Thursday, August 12, 2010

the artist vs. his art

My response to this (from an message board): "I often struggle with this issue because to purchase a book is to support the artist, the author. And yet finding out that an author might be homophobic or ultra-conservative will inevitably change how I perceive the text. It shouldn't, but it somehow does."

These are two questions here, both of which fascinate me and have for many years:

1) Should we support artists who are immoral in their lifestyles?

2) Is it wrong to associate they artist's lifestyle and political/social views with his works?

I am not going to take a definitive stance on either of these issues (because I don't think there is one), but I will speak to how I maneuver through them.

First of all, I DO think I am potentially culpable if I knowingly give money to someone who uses that money for evil. In some cases, this is pretty obvious. If I give you money so that you can buy a gun, knowing that you intend to shoot someone with it, I am partly responsible for the subsequent murder. But the further removed my payment is from clear-and-present danger, the more (I believe) I'm morally absolved.

For instance, let's say you're a non-prejudiced writer who has a son that is a KKK member. I know that you disapprove of your son's views, but I also know that you love him and maintain a relationship with him. I feel okay about buying your book, even knowing there's a possibility that you MIGHT give some of that money to your son, and that he MIGHT give some of that money to the KKK. Someone else might not think my decision is okay, and I can't really justify it, except to say that when there are more and more "mights," I feel less and less responsible. My decision to give you money didn't directly contribute to the KKK. Two other people had to make decisions in order for some of my money to reach the bad guys. (And then the KKK would have to spend that money on something evil -- not just on getting sandwiches for lunch -- in order for my money to fund anything evil.)

I also have a deeply held belief in freedom of expression. Which means that though I don't support Nazi actions (KKK actions, homophobic actions, etc.), I do support someone's right to have Nazi thoughts and even to speak out about them. More generally, I want to live in a world in which any and all ideas get expressed, and in a world in which we make a distinction between ideas and actions. I want ideas to be expressed -- even heinous ones -- because, once they are on the table, we can discuss them (and in some cases denounce them). If they are secret, we can't engage them in any way.

So I'll go further than my above writer-and-son ethic and say that I totally support your right to express homophobic ideas. If you're beating up gay people, I don't support that. But if you're saying "Homosexuality is a sin," I do. I don't believe it's a sin. In fact, I find that idea loathsome. But I want you to express it if it is your idea. I want that idea on the table if it exists. Let's confront it rather than hide from it. So I'm fine with buying Mr. Homophobe's book -- as long as I have no evidence that he's directly contributing to gay bashing or denying gay people jobs.

I'm not naive. I realize that ideas can lead to actions. But I think it's VERY important, in a culture that values free expression, to not let that fact lead us towards censorship. I know that not-buying-a-book is not the same as censorship, but I think it's generally important to take a stance of all-ideas-are-allowed-though-some-actions-aren't. That's my value. You don't have to share it. But it does allow me to buy books by, say, a misogynist without feeling guilty, without feeling that I've betrayed my Feminist values.

After all, how am I going to really understand the mindset of a misogynist if I don't listen to him? And if I don't understand him, I am ill-equipped to fight him.

Okay, second question: Is it wrong to associate they artist's lifestyle with his works?

No, it's not wrong. It's natural. We evolved to think of stories as tales told to us by people we know. Tales around a campfire, etc. Most of us grew up first hearing stories from our parents, our teachers and our friends. It's a somewhat strange experience to "hear" a story from someone you've never met and will never meet. So your brain creates a storyteller. Your brain naturally wants to view as story as a piece of communication -- something told from a specific person to you. And, naturally, if you learn biographical details about the author, it's likely you'll imagine the person connected with those details is the person telling you the story.

So how would you feel if someone beat up your best friend and then told you a story? Would you be able to just listen to that story in a neutral way? I doubt it. A similar (though perhaps muted) effect happens when you learn that say, Roman Polanski raped a young girl. The guy at the campfire who telling you a story is a RAPIST!

That said, I think it's possible to learn to avoid (or at least dampen) this kind of thinking. And I think it's worth doing. Why? For reasons I went into above. Because it's useful to confront ideas that come from all different sources. Ideas ARE neutral, even if the people telling them to you aren't. I am devoted to creating a world in which all ideas (regardless of their sources) have free play -- even if that world is just in my own head. Again, I'm just reporting my values -- I'm not expecting you to share them.

How do you learn to disregard the artist when viewing his art? I'm not completely sure, even though I've done it. If you tell me the author of the book I just read (and loved) hates Asians, I will just shrug -- which doesn't mean that I am a fan of bigotry. I just don't care whether the author likes or dislikes anyone. I'm not interested in him. I'm interested in his book.

I think I got that way from decades of reading "The Classics." Shakespeare wrote some bigoted stuff. So did most classic authors in most eras. If you read tons and tons of stuff by the dead white males, you get pretty used to admiring the art while not admiring (sometimes loathing) the artist.

It also helps to not deify artists. I've devoted years of my life to studying Shakespeare's works. But I'm sure the guy farted and picked his nose like the rest of us. And maybe he beat his wife. Maybe he supported slavery.

This doesn't shock me, maybe because I'm a cynic. I don't expect people to be on their best behavior until proven otherwise. And I don't expect artists to be special people. They are normal people who happen to write books, paint paintings or make movies. They are, in my mind, as "evolved" as auto-mechanics and sewer workers. They just have different job descriptions. Most people in all walks of life has some good points and some really ugly bad points. I don't expect artists to be different. If you do, that's fine, but I think you're living in a fantasy world.

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