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Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Slate: Baseball’s First Black Player Lived His Life as a White Man

The William Edward White story…

Until she was contacted last month, White’s only grandchild, Lois De Angelis, said her family had been unaware of White’s role in baseball history, and of his racial background. De Angelis, who is 74 years old and lives in Grayslake, Ill., said she knew that her grandfather worked as an artist and had been published in the Saturday Evening Post or another magazine, and that he was separated from her grandmother, who worked as a secretary for Sears. Beyond that, De Angelis said she knew nothing about William Edward White.

White’s wife, Hattie, lived until 1970. De Angelis doubted that Hattie would have known White was one-quarter black, at least before they were married. “My grandmother was very prudish, very English,” she said. Neither Hattie nor De Angelis’ mother, Vera, ever mentioned why Hattie and White had separated, De Angelis said. Perhaps, she speculated, White left the household because Hattie discovered his racial history. “That’s funny when I think of my grandmother,” De Angelis said. “She would die if she knew it.”

So where does that leave William Edward White? Baseball pioneer or baseball footnote? When he trotted out to first base at Messer Street Grounds in Providence, White may have been the only person who knew that a black man was playing in the big leagues. And even that assumes White thought about the fact that he was black, or even partly black. In the racially bifurcated America of the times, “you were black or you were white,” Hobbs says. If no one else knew—if society couldn’t respond and react—it’s reasonable to question whether White should be recognized as the first African-American major-leaguer.

Or maybe that’s a distinction without a difference. American history and its precision-loving subset of baseball history are filled with the sort of ambiguity that complicates the search for convenient, ironclad “firsts.” This much is indisputable: On June 21, 1879, a man born a slave in Georgia played in a major-league baseball game. A black man named White played for the Grays. Factually and figuratively, that seems right. And it seems worth celebrating.

Repoz Posted: February 05, 2014 at 08:57 AM | 740 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: history

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   1. JRVJ Posted: February 05, 2014 at 09:53 AM (#4651907)
As a Latin American from a country which is a big mixing bowl of races (Panama), I always find articles like this odd, in that they assume that racial identity of the person in question is unquestionably X because that's how races were thought of in the U.S. at the time.

Now I will grant that this article makes appropriate provisos inn a number of places about the fludity of racial identity and such, but the whole concept of "passing" seems odd to me if the person in question was identifiably Caucasian (I understand why the term "Passing is used - the person didn't want others to know of his "Negro" roots in order to avoid many, many problems. But "passing" almost makes it seem like the person in question WASN'T in fact Caucasian in appearance).


One thing I would have liked explored in the article is whether Mr. White's offspring were "Caucasian" in appearance, though I infer that they were and perhaps never even knew that they had one great-grandparent who had been a "Negro" (I use the term "Negro" because that is surely the term that would have applied during the life of Mr. White's grandparent).
   2. cardsfanboy Posted: February 05, 2014 at 10:00 AM (#4651911)
Interesting article. It would be interesting to find out more about White's history and how he identified himself. A guy who was born as a slave, regardless of how white his skin, has to identify somewhat with being black. But I could absolutely understand why he wouldn't advertise that if he could get away with it.
   3. GregD Posted: February 05, 2014 at 10:12 AM (#4651916)
I suspect we will never know how he thought of himself. It would take an immense source base to do that and a death certificate doesn't tell us anything, really, about how someone saw himself.

As a Latin American from a country which is a big mixing bowl of races (Panama), I always find articles like this odd, in that they assume that racial identity of the person in question is unquestionably X because that's how races were thought of in the U.S. at the time.
I can only imagine how bewildering it is from outside. I would say the article is trying to place American passing within a context of passing to the world not about internal identity. If White would have been understood as black--which he obviously would have--then by definition in the US he's passing if he goes by white even if he looks white and has many white ancestors. Of course it is possible he also thought of himself as white, but, weirdly, in the US experience that's irrelevant.

The problem people like him pose for the lists of early black players is interesting because it reveals that the lists, to make sense, have to be constructed on the same ironclad one-drop rule that his life complicates. A list of early black players should only include people who were "really" black, and White's life reminds us why any such list will crumble on its own logic. A list of players who playing ball but could not play for MLB because of color is something real; a list of all-time black players is not real in the same way.
   4. bobm Posted: February 05, 2014 at 10:28 AM (#4651923)
FTFA:

That’s certainly the case with William Edward White. For years, only a handful of baseball historians had even heard of him, and then only as a name on a list of 19th-century players about whom nothing was known. Then, research by Peter Morris (one of the authors of this article), Bruce Allardice, and other members of the Society for American Baseball Research—as part of an ongoing project to compile biographical information on everyone who has ever played in the majors—revealed White’s baseball and racial story. (The co-author of this article, Stefan Fatsis, reported the findings in the Wall Street Journal in January 2004.) [emphasis added]


IMO any article by Peter Morris is worth a read.
   5. The Robby Hammock District (Dan Lee) Posted: February 05, 2014 at 10:36 AM (#4651928)
There was an excellent Radiolab episode last year about race identity, and a (by all outward appearances, Caucasian) family in southern Ohio that can't agree on whether they're black or white. Highly recommended.
   6. Bitter Mouse Posted: February 05, 2014 at 10:45 AM (#4651937)
Race is a historic and cultural artifact, with some genetic grouping thrown in. The sooner it goes away as a major component of how we think and act the better. Interesting article though, and thinking about it from a sociology perspective is pretty cool I do admit.
   7. Jesse Barfield's Right Arm Posted: February 05, 2014 at 10:50 AM (#4651939)
But "passing" almost makes it seem like the person in question WASN'T in fact Caucasian in appearance


I don't think it indicates that at all. By the laws of the day, White was considered to be black. If his mother's race had been known, he simply would not have been allowed to play baseball nor participate in a number of other activities that white people could. That's why it's called passing.

There is much to be found objectionable in the culture and laws that produced the need to "pass," but nothing at all in identifying and naming the practice.
   8. Mayor Blomberg Posted: February 05, 2014 at 11:31 AM (#4651971)
For an historian, even a baseball historian, John Husman holdsmakes a spectacularly ill-informed claim when he asserts that White is the first black big-leaguer only by “the retroactive application of genetic rules.” What criteria does he imagine that the Plessy court was upholding in (and even surveying in the final paragraphs of) its decision?
   9. kthejoker Posted: February 05, 2014 at 11:33 AM (#4651973)
Koan: Are you really a pioneer if it's a secret?
   10. Jason Michael(s) Bourn Identity Crisis Posted: February 05, 2014 at 11:48 AM (#4651981)
This is the kind of trivia that will only serve to benefit pedants; such is our lot in life.
   11. Slivers of Maranville descends into chaos (SdeB) Posted: February 05, 2014 at 11:59 AM (#4651990)
Here is a photo of Walter White, Chairman of the NAACP for 25 years. Black man.

