if it was OK for them to be funny. The mayor’s deadpan answer is now the stuff of comedy legend, the question and its real answer were important concepts in the days after a terrible event that many believed had fundamentally changed the world as we knew it—or at least how we interacted with and in it. We are now in the midst of another of those events that seems to have changed how we interact with and in our world, and primarily how we interact with each other. It is, in almost every sense, as tragic a realization as it was on that clear fall morning in September nearly two decades ago, because it speaks to the depths some will plumb to do harm to their fellow humans.

This new environment is our struggle to atone for the long-term suffering of females at the hands of men who somehow feel entitled to those intimate places of the mind and body and who have, throughout nearly all of human history, helped themselves to them with or without consent. We are, like the cast of Saturday Night Live, now wondering what we can and cannot do, what we can and cannot say, and whether we can still admire works from a different time. Where Lorne and his cast were concerned about trying to be funny so soon after a national tragedy, we are wondering if we should still laugh at things that might have been born during a tragedy of which so many were simply unaware. We are trying to decide if we should still see certain films involving certain directors or actors. Should we go see certain comics? We are determining if we should be reinterpreting the art from another age. I find this to be a very dangerous and self-defeating proposition and one that will surely do far more harm than good.

Is it OK to go back and watch Louis C.K. from before we knew he liked to try to impress women by stroking himself in scenarios no normal person would think appropriate? If not, how are we to account for Hollywood’s fawning over the films of Roman Polanski long after he fled the country so as not to meet child rape charges? By most accounts, Ernest Hemingway was lacking as a father, had a great temper, and fell in and out of alcoholism-induced violence and abuse. Should we no longer be enthralled by his peerless prose and the window it opens to our souls in works like “Hills Like White Elephants” or For Whom the Bell Tolls? Perhaps Washington and Jefferson should be swept from the pages of our children’s History books and removed from our currency, disgraced slaveholders that they were.

How much should our present condition act as a lens on how we judge the works of others from an earlier time? This, I suspect, will be one of the driving questions of the next decade, and I urge great caution. I urge—dare I say it—conservatism, that is the resistance to social relativism that asks us to view previous events or works with an eye neither we nor those who lived or created them could possibly have had at the time. This is not an easy thing to do, to resist the urge to coat a distressing past in our newly informed morality.

This past week I was catching up on podcasts and heard Terry Gross interviewing Jonah Hill. She asked him, in light of the “#MeToo era,” about his reaction to a scene in Superbad. Ms. Gross has spent a significant amount of time over recent months engaging in this kind of questioning. It is a subject she clearly has strong feelings about. In this particular scene, Hill’s character and a friend are discussing whether/how to comply with the popular girl’s request of his character that he acquire the alcohol for a party she’s throwing while her parents are out of town. The line is, “You know when you hear girls say, ‘Ah, I was so shitfaced last night. I shouldn’t have fucked that guy’?…we could be that mistake!” Hill said he felt terrible hearing that back. He might have said it sounds horrific now. That is not what I expected of an artist.

I wanted Hill to say this:

[note: this is my imagined response; it is not, to my great disappointment, what Jonah Hill actually said]

[“]First of all, Terry, that was a funny line…and it still is. Second, and I think this is the most important part. My character was trying to buy alcohol because the girl he wanted asked him to. She has agency here. The anonymous girl he quotes says “I shouldn’t have [had sex with] that guy.” That girl has agency too. She decided to sleep with “that guy,” and she is capable of self-assessment. The sex he is discussing is consensual just as the responsibility for getting [beep]faced lies with all of those knowingly partaking, both girls and boys. There is a multidimensional dynamic taking place here. And here’s the real kicker, I think, Terry. That line is truth. Sometimes comedy does that, you know. It speaks a truth. And good comedy always does. Always.

[“]Think of this. Every weekend—probably every single day—a woman wakes up after consensual sex and knows she’s made a mistake. Hell…that’s the story of my sex life! (Terry laughs…) That’s truth, Terry. We cannot go around denying that fact. But there is even something deeper here.

[“]Comedy is an art form and art must shine a light on places we don’t always want to acknowledge exist. Part of this joke, the part that makes it so relevant now—YES even now!—is the commentary it is making about the culture I think you are trying to tap into and dissuade. Should high school girls ask guys to buy them alcohol for a party they shouldn’t be having so everyone, who is likely underage, can drink to excess and lose their inhibitions? Should that boy go and break the law to achieve it? Should young men rely on alcohol to find a way to “yes?” None of this should be happening, Terry. Not in a perfect world. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and our art has to reflect human frailty and imperfection. Our art has to comment on the world as it is, and if we squirm a little while we laugh because it makes us a bit queasy or uncomfortable, then the art is doing exactly as art should.

[“]That line is not a throw-away slapstick line. This isn’t Larry slapping the [beep] out of Mo. That line is a complex characterization of the young human condition. It is funny. Still. It’s also disturbing. But above all, it’s true. So, I guess that’s how I feel about hearing that now. I feel proud to have been a part of making the kind of art that can remain relevant and meaningful a decade on…what a great question, Terry. You truly are a national asset.[“]

[Here ends my dreamed-up response.]

Everything my Jonah says here is real. The line is funny. I know this because when I told it to a confidant who also happens to be a woman that has never seen the movie, she laughed out loud. That’s important, but it is not the main affair. Art is perhaps more relevant today than it has been in my lifetime. In a world where people pick their own “alternative” facts, where reason seems to be sliding into the oblivion of the Twitterverse, where what you “know” comes to you from a self-reinforcing media and social machine that implores you never to question it or yourself, art is the only thing with a small chance to make people think about things in a way they have never thought before. The staunchest Levitical evangelical could not see The Laramie Project and not be moved in some small way. The most ardent pacifist could not hear John Ondrasik’s “Note to the Unknown Soldier” and not feel something they have never known before. Art, because it is a personal medium, necessarily stands apart not only from the artist, but from their time, and—until it is internalized—apart from those who view it.

Certainly, there is comedy I do not care for. I’m sure this happens to us all. Some of it makes me too uncomfortable to enjoy. Sometimes that is because it is too close to my own experience or it impinges too significantly on my own biases. These are not issues with the art or artist. They are mine alone.

There is visual art I cannot revere. I have yet to find the message or meaning in Picasso’s modern interpretation of the nude form, though his classical sketches and some of his sculptures are moving forms of expression to me. Some of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography disturbs me deeply. Some of it seems to have been made purely to foster that very response, and I cannot respect such self-indulgence. These are personal judgements, however, and they have no bearing on the ultimate worth of the works I may despise.

It is not up to one person—even more so, a group of like-minded people—to say what should and should not be seen, what should and should not be funny, whether the work of a fallible human caught in the depths of his own depravity should be vanquished from the canon. It is not up to a “movement” to tell others what is now deemed acceptable in retrospect and what is not. All of these works teach us something. They communicate in ways that are forever important in the struggle to divine our own humanity.

I hope Terry Gross and other insightful interviewers continue to ask artists how they now view their creations. It is all right if some of them say they no longer see its value for reasons that have to do with artistic choices at the time or those choices in relation to a greater understanding or maturity on the part of the artist today. There are tens of thousands of words whose value to me is simply their volume. What they say is no longer important, if it ever was. I want to hear artists discuss their craft and their creations, but I hope I never again hear an artist acquiescing to the current mood of the country or saying something to inoculate themselves from righteous trolls lacking the intellect or introspection required to find the multifaceted and relevant forward reflections of that art into the narrative of our times.

Yes, it is OK to be funny, and it is OK to laugh. Even now. Even about that, whatever that is for you. If it makes you question why, all the better.