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Thursday, March 18, 2010


The Fire Raisers

Hands up those of you who've seen Max Frisch's play from 1953, The Fire Raisers.

No? Okay.

The Fire Raisers is a dark comedy originally written in German, set in a town where a gang of arsonists has been at work burning down houses. Biedermann, our respectable protagonist, finds himself with two lodgers on his hands who keep bringing in and storing barrels of flammable liquid, fuses and other combustibles; when he asks them what they're playing at, they cheerfully tell him that they're fire raisers.

Unable or unwilling to believe such a thing, Biedermann nervously tells them to stop joking. No, they say, we really are fire raisers. But Biedermann simply can't accept that this could be happening in his house, or that anybody who was a fire raiser would just tell him so straight out like that, so he laughs it off and lets them have matches and turns a blind eye until the day they finally burn his house down.

Apart from it being a good satirical play, why am I bringing it up?

The reason is this: art very often expresses a political opinion and always expresses a worldview, and there exist artists of notable talent whose political opinions or worldviews seem, if you look at their art works, really unpalatable, even shocking. Does he really think that about women? Are those political views serious, or being sent up? Does she mean that, or is she just testing our reactions? And so on.

Faced with such artists, there's an extremely common critical reaction: critics assume that the artist is, in some way, joking. They're deconstructing the bad old tropes, not endorsing them. They're a prankster who likes to deceive audiences and you shouldn't believe anything you say. They're being ironic.

Are they? Sometimes, perhaps. But having a fine sensibility for art doesn't preclude you from being a jerk, after all; being intelligent about narrative or cinematography or descriptive prose doesn't make you not stupid or wrong about other things. Artists are human beings, not subject to a different law from everyone else, and human beings can have bad attitudes. It may very well be that someone deserves the benefit of the doubt, but the tendency to assume someone must be joking, that they couldn't be serious, has its own risks and blind spots. Some artists put an 'ironic' hat on views they genuinely hold in the hopes that this will get them out of standing to them. Some artists are so convinced that their nasty views are correct that it won't occur to them that any person of good character could object. Some artists have a marvellous time letting all their nasty attitudes run rampant and then stick a moral little platitude or a punitive ending over the surface to imply that they don't really think that way, otherwise known as 'having your cake and eating it.' All artists have to produce what they can and hope for the best. There's such a thing as a bad attitude hiding in plain sight.

So in the lexicon of critical responses, I think it's always worth considering this possibility: it may be that, perhaps, they really are a fire raiser.


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