Should an artist’s political views determine whether we appreciate the art?

I keep my mp3 player on shuffle and I have a lot of music on there, so days can go by without my hearing or thinking of certain artists. Yesterday, a track from Burzum’s “Filosofem” popped up and I found myself thinking about my uneasy appreciation of the album — and about how we should respond to art made by artists whose opinions offend us.

Burzum, of course, is the product of Varg Vikernes. As anyone remotely interested in Norwegian black metal knows, Vikernes participated in the Norwegian church burnings of the early 1990s and was sent to prison for the murder of Mayhem frontman Euronymous.

But what particularly bothers me about Vikernes is his embrace of National Socialism and his racist rants. In prison, Vikernes wrote his own version of “Mein Kampf,” called “Vargsmal.” Since his release, Vikernes has continued to be outspoken in his dislike for minorities, particularly Jews — from his writings, it’s clear Vikernes believes in the vast Jewish conspiracy theory propagated by, well, the Nazis and by antisemitic texts like “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

“Filosofem” was recorded before Virkenes was charged with Euronymous’ murder; at the time of “Filosofem,” Vikernes’ racist rants were years in the future. But still … does the fact that Vikernes later became a racist and National Socialist somehow negate Vikernes’ art?

In other words, can we appreciate the art, even while we loathe the artist?

The knee-jerk response is, no, the art and the artist are inseparable. After all, any work of art — be it painting, play or song — is the product of the artist’s opinions and world view. Even if a work of art isn’t overtly political, it’s logical to assume the artist’s attitudes on life, society and politics played some role in the art’s creation.

When a work of art is not directly political of full of social commentary, we can only judge the artist’s intent based on his/her public statements.  That philosophy is what I’ve used to judge Vikernes’ post “Filosofem” material. Anything Virkenes has produced since being incarcerated — and since his release — is tainted in my opinion by Vikernes’ diatribes. Without having heard Vikernes’ post-incarceration material, I feel his racist beliefs must have some influence on those works. I don’t know that for certain, but I don’t intend to find out, either. I don’t want to financially support the work of an openly racist artist.

But should Vikernes’ racists views negate art works he created before he became an avowed racist and anti-Semite? Should I throw out my copy of “Filosofem” and delete it from my mp3 player because of statements Vikernes made years after the album was created?

Probably not. If we start retroactively throwing out art because of the currently known views of the artist, we’re going to be destroying a lot of art.

Take T.S. Eliot, author of classic 20th Century poems like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “The Hollow Men” and “Ash Wednesday” (let’s not discuss “The Waste Land,” if you don’t mind). Eliot was an amazing poet who could capture the anxieties and conundrums of the modern human condition. He was also a racist and bigot. Do we throw out his great works, despite their artistic value, because of Eliot’s racism? If a reader didn’t know Eliot was a racist until sometime after encountering “Prufrock,” should that reader turn away from the poem — even if it was personally meaningful– based on his or her new knowledge of Eliot’s character?

The same is true of Shakespeare. Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” is not a sympathetic figure, so it’s possible Shakespeare was conveying what was probably a fairly common (for the era) prejudice against Jews. If we assume Shakespeare held antisemitism based on Shylock’s depiction in “Merchant,” should we reject all of Shakespeare’s works? Should we burn our copies of “Hamlet”?

No, that’s an impossible standard. No artist will ever live up to all of our expectations and conform to all our beliefs. If the work artist isn’t pushing his opinions into your face through the art, then the opinions of the artist are irrelevant.  I think it’s reasonable to relate to the thoughts and emotions in Eliot, Shakespeare and yes, Burzum’s “Filosofem,” without sharing those artist’s personal prejudices and beliefs. A genuine connection with a work of art doesn’t have to be discarded because the audience later learns the artist has distastful opinions.

Further, if we determine we must reject nonpolitical art based on the political opinions or prejudices of the artists, how far should we go to purge ourselves of artists whose opinions offend us? I own a Pantera album — do I need to research the writings and statements of the band members to see if they have any opinions to which I don’t agree? Should I review as many Steve Harris interviews as I can find, to make sure his statements and views are “correct,”and acceptable to my sensibilities? If not, should I throw out my Iron Maiden albums? Should my entire album collection be subject to a witch hunt, followed by a purge? That seems like a great deal of effort spent, with the end result of being poorer by losing a slew of important, nonpolitical albums.

If an artwork is overtly political, then of course you have a right to reject the content. I don’t own any Graveland albums, and I don’t plan on changing that any time soon.

But if the artist’s opinions are not explicitly stated in the artwork in question, then I think a person can enjoy the work without guilt.