Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Art and the Artist

I was a guest author last weekend at ConGregate (a FANTASTIC small convention in High Point, NC that you should all attend if it's reasonable at all to your lives). I've written about it before: here, here, and here.

One of my panels this time was a conversation on separating the art and the artist.

Carol Cowles of the podcasts Guardians of the Geekery and Out of Our Skull moderated a panel of me, sci-fi/fantasy author and publisher Nicole Givens Kurtz of Mocha Memoirs Press, and sci-fi/fantasy author and editor Margaret McGraw.

It's always epic to have a conversation with intelligent, thoughtful, well-read, and articulate women like these three, but this discussion has really lingered with me. It's still resonating several days later.

What's a reader/viewer/media consumer to do when a work of art you love is sullied by realizations about the creator?

When you find out the author is a racist, misogynist jerk, or the actor sexually assaulted someone?

Are you a bad person if you still admire the work? Or a hypocrite?

The four of us couldn't solve this quandary in a fifty minute conversation at a convention, but we did break it down a little and how it works for us when we find we have a problematic love. The big conclusions I walked away with:

1. Context is everything: consider the timeframe and life experience of the creator. (Especially useful when we're talking about classic works of history)

If you read or view media that is more than fifty years old, there's a high probability that you will find attitudes that seem old-fashioned or even outright offensive to modern sensibilities (and not just if you're liberal; conservative views have evolved, too). Art is always part of the era in which it was created and artists are people with beliefs and attitudes, too. (NOTE: there's plenty of misogyny, racism, and hatred in contemporary work as well, but I don't give it a "bye" like I might in an older work).

So, do you throw Herman Melville's Moby Dick back into the sea unread because of the cringe-y chapter with the black cook? (Or Queequeg?) Do you burn copies of the First Folio because of antisemitic jokes in Shakespeare's plays? Is Rochester still hot even though he locked his first wife in the attic when it became clear she was mentally ill?

If you follow me on Goodreads, then you know that I read a fair amount of classic literature. So, I run into this quite a bit.

There are some classics I can't get through because the bile fills my mouth until I'm ready to vomit. There are others that I can grimace through a section that makes me feel uncomfortable because there's enough to the rest of the work to keep me pulled in and engaged.

I don't write off the problematic attitudes entirely and automatically as "well, it was different back then" because that's only partly true (I'm looking at you HP Lovecraft, considered racist by your own peers even "back then."). But nor do I refuse to read anything that reflects a world view I disagree with.

A major part of why I read is to learn. To walk in someone else's metaphorical shoes and see what it is like to be them and live their lives. That includes learning about people I wouldn't want to invite to lunch. Understanding is at the heart of growth and change.

2. Attitude in the art: is the attitude or belief that troubles you evident in the work itself?

When I'm reading a living author, currently writing, it's pretty easy to learn about their lives and attitudes. Like many contemporary readers, when I like someone's work, I check them out on social media, follow their Twitter or Instagram, subscribe to their newsletter, attend their public events.

That's not always great for my enjoyment of the work. I learn things I wish I didn't know.

More than once, I've learned that someone who made a piece of art I enjoyed is not a good person by my personal moral compass.  Sometimes, this changes how I view their art. I can't, for example, watch anything with Woody Allen in it anymore without getting slammed in the face by all the troubling sexual attitudes, when once I would have laughed those off as comic exaggerations.

But, sometimes, I don't find the "problem" in the work. There are some writers I have enjoyed reading that I was genuinely surprised to learn held attitudes I find offensive. HP Lovecraft's racism is directly in the work. You don't even have to dig for it. But when I read Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, I didn't notice an anti-homosexual agenda, even though I now know the author has one (I haven't gone back and re-read since I learned though, so I don't know yet if it would color my perception of the work).

But then…especially if the author is still living, I have to consider what I'm supporting with my money:

3. Follow the money: Are you funding bad behavior that you don't support by buying this work?

When the #metoo movement started uncovering poorly hidden predatory behavior in Hollywood and other media, I felt gut-punched more than once. Someone whose work I admire was revealed for the ugly face beneath the pretty mask and I learned once again that actors ACT, so it's a mistake to conflate actors with the characters they play.

But, when I go to a movie, my dollars don't all go to that actor. A movie employs a LOT of people doing a lot of different kinds of work. Of course, if an actor stops being a box-office draw, they will stop being cast, but I don't generally go back and destroy all the copies of movies I already have and enjoyed before the fall. I might even still see a movie with a problematic personality attached, depending on how intrinsically linked the project and the person are.

With a book, there's also a production team, but it's much smaller, and it definitely feels like more of my dollars are going to the writer. So, just like I don't eat at some restaurants or buy some kinds of products because I don't want to hand their owners dollars to ruin my country with, I also don't buy books by people like this. If I want to read them still, I borrow from my library or buy second-hand to mitigate the financial aspect of support.

So how about you, friends? How do you handle it when you learn something troubling about an artist? Or are the art and the artist completely separate in your mind? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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