Thursday, October 12, 2006

Like Pimps, Artists Prostitute the World in the Name of Their Art

Don't they? Isn't that the Romantic paradigm, along with the default notion that chipmunks are beautiful?

Yesterday, I slapped together a few words about the Janet Malcolm/Joan Didion idea -- which each of those very able writers may or may not take seriously -- that journalists prey on those they write about, seducing and exploiting them in service of the story. I cribbed from a 13-year old Jon Carroll column defending the Joan Didion take on the perils of writing nonfiction.

This morning Brother Bob Wieder responded:

All very nice, but it sort of all rests on the single piling of loyalty to the reader as the prime directive, which it isn't. Plenty of writers, and there might be an argument to be made that most writers, at heart or right up front are primarily loyal to themselves, or a cause, or a philosophy, or an agenda, or a paycheck, or numerous other ors. Absent that pillar, the rest of the commentary is somewhat ramshackle.

I actually agree with Brother Bob, though I would take it one step further. First let me point out the obvious. What I tell the youth that I claim to instruct is that, when it comes to the true dilemmas of fact gathering and misleading sources, all the ethical codes for journalists that I am familiar with more or less say:

Don't don't don't.

Unless you have to.

The best and brightest rationale for "having to" is, of course, the need to inform the public so that the public can make wise political decisions and preserve the republic.

But, also of course, there is another reason I mention to the students, the one that Brother Bob walks right up to, though he does not actually pass through the door, for over the door is written: Vanity.

You know that deep in their hearts more than one nonfiction writer thinks of his or her work as a kind of art. Their ideology is beauty. They think they are serving readers' desire -- nay, the readers' need -- for the well-made tale, transcendent in its telling, not just in its message. I think lots of serious nonfiction writers are not comfortable teasing that thread out of the fabric of their self justification. But I think that thread is there, all the more sinister for being unacknowledged.

I tell my students to think about the lure of art. I tell them that if you get really good at this, you may decide to sacrifice those folk you use as subject matter to the triumph of your art, indeed to its mere possibility.

That's what artists do, right? Art can be a danger for even the lowliest of journalists, dreaming of aesthetics while prattling on about journalism's duty to the State.

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