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Is Kanye West “the Ezra Pound of Rap”?

The rapper's flirtation with right-wing politics renews an age-old debate about art and politics.

Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty

Kanye West’s praise last week of President Donald Trump and Candace Owens, a conservative black provocateur, turned his public image upside down, earning him unlikely new supporters—including Laura Ingraham, Alex Jones, Bill O’Reilly, and Trump himself—while turning fans and friends into critics.

“I hope you’ll reconsider aligning yourself with Trump,” fellow musician John Legend wrote in a text that West posted on Twitter. “You’re way too powerful and influential to endorse who he is and what he stands for. As you know, what you say really means something to your fans. They are loyal to you and respect your opinion. So many people who love you feel so betrayed right now because they know the harm Trump’s policies cause, especially to people of color.”

Jason Nichols is among those who feel betrayed. “[W]hile I love Kanye like I love all Black brothers,” Nichols, a lecturer in African American studies at the University of Maryland, wrote at NBC News. “I won’t be supporting his music until he realizes his support of Trump is actually a rejection of many thing he says he held dear in his early music, particularly racial justice and equity.”

This disappointment with West’s flirtation with right-wing politics, whether genuine or just a publicity stunt for his new album, raises an age-old debate about the separation (or lack thereof) between art and the artist—specifically, in this case, between the politics of art and the politics of the artist. As Talking Points Memo founder Josh Marshall tweeted last week:

This comparison might seem outrageous. Pound, the legendary American poet, stained his reputation by advocating for Benito Mussolini and broadcasting fascist messages on Italian radio during World War II. Trump, despite his authoritarian tendencies, is hardly Mussolini, nor are West’s tweets in the same category as Pound’s rants, which were laced with anti-Semitism.

But it’s a useful comparison precisely because Pound’s actions were so extreme: The still-running debate surrounding him—about whether an artist’s political views should shape how an audience views their work—can help clarify the new debate surrounding West.

“The case of Ezra Pound, it begins to seem, will be with us forever,” the literary critic Irving Howe wrote in World in 1972. “Like a bad dream, it keeps coming back, prodding us to struggle with difficult, perhaps insoluble problems: the relation of art to morality; the terms of aesthetic judgement when confronting literary works with a heavy ideological freight; the reasons a good many, many major twentieth century writers succumbed to totalitarianism.”

The Pound case flared up twice, first in 1949 when Pound was chosen for the Bollingen Prize by a jury that included T. S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, W. H. Auden and Allen Tate. This pick, for a poet who was manifestly guilty of fascism and treason, was widely criticized in the press and provoked bitter feuds. After the philosopher William Barrett derided the jury’s decision in the pages of Partisan Review, the poet Allen Tate challenged Barrett to a duel. The same arguments resurfaced in 1972 when the American Academy of Arts and Science was divided over a recommendation to give Pound its Emerson-Thoreau Medal, which the organization ultimately declined to do.

On both occasions, the dividing line was between formalist and ideological critics. The formalists’ argument, shaped by the theories of then-dominant New Critics, was that art should be judged by aesthetic standards alone, no matter its political content.

“To permit other considerations than that of poetic achievements to sway the decision,” the Bollingen jury argued, “would destroy the significance of the award and would in principle deny the validity of objective perception of value on which any civilized society must rest.” Developing this line of argument, Tate wrote in Partisan Review in 1949, “As a result of observing Pound’s use of language in the past thirty years, I have become convinced that he has done more than any other living man to regenerate the language, if not the imaginative forms, of English verse. I had to face the disagreeable fact that he had done this even in passages of verse in which the opinions expressed ranged from the childish to the detestable.”

The ideologists argued that the political content of art was inseparable from the art itself. “How far is it possible, in a lyric poem, for technical embellishments to transform vicious and ugly matter into beautiful poetry?” Barrett asked. This was an unavoidable question, since Pound’s anti-Semitism wasn’t simply a matter of biography but infected his verse, as in these lines which attributed a fake quote to Benjamin Franklin: “Remarked Ben: better keep out the jews or yr/ grand children will curse you.” (West, whose last album was released in 2016, hasn’t been overtly Trumpist or alt-right in his lyrics, though he did release a song on Sunday defending his praise of Trump.)

