Separating the Art from the Artist

Suppose an artist or a writer says something that is loathsome or morally reprehensible? Can we therefore judge the artist’s work as having no value simply because the artist is a jerk?

Self Portrait of the Artist Painting his Wife

Art and philosophy go hand in hand. What is philosophy but thinking and writing about what you’re thinking? I think about art all the time and here I write those thoughts down. Therefore I am an art philosopher.

So here’s a question that I’ve run up against recently: How can we separate the art that an artist produces and the artist himself? Artists are people, after all, and some people are not so nice. Some of these not so nice people produce great art. So if we praise the art, are we not condoning, if not actually validating, the not-so-nice behavior of the artist?

I ran up against this question Ender's Gamewith the controversy around Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game. A friend read a blog post where the author eviscerated Card’s text and pointed up passages whose subtext seemed to support Card’s purported homophobia. Mostly, however, the blog author presented disjointed passages that made Card look like an idiot.

That’s fine. The blog’s author doesn’t like Card and he says so and uses passages from his work out of context to support his dislike.

The problem that I had was with the friend who said that he was glad that he didn’t read Ender’s Game because it sounds awful.

I pointed out that the blog author was exaggerating (if not outright lying) about Card’s book, and that Card’s purported bigotry does not actually spill into the pages of the book. I urged my friend to read Ender’s Game and judge for himself.

frank_frazetta_captiveprincessIt is the reader’s or the viewer’s prerogative to judge whether they like the work of art or not. Can we take that dislike further and apply it to the creator of the work? I think most of us would say no. If you don’t like a painting by, for instance, Frank Frazetta, can you, by extension, reasonably conclude that Frazetta is a bad guy because he painted a picture that you don’t like? I don’t think so.

So what about the other way around? Suppose an artist or a writer says something that is loathsome or morally reprehensible? Can we therefore judge the artist’s work as having no value simply because the artist is a jerk?

The fact is, we do it all the time. We’re human. We don’t like someone, we look at what they produce with a jaundiced eye.

But is that right?

300px-David_von_MichelangeloIt’s hard for us to separate art from artist in our minds. I mean, Michaelangelo was not exactly the most beloved man in his lifetime. His habits and personality were, at best, unlikeable. But then there is David and his Pieta and the Sistine Chapel. These works stand alone as the product of a genius and we do not judge the man. Same with Leonardo DaVinci. The Mona Lisa is still the Mona Lisa even if DaVinci was a self-serving jerk.

But these are extreme examples. History has made its judgments about the value of the works of Michaelangelo and DaVinci and since the artists themselves are long dead, any personality peccadilloes can be reasonably forgiven.

But what about an artist who is alive now and who is still a jerk? I had a run-in with an artist. I publicly disagreed with him and he attacked me personally. I walked away but this artist went behind my back and tried to get me fired from a gig I was working on. From this action I can reasonably conclude that the guy is a jerk. But can I judge his artwork based on that?

I will tell you that it’s hard for me to see his work and not think about what a jerk the artist is. I will grudgingly admit that he has skills and a talent that is, in some ways, better than my own, but it is a hard thing to admit.

I’m not exactly a nice guy. I try to be inoffensive and polite in company as I was taught to do by my parents, but sometimes I can be a jerk. Is it fair for someone to judge my art because of some idiotic and offensive thing that I said once? I don’t think so.

Is it fair, for instance, for a teacher to give you a low mark because of some stupid remark you made in class? No.

But it happens all the time. We judge based on emotion. Emotions are not impartial, nor do they always align themselves with what we think of as “fair”.

Well, since this is philosophy (and philosophy about art, no less) I feel that I am perfectly within my right to raise a lot of questions and not provide a whole lot of answers. The function of art is to raise questions. The answers usually come in the viewer’s or the reader’s response to the art. And there are as many answers as there are people who view or read the art.

So what’s your answer?

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  1. “That’s fine. The blog’s author doesn’t like Card and he says so and uses passages from his work out of context to support his dislike”

    — excuse me, but how is this not systematic slander and lies and blatant dishonesty?

    The author is perfeclty entitled to dislike Card; he’s not entitled to lie about him.

    There’s an easy test when it comes to doing something like this; ask yourself honestly if you would consider it legitimate if the guy you’re doing it to did it to you.

    That’s why “bear not false witness” is in the Decalogue, and “do as you would be done by” is considered fundamental.

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  3. Whether seeing great art, listening to classical music, or reading a timeless novel, there’s always a disconnect between the wonderful work we’re enjoying and the often miserable or even monstrous things the artist did in life. Yet that’s part of the human condition, a striving for heavenly perfection even as we too often lie in the gutter only able to look at the stars overhead. I think the key is to appreciate the creation all the more because for an instant, frail humanity leaped heavenward to give us a lasting treasure.

  4. I, for one, am happy to view any work of art or literature in terms of how I respond to the piece itself.

    I don’t care if its creator is a jerk. I don’t care what the art means to the artist. I care what it means to me.

    Cicero and Seneca were both splendid Stoic philosophers who completely failed to live according to their own values. That does not negate the value of their writings.

    Salvador Dali, being a somewhat cruel egocentric completely in love with himself would be very difficult to have as a next door neighbour, but at least 50% of his art appeals to my sense of the fantastic.

    In short, unless the created piece offends me as much as the artist does, I separate the two.

    If an author is offensive, label him offensive and refuse to buy his books.

    Any action stronger than that could lead to book burning. We really don’t want to follow the example of the Nazis. Or so I like to think.

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