Another photo.
   12. Rants Mulliniks Posted: February 05, 2014 at 12:32 PM (#4652013)
I figured knowing that the black Bill White we all know has the middle name of DeKova might prove useful someday.
   13. Flynn Posted: February 05, 2014 at 12:51 PM (#4652030)
Hell, check out GK Butterfield, North Carolina Congressman.
   14. AROM Posted: February 05, 2014 at 01:14 PM (#4652052)
It's probable that William White was not the only mixed race person who played pro baseball at the time. Just the one who has been discovered.
   15. EddieA Posted: February 05, 2014 at 01:37 PM (#4652075)
Colorful story.
White, a black and white man, considered black by some, white by others, went to Brown University, and played for the Providence Grays against the Cleveland Blues. Hope he got some green, silver, or gold for that game and didn't just appear for fun.
   16. JRVJ Posted: February 05, 2014 at 01:51 PM (#4652085)
7, I wonder if that would have been the case (Mr. White would have been precluded from playing if his 1/4 black background was known), if he was a super star level player.

Also, I HAVE to believe that in the 1870s, with the U.S. frontier still fairly open and with surely very haphazard records in the South, there must have been a lot of 1/2, 1/4 and 1/8 "Negro" men and women leading very quiet lives as "White" individuals (it cannot have been uncommon).
   17. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: February 05, 2014 at 01:58 PM (#4652091)
Here is a photo of Walter White, Chairman of the NAACP for 25 years. Black man.

Another photo.


Walter White is nearly forgotten today, but he was known as "Mr. NAACP" for a good reason. Among other things, as an assistant NAACP secretary between 1918 and 1920 he took advantage of his "white" skin to infiltrate the KKK and other terrorist organizations in Tennessee and Georgia, get into their homes, gain their confidences, report to the Governor of Georgia with firsthand "confessions" of lynchings (the Governor thought that White was white), and all in all did more to publicize lynchings than any other man in the country. At one point he even got President Wilson---The Birth of a Nation's most prominent fan---to condemn lynching. Given the times, that was one hell of a bit of bravura.
   18. Mom makes botox doctors furious Posted: February 05, 2014 at 01:58 PM (#4652092)
Wow. Biographical data on every player who ever played in the majors.

That is so geeky
   19. JRVJ Posted: February 05, 2014 at 02:04 PM (#4652097)
I can't for the life of me remember the name of the book right now, but I do recall reading a book about how Louisiana (or even moreso, New Orleans) racial identities were different (broader) than those in the rest of the U.S.
   20. Never Give an Inge (Dave) Posted: February 05, 2014 at 02:19 PM (#4652109)

Skip Gates' book, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man" has a good chapter about Anatole Broyard, the New York Times literary critic who was a mixed race Louisiana Creole but passed as white during his adult life. Broyard's daughter has also written a book on the subject but I haven't read that.
   21. Ivan Grushenko of Hong Kong Posted: February 05, 2014 at 02:47 PM (#4652123)
The Birth of a Nation's most prominent fan

I thought The Birth of a Nation was a great movie. What does that make me....it's 8 millionth most prominent fan?
   22. Morty Causa Posted: February 05, 2014 at 04:32 PM (#4652196)
Anyone who has actually seen The Birth of A Nation can't but concede that it's a great movie. (Oh, oh, here comes an exception.)
   23. Best Regards, President of Comfort, Esq. Posted: February 05, 2014 at 05:13 PM (#4652233)
Walter White is nearly forgotten today


Nonsense, the blue sky stuff is all over the Southwest.
   24. jacksone (AKA It's OK...) Posted: February 05, 2014 at 05:28 PM (#4652248)

I thought The Birth of a Nation was a great movie. What does that make me....it's 8 millionth most prominent fan?


A racist? Unless you meant you like the cinematic styling and the bang-up acting performances of Lillian Gish and John Ford, and not the whole ideological teaching of the flick.
   25. Ivan Grushenko of Hong Kong Posted: February 05, 2014 at 05:53 PM (#4652262)
I thought The Birth of a Nation was a great movie. What does that make me....it's 8 millionth most prominent fan?

A racist? Unless you meant you like the cinematic styling and the bang-up acting performances of Lillian Gish and John Ford, and not the whole ideological teaching of the flick

Interesting. I liked Silence of the Lambs too. That means I'm a cannibal I guess. Liking King Kong makes me a giant gorilla, which of course means I'm not a cannibal unless I eat other giant gorillas. Liking The Godfather makes me a gangster. Liking The Little Mermaid makes me a talking fish, which makes it very difficult to be a cannibalistic giant gorilla. This is fun!
   26. Nasty Nate Posted: February 05, 2014 at 06:04 PM (#4652270)
Really?
   27. bjhanke Posted: February 05, 2014 at 06:06 PM (#4652272)
I can't talk specifically about 1879, because I don't know time distinctions that fine, but I do know that there were widely-used terms for people of mixed blood in the 1800s, for at least several decades. White, one quarter black, would have been a "quadroon." His offspring, assuming that the mother was fully white, would have been "octaroons." At least in Louisiana, for at least some time, these categories resulted in different legal treatment. - Brock Hanke
   28. Johnny Sycophant-Laden Fora Posted: February 05, 2014 at 06:15 PM (#4652282)
1 game in 1879,
Fleet Walker wasn't "passing" when he played, and was blackballed/banned, I'm not sure someone who played by passing as "white" counts, plus White almost certainly wasn't the only one.

   29. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: February 05, 2014 at 06:19 PM (#4652287)
Anyone who has actually seen The Birth of A Nation can't but concede that it's a great movie. (Oh, oh, here comes an exception.)

Everyone concedes that The Birth of a Nation is a great movie in terms of cinematography and storytelling. It's when people try to go beyond that, and try to evade the fact that it's also a shameless piece of racist propaganda, that they'll run into a bit of resistance in making their case. But then 99.99% of the critics and non-racist public have by this time learned how to separate the two elements.

So there. Does that make me an exception?
   30. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: February 05, 2014 at 06:23 PM (#4652290)
I can't talk specifically about 1879, because I don't know time distinctions that fine, but I do know that there were widely-used terms for people of mixed blood in the 1800s, for at least several decades. White, one quarter black, would have been a "quadroon." His offspring, assuming that the mother was fully white, would have been "octaroons." At least in Louisiana, for at least some time, these categories resulted in different legal treatment. - Brock Hanke

Here's the late Senator Theodore G. Bilbo's contribution to the scholarship of race mixing, from his seminal 1947 book Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization, published by the "Dream House Publishing Co.":

The fusion of whites and Indians produced mestizos; the fusion of whites and Negroes produced
mulattoes; the fusion of Negroes and Indians produced zambos. Mongrelization started in South
America, and there was no power to stop it. The population began to consist of mestizos,
mulattoes, zambos, terceroones, quadroons, cholos, musties, fusties, and dusties. There were
crosses between Spaniards and Indians, Spaniards and Negroes, Spaniards and yellows; crosses
between these half-breed off-spring and the whites and blacks; crosses between mongrels of one
kind and mongrels of another kind; half-breeds, cross-breeds, mix-breeds soon infested the
land!
   31. Johnny Sycophant-Laden Fora Posted: February 05, 2014 at 06:31 PM (#4652300)
Everyone concedes that The Birth of a Nation is a great movie in terms of cinematography and storytelling. It's when people try to go beyond that, and try to evade the fact that it's also a shameless piece of racist propaganda, that they'll run into a bit of resistance in making their case.