The formalists and ideologists’ respective positions were too extreme for some critics, who sought alternative frameworks. Some wondered whether Pound’s mental condition was an extenuating circumstance. From 1946 to 1958, he was confined at St. Elizabeths, a psychiatric hospital in Washington, D.C., largely as part of legal strategy to keep him from being tried for treason. Harry Levin, a literary scholar who taught at Harvard, claimed that “psychiatrists seem to have absolved” Pound from “responsibility for antisocial behavior.” The same argument is now being revived in the Kanye West case. As Billboard notes, “West’s history of mental health struggles, which includes a hospitalization last year, may also be an excuse for some fans who don’t share his values to dismiss his tweets...”

The most successful attempt to break the deadlock between formalists and ideologists came from Irving Howe, who, in a series of essays, explored how the explicit ideology of artists isn’t necessarily mirrored in their work. In a 1967 New Republic review of a book on proto-fascist and fascist writers (which included Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, and W. B. Yeats as well as Pound), Howe argued, “What emerges in their poems and novels is often in conflict with their abstract statements, and almost always to the benefit of the poems and novels.”

Yes, Pound expounded anti-Semitic and fascist politics in some passages of his greatest work, The Cantos. Yet in many other passages he displays virtues that are decidedly non-fascist and even anti-fascist, such as cosmopolitanism (the poem includes large swaths of Chinese, sometimes translated and sometimes not). As Howe noted in 1972, The Cantos is full of “brilliantly recorded dialogue, keen fragments of action, affecting lyrics.”

What’s true of Pound applies to many other artists. “I read with pleasure the poems of Bertolt Brecht, although I am repelled by his Stalinism—but here, not so simply, it is a matter of seeing how his subtlety of mind breaks past, complicates, and sometimes undercuts his ideological stance,” Howe wrote in his 1972 essay. In his posthumous A Critic’s Notebook (1994), he noted that despite being an imperialist, Rudyard Kipling was a marvelous portrait painter of India. “Now Kipling, it is true, did not see India as particularly oppressed, and I am as ready as the next liberal or radical to deplore this failure; but he did see the people of India as vigorous, full of humor and energy, deeply worthy. How are we to explain that in the pages of this apologist for imperialism, the masses of India seem more alive and autonomous than in the pages of writers claiming political correctness?”

The pioneering science fiction writer Jules Verne offers a fascinating example of Howe’s insistence that authors are often at odds with their own explicit ideology. When the French officer Alfred Dreyfus was accused of treason in 1894, public opinion was sundered in half. Dreyfusards were convinced that he was the victim of an anti-Semitic frame-up. Anti-Dreyfusards thought he was guilty even after French courts overturned the conviction against Dreyfus and reinstated him in the military in 1906.

Verne was an anti-Dreyfusard, but his son Michel was a Dreyfusard who tried to change his father’s mind, to little avail. But in 1902 Verne wrote a novel, Les Frères Kip, that reads very much like an allegory of the Dreyfus affair. It tells the story of two brothers falsely convicted of murder, tracing the detective work that lead to their exoneration. “It is hard to believe Verne wrote his novel,” critic John Clute wrote, “without some awareness he had encoded into this tale of injustice clear clues to his own complexly sourced feelings about Dreyfus.” But isn’t it possible that Verne was unconsciously exploring an idea in fiction that he couldn’t admit to in reality: that Dreyfus had been framed?

West’s embrace of the president is genuinely worrisome, for the reasons Legend and others have cited. Trump has more openly indulged in racism than any major American public figure since Alabama Governor George Wallace. To the extent that West provides political cover for Trump, this is a genuine betrayal of his own previously expressed values (which Nichols rightly describes as a call for “racial justice and equity”). Yet his professed politics aren’t the sum of who he is. To the extent West’s music continues to give expression to feelings of black pride and self-empowerment, it will do so in defiance of Kanye’s newfound Trumpism, just as Pound’s poetry often went against the grain of his fascism.

“Never trust the artist,” D. H. Lawrence advised in 1923. “Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.” Perhaps that was the mistake all along: believing that West, who once famously said that President George W. Bush “doesn’t care about black people,” was on the side of righteousness. Likewise, it would be a mistake to assume, after the events of the past week, that he’s not. Never trust Kanye West’s tweets; trust his music.