Tag Archives: art vs artist

Part and parcel

A pop musician or movie star gets arrested for driving under the influence and being in possession of an illegal controlled substance. When he or she is sentenced to nothing more than some hours of community service, there may be a bit of an outcry from the public, but thousands still attend the concerts, buy the music, see the movies.

If questioned, the fans might claim that you have to separate the art from the artist. They’re more likely to simply say, “Yeah, but I love the music/movie.” But it’s the same argument. Things that an artist does in their real life has nothing to do with the quality of product itself. Just as it would be inappropriate to claim that a painting is less than worthy of appreciation because the artist happens to be a member of a race other than the majority, a particular piece of art should stand upon its own merits, alone.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t argue that the celebrity doesn’t deserve special treatment before the law. We can compare the punishment given to the celebrity to those typically given to non-celebrities charged with the same crime. We can point out that this prominent person was given a punishment at the very lowest end of the first-offenders sentencing range, even though this is their fifth or sixth or twentieth run-in with the law over substance abuse issues.

We can demand that the special treatment stop. Yes, maybe that movie we’ve been waiting for will have to be delayed (or more likely, made with a different actor), but crimes and irresponsible actions should have consequences, and sometimes those consequences impact people other than the perpetrator.

The aforementioned situation is pretty clear, and not likely to draw a lot of argument on the principles.

It gets less black and white if the actor, musician, or artist is arrested for assault, or worse. How much that changes our perception of his or her work depends upon the nature of the crimes and the nature of their work. It may become difficult to listen to a singer crooning love songs when you know he has been convicted multiple times of domestic abuse against multiple partners, for instance.

Painting is an infinitely minute part of my personality.—Salvador Dali

So far our hypotheticals have been about what an artist does during aspects of their lives that would otherwise be private. What happens when it happens on the stage? Say, for instance, that you’re a C- or D-list singer-songwriter who, early in your career, made statements indicating you were lesbian, and for a couple of decades your fanbase has been predominately lesbian, and you’ve continued to cater to that fanbase even though in your private life you’ve married a conservation fundamentalist Christian man and joined an evangelical church.

And then one night, on stage in a city that most of the world equates with gay people, in between songs you start going on a long, screaming rant about how gay marriage is going to destroy the world, how decriminalizing abortion is the signal of the collapse of civilization, and screaming at the audience members who start walking out that “God hates fags!

I don’t think anybody would argue that other venues you were scheduled to appear at are within their rights to cancel your shows. Politics aside, no one wants to deal with all those angry customers.

Issuing statements afterward that it was meant to be ironic (yet another assault on that poor, abused, misunderstood word), or taken out of context, afterward isn’t going to undo the damage. Particularly with the full video available on the internet and it is quite clear the the context is only hate, hate, more hate, and crazy.

And you can insist you have freedom of speech all you want. Freedom of speech means that you can say what you want without intrference from the government. It doesn’t mean freedom from people being so offended that they choose to stop listening to and buying your music. It doesn’t mean freedom from being criticized. It doesn’t mean freedom from being seen to be a hateful hypocrit whose career is based almost entirely on milking an ambiguous statement that you might be a member of a group of people you despise. Nor does it mean freedom from being labeled a self-loathing closet case in addition to the hypocrit charge.

Assaulting your audience and essentially admitting that you’ve been scamming them for years is another case where things are pretty black and white. There is no reason to separate the art from the artist, because the art is an inherent part of the crime the artist committed.

While I think that Ms Shocked’s tirade was deplorable and revealed that she is a reprehensible, malicious, vulgar louse deserving of our scorn, that wasn’t her biggest crime.

The most awful thing she has done is to produce all that disingenuous music. It is a sin to be a hateful bigot. It is a bigger sin to intentionally produce crap that you don’t believe and call in art.

The dust of daily life

A number of years ago a reader wrote in to tell how much they had enjoyed a specific story I’d written, which was very flattering. Unfortunately, he also said he was happy that I had returned to writing something “more realistic.”

Now, since the story he was praising was a science fiction murder mystery set 1500 years in the future, and my detective was a genetically engineered lioness, I was more than a bit curious about what, exactly, he thought was so much more realistic about it than anything else I had written. And so, perhaps foolishly, I wrote back to ask.