Battleship Potemkin was also a great movie for the time it was made, and also a shameless piece of political propaganda.

Triumph of the Will was a beautifully crafted bit of documentary propaganda.

I think being well made and crafted somehow makes things like this MORE vile not less. Most propaganda efforts are clumsy and repellent on the surface- the truly dangerous/evil ones, are not.

   32. Slivers of Maranville descends into chaos (SdeB) Posted: February 05, 2014 at 06:44 PM (#4652308)
Guess we know what Bilbo would have thought about Aragorn and Arwen.
   33. Johnny Sycophant-Laden Fora Posted: February 05, 2014 at 06:56 PM (#4652311)
The population began to consist of mestizos,
mulattoes, zambos, terceroones, quadroons, cholos, musties, fusties, and dusties.


I'm trying to think where my kids fit in, did Bilbo consider the Irish to be white? I assume Bilbo say my wife was yellow, so... not, mestizo, mulatto, zambo, tercerone, quadroon or cholo... so musty, fusty or dusty?

   34. God Posted: February 05, 2014 at 07:01 PM (#4652312)
Interesting. I liked Silence of the Lambs too. That means I'm a cannibal I guess.


First of all, Ivan is being extremely disingenuous here because he knows damn well those are not equivalent situations. Silence of the Lambs is not a polemic celebrating serial killing and advocating its practice. Hannibal Lecter is not the hero of the movie. He is not being held up by the filmmakers as someone to admire. The FBI agent is.

That said, I think most of us can agree with Ivan that it's possible to separate one's admiration for the technical aspects of the film from our dislike of its political intent. Admiring D.W. Griffith's technical acumen doesn't make one a racist. I think it was Ivan's somewhat careless use of the word "fan" that created this misunderstanding -- and again I think this was disingenuous on Ivan's part. It seems to me he intentionally created that misunderstanding to, I guess, make some sort of rhetorical point.

I am a fan of Matt Kemp. That means I empathize with him and root for his success. I do not feel that way about Triumph of the Will, though I may admire the filmmaking, and I doubt Ivan Grushenko feels that way about Birth of a Nation.
   35. Morty Causa Posted: February 05, 2014 at 07:07 PM (#4652315)
Everyone concedes that The Birth of a Nation is a great movie in terms of cinematography and storytelling.

No, it's a great movie, period. Those things you mentioned are attributes of a great movie, but there are others, and it possesses them. One of the first things you learn when you decided to assess works of art seriously, whether that is a poem, a play, a novel, or a film, is to segregate it from particular place and time--to free it from social strictures and structures native to its time. Only if that can be done, can a work become a classic. (It can be done with BOAN.) We don't now, and haven't for a long time, argued over who was historically right or wrong--the Greeks or the Trojans. It doesn't matter when it comes to art, and it shouldn't matter with BOAN. Otherwise, it stays a mere political or social illustration, and you never get to where you are giving the work and the artist its due. Birth of A Nation is not really about Blacks and Whites artistically; it's about black and white. Kind of like Paradise Lost--another example one can allow views of history and societies and theories to obfuscate the artistic work as an artistic work.

So there. Does that make me an exception?

No, because you concede at least part of its greatness, however mealy-mouth the concession is. But it's what all of us do instinctively, and that's how you first appreciate a work. But esthetics is about getting beyond that.

   36. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: February 05, 2014 at 07:13 PM (#4652316)
Battleship Potemkin was also a great movie for the time it was made, and also a shameless piece of political propaganda.

Triumph of the Will was a beautifully crafted bit of documentary propaganda.

I think being well made and crafted somehow makes things like this MORE vile not less. Most propaganda efforts are clumsy and repellent on the surface- the truly dangerous/evil ones, are not.


I agree with what you're getting at, but when the target audience is so receptive to the message, that's where the problem really lies.

In the case of The Battleship Potemkin, the target audience was primarily leftists and movie buffs in all countries. Its non-cinematography effect was modest at most.

In the case of Triumph of the Will, the target audience was somewhat similar: The German masses and the sort of movie buffs who are always willing to overlook content for aesthetics, no matter how repulsive the content. But its main goal was to convince the outside world of the reality of German might, and to discourage coordinated resistance. It's hard to measure just how well that goal was met, but it sure didn't hurt the Nazi cause.

But in terms of malignant effect, The Birth of a Nation wins hands down. Its target audience was domestic, not international, and specifically it was aimed at white northerners in a (quite successful) attempt to win sympathy for the South's handling of "the Negro question".

There are entire books that show just how well Griffith succeeded in his goal, as his movie turned out to be the greatest recruiting tool the Ku Klux Klan ever had. No comparable effects resulted from those other two movies: For one thing, neither the Soviets nor the Nazis really needed to "convince" their own populations of anything, since they were already well under control at the time that those movies were released. But the release of The Birth of a Nation was like throwing tankloads of kerosene on an already existing series of fires, with the deliberate aim of keeping an entire race subjugated.
   37. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: February 05, 2014 at 07:16 PM (#4652319)
So there. Does that make me an exception?

No, because you concede at least part of its greatness, however mealy-mouth the concession is.


I'll settle for you making a mealy-mouthed concession about all the non-cinematography points that I've raised. We can then agree on everything else.
   38. Morty Causa Posted: February 05, 2014 at 07:21 PM (#4652323)
Here's the late Senator Theodore G. Bilbo's contribution to the scholarship of race mixing, from his seminal 1947 book Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization, published by the "Dream House Publishing Co.":

It's easy to ridicule the Bilbos, but that dichotomy has always been in play, among all peoples and their neighbors, as well as those within, and it has always been taken seriously. It has do with the cohesiveness of the group on a very basic level, I suspect--but getting into that would be going beyond what the topic calls for. But the Greeks didn't like intermixing and neither did the Cheyenne or the Bantu, not anymore the scions of the old Confederacy. It always comes to be tolerated, but always in second-class way until they are absorbed into a greater class (We're all Americans). The history of Man and Peoples is the history of mongrelization--and fighting it before allowing it. It's a part of the larger great competition--races, ethnic groups, sexes, sexual orientations, age groups, even Republicans and Democrats (with sub-factions within) are proof of this.
   39. God Posted: February 05, 2014 at 07:21 PM (#4652324)
No, it's a great movie, period. Those things you mentioned are attributes of a great movie, but there are others, and it possesses them. One of the first things you learn when you decided to assess works of art seriously, whether that is a poem, a play, a novel, or a film, is to segregate it from particular place and time--to free it from social strictures and structures native to its time.


