Can you separate art from the artist?
What if you really enjoy, even love, a painting, a song, a movie, but discover the person who created it was deeply flawed? What if they did truly deplorable things?
Can you still find pleasure in their creation?
The movie “The Wizard of Oz” was released 80 years ago, during what many critics consider the greatest year in movie history, 1939. “Gone With the Wind,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Stagecoach,” “Dark Victory” and many more genuine classics were released, with stars like Clark Gable, James Stewart, Bette Davis, John Wayne and other legends at their peak.
The story of Dorothy, her little dog Toto and the wild, weird adventures in the Merry Old Land of Oz wasn’t an immediate hit, but it had amazing endurance. It first aired on TV in 1956 and has been shown every year since 1959, so people of my generation grew up seeing it every year. It still has the power to dazzle, amuse and frighten — to this day those winged monkeys creep me out.
The book, one of a series of stories written by L. Frank Baum, still sells briskly. It’s considered a classic in children’s literature.
There’s a local connection, too. Baum lived in Aberdeen for three years, running various business, including a weekly newspaper, The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer. He likely drew upon his prairie years when writing about a little girl and the tornado that tossed her into a strange world.
However, not all South Dakotans are proud of our connection to Baum. My friend Tim Giago, an esteemed editor and columnist, says Baum’s repeated calls for killing all Native Americans is enough for him to forever loathe the author and his works.
In 1890, after Lakota leader Sitting Bull was killed, Baum published these words in his newspaper: “The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are. History would forget these latter despicable beings, and speak, in latter ages of the glory of these grand Kings of forest and plain that Cooper loved to heroize.”
In 1891, he echoed that sentiment with another vicious editorial.
“The (Aberdeen) Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extirmination (sic) of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries, we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.”
Giago evoked his grandmother, alive when Baum wrote those editorials, when he wrote this in 2017:
“There is no other conclusion any one of normal intelligence can reach about this quote. But then again, he was just calling for the murder of Indians and that was totally inconsequential to the white settlers and so-called pioneers of that era. Sophie Giago, her friends and her entire family should be wiped from the face of the earth. That is how the Lakota people read it.”
It’s hard to argue with Tim’s words. Baum’s descendants have since apologized for those hateful pieces, and some critics have tried to portray it as satire or claim that Baum was purposefully making a wild claim to show the evil that white settlers were doing to Native Americans. I don’t buy it, and neither does Tim.
When does the personal behavior of an artist cause you to dismiss his or her work?
Can you still listen to Michael Jackson’s numerous hits and enjoy them in light of all the reports of his sexual abuse of young boys? Can you admire his amazing dance moves while knowing what steps he took after the shows?
Can you laugh at Bill Cosby’s comedy after learning he drugged and raped women for years? After 50 years as a respected and even revered comedian and actor, Cosby is in prison. Can you listen to his recorded comedy, watch his TV shows or recall his performances and still laugh?
I was a fan since his first blast of stardom in the 1960s with the TV show “I Spy” and we used to love to listen to his comedy albums. My sisters Anita and Julie went with me to see Cosby perform at SDSU in the mid-1970s and we were thrilled to see BILL COSBY in Brookings.
But now, his act doesn’t seem very funny. Michael Jackson’s songs don’t sound as good.
And I’m afraid that “The Wizard of Oz” lost a lot of its appeal when Baum’s racist writings were uncovered. We can still admire the talents of Judy Garland, Ray Bolger and the rest of the cast. The movie will be shown for years, and kids will still read the books.
But we have learned that we’re not in the mythical Kansas of the story anymore.
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