His reply was a long, polite, and extremely thoughtful email. The first story of mine that he recalled reading had been co-written with two of my friends. It was an epic action adventure tale about the crew of a cargo ship who discover that the containers of farming equipment they have brought into port are actually full of weapons intended for a local revolutionary army. The crew is soon running from both the law and the terrorists. Not surprisingly there is more than one gunfight and a lot of people die. The story includes a lot of grim moments.

He loved it.

Then he cited several more things I had written, all of which he categorized as “light and fluffy,” which he didn’t like. Since one of the stories involved an astronomical disaster in which an entire inhabited planet is destroyed, and another one was a murder mystery, I was a little confused as to why he considered them light and fluffy. Fortunately, the rest of his email explained it.

All of those stories, he wrote, had an unmistakeable air of optimism about them. They generally had happy endings, for instance. He disliked such stories because in reality, he said, nothing good ever lasts, people fail far more often than they succeed, and bad things happen to people who don’t deserve it.

I had more than a few quibbles with what he said, but there was one thing I knew he was right about: my stories probably do all have an underlying thread of hope. I realized a long time ago that a fundamental part of my temperament is an unshakeable certainty that there is no problem that can’t be solved. Worse than that, there’s no problem that I couldn’t solve if only I had the time and the resources. However much I may know, intellectually, that lots of problems are unresolvable, at a deep, emotional level I seem to be incapable of accepting that.

It’s not that I set out to prove that with any of my stories. The dichotomy between optimism and pessimism is usually the furthest thing from my mind when I’m working on any given tale. However, since a hopefully arrogant perspective is a fundamental part of my personality, it will always color things I write. Because, no matter what the goal of a particular story, painting, song, or other piece of art is, no matter what topic the artist is tackling, no matter what things he or she may have the characters say or do in the story, some aspects of the artist’s core beliefs will manifest in the art.

It’s a not that it’s a conscious decision on an artist’s part. These core beliefs are seldom significant plot points, for instance. We are certainly capable of writing stories (or songs or movies or plays or comics) that seem to argue persuasively against our core beliefs. The specific story which started this conversation with this reader has prompted other readers to write me to argue about completely different things which they felt were “the message” of the story simply because one of the main characters espouses a particular belief or philosophy in the dialog, for instance.

The type of core belief I’m talking about informs how an artist sees the world. In some works these things manifest most prominently in minor aspects of the work rather than the major theme. I suspect that is why my story about the disaster which kills one billion people came across as light and fluffy to this guy, even though I thought it ended on an ominous, rather than hopeful, note. There are probably aspects of the ways some of the characters go about trying to figure out what happened that provided some hint of a glimmer of hope. I’m guessing.

Because these core beliefs inform and color the way a creative person sees everything, it is impossible to completely separate a work of art from the artist who created it.

A work of art is more than the person who made it. And in an ideal world, a work of art should be judged on its own merits, without regard to who made it, or to other things which that person made. All humans, artists and audience alike, fall short of our ideals.

The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls. —Pablo Picasso

I thanked the reader for explaining. I said I was sorry he didn’t enjoy some of my stories, and that I hoped he would occasionally enjoy more of my stories in the future. But I suspected he wouldn’t, because I could see that we had diametrically opposed perspectives on the world. And even though I have written plenty of tales since then which have included things I think are far grimmer than anything that was in the two stories he liked, I also know that the glimmer of hope I always believe will be there is bound to continue cropping up in my work.

I myself had found writers and artists whose work, while technically good, even excellent, just rubbed me the wrong way. Sometimes I was able to put my finger on why they did so, but many times not.

Art should move us. Art should also challenge us. I don’t think that we should always agree with everything a piece of art appears to be saying, any more than we should demand that an artist agrees with all of our opinions. But challenging art should engage us in a re-examination of our beliefs, or prompt us to see things from a new perspective. It should act as a lantern illuminating different paths which we may or may not choose to follow.

Sometimes the way that a particular piece of art challenges us does not wash the dust of daily life from our souls; it hammers us down and grinds our souls into the dust. And no one should feel obligated to submit to such hammering.