Well, in the words of another great work of art, "that's, like, your opinion, man." It's not as case-closed as you make it out to be. Reasonable minds can disagree on the issue of whether art can (or should) be separated from the political context of its creation. Birth of a Nation may be making a very well-expressed artistic statement, but it's reasonable to ask whether that statement is actually worth making. There are many folks out there who believe that art can't, and shouldn't, be separated from its moral and ethical context. In fact, there are many outstanding works of art -- for instance, The Grapes of Wrath, or Oliver Stone's JFK -- which cannot be reasonably evaluated apart from their political content. The political content is the very point of the artistic expression -- and I would argue Birth of a Nation falls into the same category.
   40. Morty Causa Posted: February 05, 2014 at 07:23 PM (#4652325)
I'll settle for you making a mealy-mouthed concession about all the non-cinematography points that I've raised. We can then agree on everything else.

But I meant that in the best possible sense.
   41. Morty Causa Posted: February 05, 2014 at 07:24 PM (#4652326)
There are entire books that show just how well Griffith succeeded in his goal, as his movie turned out to be the greatest recruiting tool the Ku Klux Klan ever had. No comparable effects resulted from those other two movies: For one thing, neither the Soviets nor the Nazis really needed to "convince" their own populations of anything, since they were already well under control at the time that those movies were released. But the release of The Birth of a Nation was like throwing tankloads of kerosene on an already existing series of fires, with the deliberate aim of keeping an entire race subjugated.

Again, that's entirely irrelevant to whether it succeeded as a work of art.
   42. Morty Causa Posted: February 05, 2014 at 07:30 PM (#4652328)
There are many folks out there who believe that art can't, and shouldn't, be separated from its moral and ethical context.

That's not the same as a social context.

The Grapes of Wrath, or Oliver Stone's JFK -- which cannot be reasonably evaluated apart from their political content.

Of course they can, and if they are to live as classics, they'll have to be. Just because some people refuse to do during the moment, and for a short time thereafter, because they see art as a tool, and a particular work as just one more political cudgel, doesn't mean it can't be done. Not only that: the history of art shows that it will be done. The examples are boundless.
   43. Morty Causa Posted: February 05, 2014 at 07:31 PM (#4652330)
A work of art ultimately has to be extricated from its time and place and abstracted into universals. That's easily done with BOAN.
   44. Morty Causa Posted: February 05, 2014 at 07:34 PM (#4652334)
It's like Henry Ford. That he was an anti-Semite has nothing to do with whether his car was a thing of beauty and a joy forever.
   45. God Posted: February 05, 2014 at 07:44 PM (#4652340)
Not remotely equivalent situations. Anti-Semitism wasn't the main ingredient in the car. Racism was the main ingredient in BOaN, and was its very reason for existence.
   46. Monty Predicts a Padres-Mariners WS in 2016 Posted: February 05, 2014 at 07:47 PM (#4652342)
A work of art ultimately has to be extricated from its time and place and abstracted into universals. That's easily done with BOAN.


Birth of a Nation was pretty racist even for its time and place.
   47. A big pile of nonsense (gef the talking mongoose) Posted: February 05, 2014 at 07:50 PM (#4652343)
Anti-Semitism wasn't the main ingredient in the car.


I blame anti-Semitism for the fact that my '73 Mustang used to boil batteries the way Morty's people do shrimp.
   48. Morty Causa Posted: February 05, 2014 at 07:52 PM (#4652345)
Racism was the main ingredient in BOaN, and was its very reason for existence.

No, and, again, that would be irrelevant to esthetics.
   49. simon bedford Posted: February 05, 2014 at 08:02 PM (#4652350)
i suppose you CAN watch films divorced of their politics or their time or without understanding the context of the meaning the writer/director had in the first place, but that seems to be rather beside the point. One may get some "enjoyment" out of watching "on the waterfront" but its probably better to do just a little homework on what a little weasel kazan was before you invest any time in it. getting a more informed clearer picture of what art , in what ever form< is trying to impart is far more important than clinging to some pure aesthitic view of its value. i dont actually see how you can ascribe valuse to something you dont actually understand, other than to say, well that looked nice.
   50. Morty Causa Posted: February 05, 2014 at 08:02 PM (#4652351)
Any time you strive to isolate, and thus reduce, a work into its mere political/social components, you are denying its goal pf always trying to exceed the contemporary and transitory. A polemical pamphlet is not a work of art. Griffith, and there are first-hand reports of this, was not interested in race relations. He was greatly dismayed that it was taken that way. Indeed, that led to perhaps his greatest movie, Intolerance.
   51. simon bedford Posted: February 05, 2014 at 08:09 PM (#4652357)
thing is monty, "Truimph of the will" battleship potemkin" "birth of a nation"a and "on the waterfront" were polemics, and watching them without at least being aware of this defeats watching them at all, unless you just want to say how pretty or arresting the visuals are. which is clearly missing most if not all of the point. reducing it to a meaningless endeavor for the most part
   52. bjhanke Posted: February 05, 2014 at 08:11 PM (#4652358)
Triumph of the Will was SCARY!! I went to see it in college in 1967, when Vanderbilt had a showing because they were trying to deal with politics of all sorts (they were integrating the SEC at the time, after the Glory Road year exposed Adolph Rupp and the whole SEC, so it wasn't that Vandy endorsed the movie or anything). About 3/4 of the way through, I found myself having to fight down the urge to stand up, stick out my arm, and yell, "Sieg Heil!" My politics hadn't changed. I was still basically a Victorian Era Fabian Society socialist, same as I am now. But the sheer momentum of the giant rally, with everybody doing the same thing all the time, was just hard to resist. I would imagine it's like looking at an incoming tsunami. You know it's a catastrophe, but watching it come in is hypnotic.

Birth of the Nation is a great movie. It accomplished its goals, in spite of being a horribly biased, slanderous, racist account of early America. If you can sell people on that kind of thing, using a black and white movie, you're a great filmmaker. But, then, so was Leni Riefenstahl (sp?). One test: Can you remember any OTHER KKK propaganda? Birth is the only one that is still famous. - Brock Hanke
   53. God Posted: February 05, 2014 at 08:14 PM (#4652361)
No, and, again, that would be irrelevant to esthetics.


Again, that's your opinion. Obviously many here disagree. And personally, I find it kind of annoying when someone keeps stating their opinion as fact, even after said misstatement has been pointed out to them.

EDIT: Also, I find it bizarre that someone would argue against the notion that the promotion of racism was the very reason for BOaN's existence. That's pretty well-documented historically, not to mention patently obvious to anyone who watches the film.
   54. simon bedford Posted: February 05, 2014 at 08:19 PM (#4652365)
they day the clown cried is famous as well brock, i think what you are famous for is perhaps an important compenent, for one i thought birth of the nation was hokey poorly made offensive and overly long while i was watching it, i couldnt believe anyone "enjoyed" that film. but thats one non american persons review of it.
   55. simon bedford Posted: February 05, 2014 at 08:37 PM (#4652373)
and i read a book a long time ago on d. w, grffith and i dont remeber any quote that suggested "intolerance" had anything at all to do with "birth of a nation". this biography presented the character of griffith who wouldnt have cared if his film were "disliked" or "protested" and wouldnt have stopped to notice if they were. given the amount of time and the amount of work that was involved , griffith had already started work on intolerance before "birth of a nation" had even been given a full release, so this was some pre-emptive thinking on his part, unless the bio i read was wrong, or i am remebering it wrong, both of which are possible.
   56. haggard Posted: February 05, 2014 at 08:46 PM (#4652376)
Okie From Muskogee is a great song period.
   57. Never Give an Inge (Dave) Posted: February 05, 2014 at 09:17 PM (#4652390)

Any time you strive to isolate, and thus reduce, a work into its mere political/social components, you are denying its goal pf always trying to exceed the contemporary and transitory. A polemical pamphlet is not a work of art. Griffith, and there are first-hand reports of this, was not interested in race relations. He was greatly dismayed that it was taken that way. Indeed, that led to perhaps his greatest movie, Intolerance.

