The Artist and the Art

For a while, I've held myself to what sometimes feels like the unpopular standard that, whenever possible, I won't take pains to separate a piece of art from the person who created it. In some cases, this means I don't indulge myself in the art at all. In other cases, it means I don't enjoy the art the way I might otherwise, even while  experiencing it. In still other cases, it means some combination of my ignorance and fluid standards make me look like a hypocrite. I'm happy with all of these outcomes, because the alternative, from my perspective, would be making an effort not to care, or to care less on the aggregate, and that feels worse to me.

This came up again for me recently because of the disconcertingly supportive response Bill Cosby has had to publicly admitting that he's a serial rapist. And with Cosby, there's the additional dissonance to sift through between his horrific private persona and the apparent positivity of his public work (there is a serious conversation to be had about Bill Cosby's relationship with black progress, and people are having it -- I recommend finding some of those conversations, and I recommend treating them as the complicated, sensitive conversations they need to be). How can the squeaky clean Bill Huxtable also be this other, frightening, unconscionable person? This isn't really a Bill Cosby post. It's Roman Polanski post, and a Woody Allen post, and an Orson Scott Card post, and a Sean Connery post, and a Joseph Conrad post, and so on and so forth in perpetuity. The more recent Bill Cosby problem simply prompted me to reach for a new understanding of my feelings. Last month, I wrote across several tweets:

"The debate over art and artist itself functions as a sort of derail, turning the conversation away from where it needs to be. I'm also just not clear the two are extricable. Cosby is a good example. The image of him his art created helped enable his heinous crimes. Without knowing anything about an artist, I will gladly look at art absent that context. I also reserve the right to be inconsistent. I've had people demand that if I will condemn one artist for A I need to do exactly the same for every artist who ever did A, B, and C. Which I feel is kind of a childish version of being fair: Be pitch perfect in applying your standards, or don't have them at all. No thanks."

There's a bit of a strawman there at the end, I think, and you can only say so much in a series of tweets, but there are some ideas there that are important to me and there are some ideas there that are new to me. Jump the cut for more.

There are a few ideas here, and I want to put them a better order than I did before: 1) the inextricability of art from artist, including the role art plays in enabling the artist's behaviors, 2) the function of the debate as a derail, and 3) the inconsistent application of standards.

Like I said, it's unclear to me that the content of a piece of art can be extricated from the character of its creator. It can certainly exist outside the context of its creator, and perhaps there is something noble about making the effort to view art this way, in a sort of sins of the parent kind of way (don't punish the creation for the creator). I'm deeply unconvinced, though, by arguments that see art as a kind of literal birthing, a sort of metaphysical process that yields a being free to define itself on its own terms, but that doesn't mean they aren't convincing to (and represented more convincingly by) others. I have no remote-controlled robot in that botfight (a more contextually appropriate turn of phrase than "dog in that fight" given the question of nominal free will): art often imitates life in amazing, surprising, instructive, and fantastic ways, but it isn't alive. When the context of creation is absent, whether by ignorance or loss, and it doesn't really matter which, we provide our own, and that is good. That's wonderful. Context is not always absent, though. Sometimes it is unavoidably present, and those are the times I'm thinking about now. Sometimes we do have serial rapist Bill Cosby hiding in the open behind family man Bill Huxtable. Sometimes we do have the vocal intolerance of Orson Scott Card standing tall in front of the touching social sensitivity of Ender's Game. And when that happens, I get it. I don't want to have to reconcile something apparently beautiful with something horrific, as much as I don't want to stand behind topical, easy platitudes about beauty failing to exist in the absense of ugliness. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

At its heart, I think this is tied to the idea that art can be produced in the absence of politics (by which I don't specifically mean governmental politics, but more pervasive social politics). This is most relevant to me when it comes to social representation in fiction, and "apolitical" representation is a way of looking at art that is popular with grumpy, crotchety, white dudes who think representation is a gimmick (I hesitate to send you down the Sad or Rabbid Puppies hellhole, in part because that specific issue has made itself obsolete at least for the time being, but it's not a terrible representation of the issue if you want to Google). There's a school of thought that an effort to provide representation implies an "agenda," that the inclusion of a woman or a queer character or a person of color (or more), outside of that character fulfilling a corresponding narrative purpose, is political, is catering to a crowd that is more interested in "issues" than in "story." Other, smarter people, have pointed out that the need to have a plot-based reason to include, say, a black woman in a story, gives the lie to the problem that there is no corresponding decision required to write a white male. Essentially, arguing that including representation makes writing strictly "issues-based" demands that some pure ideal of "story" flows through a white default. Which is erasure. Which is a political decision, and the rhetoric that attempts to call it apolitical is a shockingly effective misdirection.

So from an artist's perspective, the effort to separate your art from yourself is self-defeating. The people who want to create apolitical narratives by avoiding diverse representation are actually just representing their own political decision in their art. More simply: You can not produce art that is not informed by your personal context. Often, this is straightforward: a racist producing racist art is easy to ignore. But then you get the Cosbys and the Cards, whose art seems so non-representative of their personal character. And if art can not be produced absent of its creator, it can not be consumed without some of that influence continuing to exist, to support what its creator stood for.

