Saturday, June 23, 2018

Einstein, Politics, and Art

There have been many situations in which artists of varying talent levels have been accused of committing or proven to have committed nasty acts, often criminal, often against women. Others have been accused of saying or believing foul things about women or people of different races, religions or nationalities. Recently this has led to many people claiming that in order to show our disdain for the artist and his bad actions or thoughts and support for his alleged or actual victims we should remove the artist's works from our playlists, cd players, theater stages, movie and tv screens, galleries, or bookshelves. Other critics of an even more puritanical bent, or perhaps just jealous, have argued that the artist's work itself is hopelessly flawed because of his bad thoughts/actions and thus must be completely expunged from existence and memory. They have argued that by definition anyone who believes or behaves a certain way can not produce work that is worth anything.

I've written before on how I find these approaches short sighted and limiting. But it's of course ultimately a personal and rather arbitrary decision as to which art you patronize. There are artists whose works I don't appreciate because I was exposed to something ugly they said or did before I was exposed to their creative work. And there are artists whose work I appreciate even though were we ever to meet there would likely be nothing but mutual disdain if not hatred. So it goes. But even in the case where I dislike an artist for whatever non-art related reason I have, I still believe that the value of their work stands apart from my subjective response to them. A non-art example of this recently popped up with the reveal of Einstein's travel diaries.

The publication of Albert Einstein’s private diaries detailing his tour of Asia in the 1920s reveals the theoretical physicist and humanitarian icon’s racist attitudes to the people he met on his travels, particularly the Chinese.



Written between October 1922 and March 1923, the diaries see the scientist musing on his travels, science, philosophy and art. In China, the man who famously once described racism as “a disease of white people” describes the “industrious, filthy, obtuse people” he observes. He notes how the “Chinese don’t sit on benches while eating but squat like Europeans do when they relieve themselves out in the leafy woods. All this occurs quietly and demurely. Even the children are spiritless and look obtuse.” After earlier writing of the “abundance of offspring” and the “fecundity” of the Chinese, he goes on to say: “It would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races. For the likes of us the mere thought is unspeakably dreary.”
Further passages in the diaries, which are thought to have been written for Einstein’s stepdaughters in Berlin while he and his wife were travelling in Asia, Spain and Palestine, and as an aide memoire, see him writing of the Chinese that “even those reduced to working like horses never give the impression of conscious suffering. A peculiar herd-like nation [ … ] often more like automatons than people.” 

He later adds, in Rosenkranz’s words, “a healthy dose of extreme misogyny” to his xenophobia with the observation: “I noticed how little difference there is between men and women; I don’t understand what kind of fatal attraction Chinese women possess which enthrals the corresponding men to such an extent that they are incapable of defending themselves against the formidable blessing of offspring”.
In Colombo in Ceylon, Einstein writes of how the locals “live in great filth and considerable stench at ground level” adding that they “do little, and need little. The simple economic cycle of life.” 
LINK

Now based on this are we going to criticize or rethink the theory of relativity? Are people going to throw fits and say that everyone must go back to Newtonian mechanics? Of course not. Einstein, bigoted or not, still remains among the world's greatest scientists, if not the single greatest. It is what it is. Einstein's work stands apart from Einstein's occasionally unpleasant social views. People are a mix of good and evil. We know that the older Einstein made public statements and took actions that were greatly at odds with his private writings in the twenties. Great intelligence is no shield against racist thinking. It may even amplify it. But the value of someone's work is independent from their private beliefs. As stated before, sometimes flowers really do grow from s***.
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