I've never seen BOaN, so I can't comment on the aesthetics, but you can't take a film about political events and argue it should be evaluated completely outside of its political context. Particularly if those events are portrayed inaccurately or dishonestly. I don't think anyone here is arguing it should be "reduced" to its "mere" political/social components, but those components, as well as the film's underlying truth, should be taken into account. Also, it's possible to appreciate aspects of a work of art, or its influence on the craft, without liking the work as a whole.

For what it's worth, if Griffith did not want BOaN to be interpreted the way that it was, it's hard not to view that in itself as a major failing of the film.
   58. Morty Causa Posted: February 05, 2014 at 09:47 PM (#4652407)
That's not so. Artists have been using History for their own sweet purposes since time immemorial. As time goes by, that means nothing. And it's been done not only by those you disapprove of. My argument was that it was a great movie, and that it may not have the politics you would like it to have doesn't detract from that--certainly, not in the long run.

And Okie From Muskogee is a piece of ####.
   59. Morty Causa Posted: February 05, 2014 at 09:50 PM (#4652409)
55:

Flush your tongue and start over.
   60. Morty Causa Posted: February 05, 2014 at 09:52 PM (#4652411)
Again, that's your opinion.

No, it isn't. It's an argument I made, evidencing facts and works. Yours is a mere opinion that you should have surmounted at least by the end of high school. That is not how you judge art.
   61. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: February 05, 2014 at 10:03 PM (#4652415)
There are entire books that show just how well Griffith succeeded in his goal, as his movie turned out to be the greatest recruiting tool the Ku Klux Klan ever had. No comparable effects resulted from those other two movies: For one thing, neither the Soviets nor the Nazis really needed to "convince" their own populations of anything, since they were already well under control at the time that those movies were released. But the release of The Birth of a Nation was like throwing tankloads of kerosene on an already existing series of fires, with the deliberate aim of keeping an entire race subjugated.

Again, that's entirely irrelevant to whether it succeeded as a work of art.


That would be an apt comment if that were what I was disputing.

If 100 years can be considered to be "the long run", I'd say that the overwhelming critical consensus on The Birth of a Nation is that it's a great work of art that was made in the willful service of a despicable cause, and which did great additional damage to our already dreadful state of racial affairs at the time of the film's release. You seem to want to pretend that the latter consideration isn't part of the package, but that sure wasn't Griffith's idea, even if he would have replaced "despicable" with "noble".
   62. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: February 05, 2014 at 10:11 PM (#4652418)
Also, it's possible to appreciate aspects of a work of art, or its influence on the craft, without liking the work as a whole.

Absolutely. It's quite easy to argue that the underlying melodies of Deutschland Uber Alles and The Red Army Song are among the handful of loveliest tunes ever composed, and that no national anthem could ever compare in beauty to the one that was composed for the Soviet Union and remains the current national anthem of Russia. But that doesn't mean I'd want to be passing out guns to the singers whenever I hear these beautiful anthems performed by people in uniforms, especially if the choir is massed along other countries' borders.
   63. Monty Predicts a Padres-Mariners WS in 2016 Posted: February 05, 2014 at 10:14 PM (#4652420)
No, it isn't. It's an argument I made, evidencing facts and works. Yours is a mere opinion that you should have surmounted at least by the end of high school. That is not how you judge art.


"My opinion is a self-evidently true argument. Your argument is a mere opinion."
   64. spike Posted: February 05, 2014 at 10:21 PM (#4652423)
Most propaganda efforts are clumsy and repellent on the surface- the truly dangerous/evil ones, are not.

A sound engineer showed me some anti-union company films produced in their studio - "Great magic - terrible, but great!" to quote Rowling.


@32 did not go unLOL'ed.
   65. GregD Posted: February 05, 2014 at 10:25 PM (#4652424)
to free it from social strictures and structures native to its time
I think this is a good exercise. I think a contextual understanding of BoaN in its time shows that it was taking a wild political position for its time. The "good" Jim Crow white people all habitually derided the Klan as a bunch of ruffians; they congratulated themselves on disfranchising without using the Klan at all.

So to celebrate the Klan was an unusual move even among white southerners who engineered segregation and disfranchisement.

BoaN wasn't of its time; it created a new time. Watching it in the theaters, two men decided to restart the Ku Klux Klan and turned it from entirely dormant to one of the largest organizations in the country, modeled explicitly after the movie.

BoaN may well be an amazing movie; I have a hard time with movies that old so wouldn't say on those grounds. But within its time it was a bolt of lightning not because it was within its time but because it seemed so unexpected even among the most-reactionary members of society.
   66. Never Give an Inge (Dave) Posted: February 05, 2014 at 10:31 PM (#4652426)
Morty, as someone who has never seen BOaN, I'll pose the question a different way: Why do you think it's a great movie?

Not necessarily asking you to write a full response here - if there's a link to a review that captures your rationale feel free to share.
   67. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: February 05, 2014 at 10:50 PM (#4652433)
I think this is a good exercise. I think a contextual understanding of BoaN in its time shows that it was taking a wild political position for its time. The "good" Jim Crow white people all habitually derided the Klan as a bunch of ruffians; they congratulated themselves on disfranchising without using the Klan at all.

This is true, but Birth of a Nation's primary purpose wasn't so much to resurrect the Klan in the 20th century (though that was certainly a side benefit), as much as it was to (a) justify the original Klan's resistance to Black Reconstruction, and (b) persuade the North to view blacks in the same way that the white South did, thus in effect finally "ending" the Civil War on terms far more amenable to the South. Regional "reconciliation" was the catchword of the day, promoted by the South and more and more accepted by the North, but this "reconciliation" had to be strictly on the South's terms when it came to race. On this there was to be absolutely no compromising.
   68. OCF Posted: February 05, 2014 at 11:37 PM (#4652447)
Okie From Muskogee is a great song period.

And Okie From Muskogee is a piece of ####.


It's impossible for me to have any kind of rational reaction to that song. You have to understand that I was in high school when it came out - in Oklahoma. (Not Muskogee, but in the same northeastern quadrant of the state.) Yeah, there were some students who embraced the song. (Mostly "kickers," who wore cowboy boots, drove pickups, and liked county music - and lordy, some of those guys were ########.) Most of us? We just cringed when we heard it.

