This isn’t going to be a debate, or even a discussion. Ultimately it’s up to each person to follow their own moral compass. Separating art from artist is not something I can do. Many have reached out to me in the hopes of swaying me to their position. I suggest redirecting your efforts toward teaching a pig to sing.
To the argument that a used book puts no money into an author’s pocket: that is not the point. The same goes for viewing something on a streaming service that I’m paying for anyway. I won’t even entertain dragging piracy into this. To consume the work of an objectionable artist, whether it puts coin in their pocket or not, is a breach of my personal ethics.
To the argument that quality work should be praised, in spite of the problematic nature of the artist: then non-problematic artists should be even more deserving of said praise. They have, after all, managed to create something exceptional without doing harm in the process. There are more books, films, television shows, comics, paintings, comedy albums, games, and so on available now than a person could ever consume in a lifetime. We have better options in terms of whom and what to support.
Context is Everything
Does that mean that problematic artists should be relegated to the dustbins of history? No. I support things like re-releasing Song of the South and Gone with the Wind with disclaimers. Adding some commentary track to offer perspectives would be valuable. I still wouldn’t run right out and buy them on Blu-Ray.
Given a choice between reading Lovecraft or another author with no history of racism, though, I will choose the other author. If given a choice between listening to Led Zeppelin or an artist that hasn’t been accused of kidnapping and statutory rape, it’s not really a difficult choice. The lack of Roman Polanski, Louie C.K., and David Foster Wallace in my personal canon leaves me free to discover other wonderful, but lesser-known, creators.
Art as Experience
The notion of separating art from artist arose in the late 19th century as an academic tool. It was an assertion that a work should be able to stand on its own merit independent of the creator’s reputation. In this sense it is useful; c.f. The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen. It was not ever meant to be used as a decision-making tool to assuage one’s conscience when determining which art to consume or support.
There is often a matter of intention and influence. Knowing the author’s views can sometimes facilitate understanding of a piece. It provides missing context. Knowing that John Grisham is actually a lawyer gives his stories credibility; I might be able to write a legal thriller, but it wouldn’t have the same gravitas. You almost can’t fully grasp an artist like Taylor Swift without knowing her personal history; the lyrics make far more sense when you do.
Likewise, knowing that Lovecraft had a pearl-clutching fear of race-mixing adds a whole new layer of meaning to stories like “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth“. Understanding the various allegations against Woody Allen, it’s impossible to not see them right out in the open in films like Manhattan.
I cannot un-know that. Not any of it. Which means I cannot consume any of those works without thinking about the faults of their creators.
The Brontë Effect
For a good part of this year I’ve been enmeshed in old Gothic novels. In particular, I’ve been working through the canon of the Brontë sisters. All of the authors dead. The works are in the public domain, all skeletons firmly shaken free of the closet so there are no unpleasant surprises to be had. I was taken to task for this, and rightly so.
There are living authors who need the support. People who, like me, rely on book sales to pay the rent each month. Creators who benefit greatly from my patronage. The choice to buy one of their books, and not a classic, is tremendous. My purchasing a copy of Wuthering Heights has no impact on Emily Brontë, but buying novel by a new author can affect their career in some small way. That doesn’t mean I can’t read classics. As a creator, I bear some duty to support other creators as best I can. There needs to be some balance.
It also becomes a matter of what I’m filling my head with. Is it beneficial to me to be reading the thoughts and opinions of a know bigot? No matter how well-written their bigotry is, or how limited their prejudices may be to micro-aggressions? Or is there greater benefit to discovering new voices, finding creators who keep me engaged by speaking to this moment in time?
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I honestly sort of resent having to come out of my hermitage to address these things. But I made the choice, so ultimately I’m to blame. Now I’m going back into my cave to write and ignore the world.
Separating Art from Artist
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