And this is where the art becomes an enabling force. I don't want to boil down the entirety of the squeaky clean nuclear family image of the Huxtables to Cosby's sexual predation and nothing else -- recall how complicated the relationship between that image and holistic black progress is -- but let's imagine the thin slice that does boil down that way. It is impossible to imagine husband, father, and doctor Bill Huxtable as a sexual predator, and it is difficult for people who lived with that show to imagine Bill Cosby as anything other than Bill Huxtable. The image of Huxtable protected Cosby for decades in the absence of close scrutiny, and continues to protect Cosby in its harsh, burning light. There are a LOT of people who see the 35 women on the cover of New York Magazine and imagine an elaborate conspiracy against a good man. Woody Allen has created and replicated a character for himself in his movies -- a timid, powerless, pathetic kind of scrappy, self-deprecating underdog -- that is so at odds with the frightening images we have of predators in our cultural consciousness that it's hard to actually be frightened by him. I don't think art which appears at odds with its creator needs to be reconciled exactly; I think to some extent it reconciles itself. That art provides something of a shield against accusation and criticism. It's protective, and it's purposeful. Bill Huxtable can never stand on his own so long as he stands in front of Bill Cosby, hiding him. Similarly, the others.

I also think that there is an extent to which the conversation itself -- okay, so Bill Cosby is a rapist, BUT the Cosby Show... -- is an act of misdirection. The last year specifically has made me think about difficult conversations as a series of derailments. Whenever there is a meaningful conversation, about women's bodies or about black bodies or about queer bodies or disabled bodies or Muslim bodies, and so on, people who are invested in not having that conversation -- whether consciously or unconsciously -- find ways to veer it in directions that seem meaningful but ultimately support the status quo. I'm not proud to say that it's only in the last year or so I've begun to really understand the extent to which my culture punishes people at the margins, in absolutely no small part to the continued dismantling of the myth of law enforcement as a peace force (just consider the phrase "peace force" perhaps...), when the history of law enforcement has always been in maintaining class distinctions. And every time a black person is killed by a police officer for an unlawful traffic stop, the conversation should be focused tightly on the problems with the institution that invites the killer to participate in what is essentially an organized hunt. And yet, we get conversations about Michael Brown's character as justification for his death, about how Sandra Bland wouldn't have died if she hadn't mouthed off. Over and over again. We get conversations focused on how black people need to act, and on how they should avoid acting, all in the absence of conversations about how law enforcement should be acting. Pay attention to this: see how often important conversations fail to stay on the rails that lead directly to the actual problem.

So, when we talk about separating Bill Cosby's (or Woody Allen's or Roman Polanski's, etc) art from their character, I think we're engaging in a derail. Because when we talk about whether or not Bill Cosby's art is wholesome, we're NO LONGER talking about Bill Cosby as a rapist -- and, more importantly, we're no longer talking about the structural system that made Bill Cosby's career as a serial rapist easy. Under other circumstances, I tend in general to be in favor of the idea that we, as intelligent people, are perfectly capable of maintaining two different conversations at once, but I've begun to become convinced that when it comes to these figures, being capable of something does not make that thing good. I think the distinction really lies with the idea of the derail. Our brains are certainly capable of containing a multitude of conversations, but we have to recognize the impact those conversations have on each other. More and more I've become convinced -- utterly convinced -- that a conversation which develops with the purpose of disabling a more important conversation is not one that is worth entertaining, and that being able to identify those conversations is key to avoiding them.

Lastly, I think the thing we all struggle with when we think about being critical of one piece of art on account of the artist is the problem of applying that same standard elsewhere. In my original tweets, I framed this as a choice between having cast-iron consistency in your standards and having none at all, but that's something of a misrepresentation. I think the struggle is closer to one of feeling like our standards are strong versus feeling that they are weak. It's not really very easy to feel like I have a strong set of standards when on the one hand I won't buy or read more of Orson Scott Card's work than I already have, while on the other hand one of my favorite pieces of art in recent memory was Days of Future Past, a movie directed by a man accused of sexual assault and starring one accused of domestic violence. If my standards, if my convictions, were so strong, I would take as little pleasure in that film as I do in, say, Card's Pathfinder series. And if I can't muster the strength of conviction to condemn the one, why do I insist on doing just that for the other?

And what it comes down to for me, really, is that my standards and convictions are fluid, not that they are weak. This may mean that, from time to time, I apply them weakly, but it's not clear to me that this is something a human being can avoid. It is exhausting to maintain the kind of personal rigidity that it would take to be truly consistent about these things. On the other hand, it feels bad to me to think that applying some standards weakly means I should try less hard to be convicted in the first place. If I'm inconsistent, it's because I'm a person. My goal is not to apply my standards consistently, but to apply them well enough often enough to net an overall positive. Similarly, I can't demand that anybody share my standards or my goals in applying them

And now that I've exhausted my post, I still feel like I'm not saying things correctly, like I need to understand my own ideas and my own reasoning better. But, for now, this is where I stand and why: The art and the artist can not be disconnected because artistic choices are personal choices, which may support the artist's character, obscure it, enable it, or shield it from criticism. The attempt to debate art in the face of an artist's own awful behavior feels more and more to me with time like a way not to debate art, but rather as a way to avoid more important, less comfortable conversations. Sometimes -- often? -- even understanding all of this, I will be unable to live up to my own standards, but this is not a failing. It's an unavoidable part of having difficult, worthwhile standards to begin with.