I understand that there are layers of meaning in what Haggard meant by that song, and that he was portraying a character who wasn't necessarily himself. That doesn't matter once the damn thing becomes some kind of cultural/tribal thing.
   69. spike Posted: February 05, 2014 at 11:46 PM (#4652452)
I like to perform Fightin' Side Of Me in a conjunto style just to confuse people.
   70. ptodd Posted: February 06, 2014 at 12:12 AM (#4652459)
There were a number of black Latinos who played before Jackie Robinson that passed themselves off as white (Spanish descent). Fascinating account in this book "Playing Americas Game, Baseball, Latinos and the Colorline"

http://www.amazon.com/Playing-Americas-Game-Baseball-Crossroads/dp/0520251431

The players and fans knew for the most part, especially those of darker complexion, and they got a lot of the same treatment Robinson did and had trouble getting into restaurants and hotels in the south
   71. OCF Posted: February 06, 2014 at 12:50 AM (#4652473)
Bobby Estalella (the one born in 1911, not 1974) is pretty much the borderline case for that, right? White enough that he did play in the majors, black enough that his career was fractured and fragmented, despite plenty of on-the-field evidence that he could play.
   72. Ivan Grushenko of Hong Kong Posted: February 06, 2014 at 01:37 AM (#4652477)
First of all, Ivan is being extremely disingenuous here because he knows damn well those are not equivalent situations. Silence of the Lambs is not a polemic celebrating serial killing and advocating its practice. Hannibal Lecter is not the hero of the movie. He is not being held up by the filmmakers as someone to admire. The FBI agent is.

That said, I think most of us can agree with Ivan that it's possible to separate one's admiration for the technical aspects of the film from our dislike of its political intent. Admiring D.W. Griffith's technical acumen doesn't make one a racist. I think it was Ivan's somewhat careless use of the word "fan" that created this misunderstanding -- and again I think this was disingenuous on Ivan's part. It seems to me he intentionally created that misunderstanding to, I guess, make some sort of rhetorical point.

I am a fan of Matt Kemp. That means I empathize with him and root for his success. I do not feel that way about Triumph of the Will, though I may admire the filmmaking, and I doubt Ivan Grushenko feels that way about Birth of a Nation.

I'm not sure in what way I'm being "disingenuous". In the case of the Silence of the Lambs your interpretation is one where Lecter is not the hero and the FBI agent is. Someone else can have a different interpretation. If I really were a cannibal, I'd probably make Lecter the hero in my mind. He did escape at the end, so he did "win". I didn't say that I "admired D.W. Griffith's technical acumen", I said I thought it was a great movie. To clarify further, I think it's a great movie on all levels. My use of the word "fan" was not careless. I am a fan of the movie -- the whole movie. As I stated before, I am also a fan of The Godfather. That does not make me a gangster or a sympathizer of gangsters. I might be one, or I might not. Liking or not liking the movie is irrelevant to this point. Looking at it another way, I'm a fan of both The Bridge on the River Kwai and Gojira. That does not mean that I rooted either for or against Japan in World War II. I was not a particular fan of From Here to Eternity. That says absolutely nothing about my views on the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor. I could be for it or against it. I hope I'm making my point more clearly this time.
   73. God Posted: February 06, 2014 at 01:45 AM (#4652480)
Armando Marsans played in the major leagues in the 1910s and the Negro National League in 1923, so he was either one of the first black players in MLB, or the first (completely) white player in the Negro Leagues.

72 - fair enough.
   74. Rants Mulliniks Posted: February 06, 2014 at 08:55 AM (#4652508)
We just cringed when we heard it.


As I do when I hear so-called Celtic bands from Atlantic Canada.
   75. Bitter Mouse Posted: February 06, 2014 at 09:20 AM (#4652513)
I have never seen BoaN, however the topic of art and culture is an important one. For those of us inside the culture/context of a piece of art, it is always evaluated as art, but within the context of that culture. I can watch Triumph of the Will (and have) and it does not resonate with me, so I can judge it more impartially as a piece of art. And it is a fantastic piece of art.

I am much closer to being inside the culture/context of BoaN. It is further removed in time from Triumph, but here in the US BoaN had cultural impact still today that Triumph does not. So it is largely impossible to judge as impartially. I am confident it is brilliant filmmaking and I would hate it. In my cultural context it is hardly a great piece of art despite it being great filmmaking, almost entirely because of that context.
   76. just plain joe Posted: February 06, 2014 at 09:21 AM (#4652514)
Okie From Muskogee is a great song period.


I see what you did there.
   77. OCF Posted: February 06, 2014 at 11:59 AM (#4652597)
We just cringed when we heard it.

Although I should have added that the reaction to the lines about not smoking marijuana or taking trips on LSD in Muskogee was more, "Yeah, suuurrrre."
   78. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: February 06, 2014 at 12:19 PM (#4652611)
The online Muskogee YP now lists 52 "Drug Abuse Addiction Centers". That's for a town of 37,870 people.
   79. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: February 06, 2014 at 12:27 PM (#4652617)
The online Muskogee YP now lists 52 "Drug Abuse Addiction Centers". That's for a town of 37,870 people.

Yeah but that's probably mostly Meth. Merle didn't say nothing about not doing Meth.
   80. Greg K Posted: February 06, 2014 at 12:57 PM (#4652637)
It's not something I've thought about a great deal before, but it's an interesting question, separating art from it's historical context and evaluating it on its ability to abstracted into universals.

Perhaps there is a distinction to be made between "art" and "classics"? A work which survives culturally across generations can be by definition easily abstracted into universals, otherwise people from wildly varying historical periods wouldn't all be deriving some benefit from it. Though even that I'm not sure is a given. Are we sure readers/audiences in the 16th century, 18th century, and 21st century are all doing the same thing when they read Shakespeare? Anyway, in terms of this conversation, "classic" seems to be being used to describe works such as this.

I guess I'm approaching it from a historian's point of view, but I would consider works that were of their time, garnered as much attention, and were as cultural relevant as these classics, but did not endure after their time, are just as much "art" as these "classics". They speak to the world they inhabited, and could at times be every bit as successful as classics in terms of achieving what artists set out to do within that historical context.

Or another topic I'm not sure what to make of, what do you do with entire genres which are firmly rooted in historical context. What do you do with, to pick a genre at random, 17th century libel poetry? Some of it is very impressive work, spinning together classical references, veiled allusions to court politics, obscenity, and razor wit. Of course, it's really only readable with a fairly firm grasp of the early Stuart political world. Kind of like how a Stephen Colbert broadcast would be unintelligible to someone unfamiliar with 21st century American politics. It's not art in the sense of a classic which endures, but is produced and consumed in ways that aren't easily distinguishable at the time.

It just seems difficult to separate a work of art from the person who created it, what he/she was trying to achieve, and in what culture the work was intended to be consumed.
   81. OCF Posted: February 06, 2014 at 12:59 PM (#4652639)
I'm talking about 1969, not 2014. I don't think meth was a thing yet in 1969.

I'll add that while I didn't personally know who one would go to to buy weed or acid, because I wasn't looking, I can assure you that the supply was there.
   82. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: February 06, 2014 at 01:15 PM (#4652649)
I'm talking about 1969, not 2014. I don't think meth was a thing yet in 1969.

In 1969 crystal meth was mostly being imported from Mexico and hadn't yet reached epidemic proportions here in the U.S., but in its original form, Methamphetamine became a serious drug issue as soon as our soldiers started coming home from World War II----and of course the primary pusher of origin in that period was the United States military.
   83. BDC Posted: February 06, 2014 at 01:25 PM (#4652654)
I understand why Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will are great films, but I've sat through both and would never voluntarily do so again. That's a subjective expression of something more objective, I think. To appreciate a work of art you do have to have some investment in its ideas, at least not consider them reprehensible. It's what to me distinguishes, for instance, the first half of the Aeneid (beautifully full of sorrow and loss and bad decisions) from the second half (full of rationalizing the braining of indigenous peoples so that you can steal their land).

To take an example closer to Greg K's field, how about Paradise Lost? There's a long tradition of reading the poem counter to Milton's express intentions in order to make it readable at all. In fact, the two great traditions of reading Paradise Lost (CS Lewis and William Empson, to label them by shorthand) aren't really reading the same book at all.

Finally, Andy mentioned "Deutschland Über Alles," another very interesting piece. As written, the song was intended to put national interests above parochial ones. As the Nazis sung it, it emphasized a united Germany being above the rest of the world – not quite the original meaning of the same words, if that makes sense. It is still the national anthem, and now emphasizes "Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit," not far at all from "Liberty and Justice for All" or "E Pluribus Unum." The song doesn't reliably mean one exact constant thing.

   84. Fred Lynn Nolan Ryan Sweeney Agonistes Posted: February 06, 2014 at 01:27 PM (#4652656)
the primary pusher of origin in that period was the United States military.

Yup. I know that's where Elvis Presley's drug addiction supposedly started - taking uppers to stay awake on duty. And then... it never stopped, really.
   85. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: February 06, 2014 at 01:52 PM (#4652667)
Finally, Andy mentioned "Deutschland Über Alles," another very interesting piece. As written, the song was intended to put national interests above parochial ones. As the Nazis sung it, it emphasized a united Germany being above the rest of the world – not quite the original meaning of the same words, if that makes sense. It is still the national anthem, and now emphasizes "Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit," not far at all from "Liberty and Justice for All" or "E Pluribus Unum." The song doesn't reliably mean one exact constant thing.

The melody of "Deutschlandlied" (more commonly known by its first line, "Deutschland Über Alles") was composed by Haydn in 1797 to commemorate the birthday of Emperor Francis II of the Holy Roman Empire, as a counterpart to the Brits' "God Save The Queen". It didn't have its current words attached to it until 1841. And though it was adopted by the Weimar Republic as the national anthem in 1922, only the third stanza is considered part of the national anthem of today.

Though personally I kind of like the second stanza the best, with one slight modification:

German women, German loyalty,
German wine beer and German song
Shall retain in the world
Their old beautiful chime
And inspire us to noble deeds
During all of our life.
|: German women, German loyalty,
German wine beer and German song! :|


   86. A big pile of nonsense (gef the talking mongoose) Posted: February 06, 2014 at 01:59 PM (#4652671)
In 1969 crystal meth was mostly being imported from Mexico and hadn't yet reached epidemic proportions here in the U.S.,


I think the first time I ever encountered the term, or at least the first time it made any sort of impression on me, was in the early '70s in reading some sort of account of how things started going bad in Haight-Ashbury or maybe the California hippie scene in general. Reference was made to "meth monsters" & their depredations.
   87. Bitter Mouse Posted: February 06, 2014 at 02:10 PM (#4652683)
Perhaps there is a distinction to be made between "art" and "classics"? A work which survives culturally across generations can be by definition easily abstracted into universals, otherwise people from wildly varying historical periods wouldn't all be deriving some benefit from it.


This is why Shakespeare is one of the greatest ever*. His plays are great art full of classic universals, and yet accessible to the "commoner".

* I would argue number one writer of the English language, but I don't insist on it.
   88. Greg K Posted: February 06, 2014 at 02:13 PM (#4652686)
German women, German loyalty,
German wine beer and German song
Shall retain in the world
Their old beautiful chime
And inspire us to noble deeds
During all of our life.
|: German women, German loyalty,
German wine beer and German song! :|


I had a German prof who was absolutely adamant that too much was made of German beer, and German wine was supremely under-rated. Perhaps not coincidentally he was from Saxony, not Bavaria.
   89. Morty Causa Posted: February 06, 2014 at 02:22 PM (#4652691)
A work of art can reflect the social conditions of its times. In fact, I don’t see how it can’t help but do that (although that might be hard to see in some works, like The Sot Weed Factor, for instance, or The Code of the Woosters, or Vertigo, or Trouble in Paradise) in some way. But that’s just someone or some people’s interpretation of a historical/social context. We can’t know the context as that context was in its time. Even then it would be a problem (there’s an uncertainty principle in art, too, in life, as well as Quantum physics) because none of us encompasses it all. We can only deal in views and interpretations of that context that depend of a vantage point of someone. But, ultimately it has to transcend its time and place—or, rather, we will insist or abstracting it from its time and place for our purposes. That’s really a truism. Revisionism is at the creation, and it never ceases or freezes in place one and only one version.

Just as I believe it’s feckless to try to differentiate between performers, or types of actors, or the source of their performance (except as a study in mechanics which can be profitable and informative, as a study in mechanics), designating one kind (call him John Wayne) as not acting but just playing himself while claiming another kind (call him Laurence Olivier or Daniel Day Lewis or Dustin Hoffman) really is an actor in some higher realer sense. How he transmits that is interesting; how we receive it is what counts. Same with the work as a whole.

So, why is Birth of a Nation this great evil work of art, as Roger Ebert and others have said. The answer is it isn’t, except in their eyes. As someone here is fond of saying (but not accepting all the consequences of), it’s all a matter of opinion. A certain kind of racism inflicted on a certain race is horrible (this aggression will not stand, man). Another kind, another race, meh. But in all cases, there are reasons, that have to do with self-interest. It’s good to have a reason (Miller’s Crossing, to stay with the Coens). Instead of always wanting to superimpose present ideologies and sentiment on the past, we maybe could o something different: we might try to actually understand the past as best as we can know how it actually was, how the time and place was understood at that time and place, and that means giving all sides their due. If you can’t do that, you’re just politicking for your side. That, like Wayne v. Olivier, is amusing, even interesting in its own right, but is a Merry-Go-Round, because if that’s what you’re going to do, your opponent will say that’s how I’ll play it, too. And we never get off the good/evil circular track of calling each other names and pretending we’re superior. Art, though, strives to reduce all that to essences and fundamentals that are substrate neutral. But for the doctrinaire ideologue that is like sunshine to a vampire. I know, it harshes the buzz that comes with strutting that Messiah complex.
   90. Johnny Sycophant-Laden Fora Posted: February 06, 2014 at 02:27 PM (#4652695)
I had a German prof who was absolutely adamant that too much was made of German beer,


German beer is terrible, worse than that of neighboring European countries, worse than US Beer (except the US beer made in imitation of Germany's)

It's basically Bavaria's fault and the Reinheitsgebot which pretty much ruined most of Germany's non-Bavarian beer industry. The Reinheitsgebot was an economic regulation whose sole purpose was economic and had nothing to do with beer quality- it's negative effects on beer quality was an incidental side-effect.
   91. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: February 06, 2014 at 02:40 PM (#4652702)
So, why is Birth of a Nation this great evil work of art, as Roger Ebert and others have said. The answer is it isn’t, except in their eyes. As someone here is fond of saying (but not accepting all the consequences of), it’s all a matter of opinion. A certain kind of racism inflicted on a certain race is horrible (this aggression will not stand, man). Another kind, another race, meh....

Morty likes to quote authority, so I'd just answer his #89 by paraphrasing a compliment that Dwight MacDonald paid to William F. Buckley in a review of Buckley's McCarthy and His Enemies: It's like a brief prepared by Wickersham, Cadwalader & Taft on behalf of a pickpocket arrested in a men's rest room in the New York subway.
   92. The Good Face Posted: February 06, 2014 at 02:46 PM (#4652704)
German beer is terrible, worse than that of neighboring European countries, worse than US Beer (except the US beer made in imitation of Germany's)


WTF? While it's possible to find lousy German beer, there are many, many truly outstanding beers made in Germany.
   93. Morty Causa Posted: February 06, 2014 at 02:53 PM (#4652710)
Dwight MacDonald really thought highly of Birth of a Nation. I referred often to his On Movies for years, but somehow lost the thing.
   94. Slivers of Maranville descends into chaos (SdeB) Posted: February 06, 2014 at 02:57 PM (#4652715)
But that’s just someone or some people’s interpretation of a historical/social context. We can’t know the context as that context was in its time. Even then it would be a problem (there’s an uncertainty principle in art, too, in life, as well as Quantum physics) because none of us encompasses it all. We can only deal in views and interpretations of that context that depend of a vantage point of someone. But, ultimately it has to transcend its time and place—or, rather, we will insist or abstracting it from its time and place for our purposes. That’s really a truism. Revisionism is at the creation, and it never ceases or freezes in place one and only one version.


This seems to straddle the divide between a Humean/Kantian view of art and a postmodern one, and I am not sure which side you are espousing, but this is the opposite of the way I teach as an art historian (along with most of my colleagues). To understand the art of a particular time and place, you need to understand the people that made it. In fact, I'd argue that's an absolute necessity. To abstract, say, an African mask from the culture that made it and treat it like a work of modernist abstract art is a form of cultural imperialism. Looking through the eyes of a past culture is hard, and not one we can ever do with complete clarity, but it can indeed be done.

I would admit that there is a universalizing aspect to art, but rather than claim that it lies in a sort of Kantian transcendent aesthetic, I would adopt a humanist viewpoint and say that we can relate to it on the basis of common humanity. That is, if one has the respect for its creators to treat it as a product of people different from you -- universality yes, but one that respects the diversity of human experience.

That's not to say that works of art are never reinterpreted, but in turn to understand that requires looking through a different cultural lens. If you are interested in the reception of Homer by Byzantine authors, you then learn to look through their cultural lens. But the idea of a universal aesthetic is I think a dead end.
   95. JRVJ Posted: February 06, 2014 at 03:03 PM (#4652722)
Ebert's Great Movies review of Birth of a Nation.
   96. BDC Posted: February 06, 2014 at 03:16 PM (#4652733)
While it's possible to find lousy German beer, there are many, many truly outstanding beers made in Germany

I second and third and fourth this. It's not unlike America in some overall respects: there are some nationally-distributed brands that are kind of mediocre – Bitburger comes to mind, not to pick on them especially – but there are also lovely local beers absolutely everywhere you go. German wine is similar: in the wine regions you can drink fantastic local stuff near the vineyard where the grapes were grown. (In Hamburg or Berlin, of course, you might as well be in London; in fact there's more wine made near London nowadays, global warming and all that :)

Neither German wine nor beer is well-represented by export, at least if stores in Texas are anything to go by.
   97. Morty Causa Posted: February 06, 2014 at 03:17 PM (#4652734)
I would think it's more of a Darwinian aesthetic. (Have you read Denis Dutton and others on this?) That way, it doesn't have to be transcendent, whatever that is, but is nevertheless reductively and universally humanistic. Looking at works and objects as products of a culture and no more is what makes them artifacts. Seeing them, and being able to see them, in terms of our culture, or another culture, is what makes them art. Since we are ultimately all the same, look beyond culture to what forms culture, and then at some point in some universal common appreciation there is no artistic difference, only the culturally superficial one. Appreciating something as a spoor of a historical context is not recognizing that something as art.
   98. Morty Causa Posted: February 06, 2014 at 03:23 PM (#4652737)
James Agee: D.W. Griffth, Remembered

As Ebert said, never has a great film critic lavished so much praise on a great film maker. It's a fine essay, in and of itself, even if you think it's over the top.

This was the one time in movie history that a man of great ability worked freely, in an unspoiled medium, for an unspoiled audience, on a majestic theme which involved all that he was; and brought to it, besides his abilities as an inventor and artist, absolute passion, pity, courage, and honesty. "The Birth of a Nation" is equal with Brady's photographs, Lincoln's speeches, Whitman's war poems; for all its imperfections and absurdities it is equal, in fact, to the best work that has been done in this country. And among moving pictures it is alone, not necessarily as "the greatest" -- whatever that means -- but as the one great epic, tragic film.
   99. Greg K Posted: February 06, 2014 at 03:25 PM (#4652739)
Instead of always wanting to superimpose present ideologies and sentiment on the past, we maybe could do something different: we might try to actually understand the past as best as we can know how it actually was, how the time and place was understood at that time and place, and that means giving all sides their due. If you can’t do that, you’re just politicking for your side. That, like Wayne v. Olivier, is amusing, even interesting in its own right, but is a Merry-Go-Round, because if that’s what you’re going to do, your opponent will say that’s how I’ll play it, too. And we never get off the good/evil circular track of calling each other names and pretending we’re superior. Art, though, strives to reduce all that to essences and fundamentals that are substrate neutral. But for the doctrinaire ideologue that is like sunshine to a vampire. I know, it harshes the buzz that comes with strutting that Messiah complex.


Bolded part makes a lot of sense to me, and seems to be an admirable goal...one I certainly strive for. I'm not sure how you get from there to universal essences though.
   100. Slivers of Maranville descends into chaos (SdeB) Posted: February 06, 2014 at 03:25 PM (#4652740)
I disagree that culture is 'superficial'. It's no more superficial than our internal organs. I reject the distinction between 'art' and 'artifact'. "Art" is a concept created in the 18th century; most cultures don't even have a word for it. I am an art historian and an archaeologist; I study both fine statues and humble cooking pots. I think it's a mistake to reify 'art' into some kind of transcendent thing.
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