There is the art … and there is the artist. Is it possible to separate the two?
Let’s look at three case studies.
Case #1: The Superstar
Once upon a time, I was friends with the vice-president of a major electric guitar company, one whose name you’d recognize if you enjoy heavy metal. Let’s call him Joe. Whenever I was at Joe’s house, our conversation invariably turned to Prince. Joe loved talking about Prince. Everybody in the music industry, he said, had weird Prince stories.
I was all ears. After all, I’ve been a huge Prince fan for much of my adult life. In concert, he was the best performer I’ve ever seen—an eccentric, bizarre, charismatic, five-foot-two genius.
Well, let’s hear one, I said.
Photo credit: MobyRichard via Flickr
Joe began to tell me a story that had been related to him by his friend, let’s call him Dave, who was working as Prince’s guitar tech at the time. I gulped, because this was firsthand music industry stuff.
According to Joe, Dave received a salary of nearly $400,000 per year from the Purple One for his service as principal guitar tech. In return, he had given up all pretense of a life. That was understandable. Working for a boss at that level of talent and fame, and given his immense salary, Dave must’ve known full and hell well what the job would entail when he accepted it.
Total submission to His Royal Purple Ego.
Here’s where the story starts: One day, Dave asked Prince if he could have a few days off to visit his family in Pennsylvania during Thanksgiving. Prince gave him permission.
However, the moment he stepped off the plane in Pennsylvania for the weekend, his cell phone rang.
It was Prince. “I can’t find that setting on the new amp,” the superstar said.
“The vintage tube amp that just arrived?”
“No, the solid-state.”
“The fuzzy one we talked about.”
“It’s on the back, in the upper left corner, just to the right of the yellow cable.”
He waited while Prince looked for it. The star came back to the phone and said in his low, velvety voice: “I need to you do it, Dave.”
Dave didn’t miss a beat. “No problem. Give me a few hours to get back to LA.”
And that’s what Dave did. Still at the airport, he turned around, marched to the ticket desk, bought another round-trip ticket from Pennsylvania to Los Angeles, and boarded the next flight back to California. Once he’d returned, he drove to 3121, Prince’s rented house up in the Hollywood Hills, walked inside, found the amp, and flipped on the setting.
Prince was nowhere to be found.
Then he drove back to LAX, boarded another cross-country flight, and returned to Pennsylvania.
All of that, just to press a button for Prince.
Callous? Yeah. Exploitative? Of course. Selfish, arrogant, insensitive? Check, check, and check.
That was Prince. And yet I still love his music.
Can you separate the art from the artist?
Case #2: The Nebbish
I loved Annie Hall the first time I saw it. I remember that Bullets Over Broadway was an inspired and silly movie. I watched Vicki Cristina Barcelona twice in the theater. And Midnight in Paris was an irresistible little confection for any writer who loves the Golden Era of the 1920s.
The one thing that those movies all have in common? They were all written and directed by Woody Allen.
Credit: David Shankbone via Flickr
I bring this up because he’s been rumored to have molested his adoptive daughter, Dylan Farrow, an accusation corroborated by his son Ronan Farrow. These allegations haven’t gone away either—these are the types of credible charges, from his own children, that make you think twice. Adding fuel to the rumors about his pedophilic ways is the fact that Allen seduced and married another one of his adopted stepdaughters, Soon-Yi Previn.
I’m inclined to believe that he’s a pervert who should be in prison. At the same time, we all know that he’s an artistic powerhouse.
Can you separate the art from the artist?
Case #3: The Fop
At the end of the nineteenth century, England’s most famous playwright and essayist, Oscar Wilde, was convicted of and jailed for “gross indecency with men”.
He was gay. That was his only crime. He had an affair with a young man in his twenties, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas.
Can you separate the art from the artist? In 2019, this one is a no-brainer. Of course we can.
But the goalposts are always shifting. Once you commit to judging the art by the artist, you’re committing to a lot of uncomfortable potential contradictions.
We Can’t Know Who They Are Anyways
Boycotting good art produced by bad people instantly makes hypocrites of all of us. This is for two reasons.
The first reason is that social norms and customs change by culture and by era. The condemnation of Wilde’s art in 1895 looks silly a century later.
The second reason is even stronger. We cannot know the people behind all the art that we consume.
Be honest: Do you research the lives of the creators of all the art that you consume? Do you read the biography of pop auteur Zedd before you consent to listen to his newest song? Did you analyze the personal life of the Harlequin author who was responsible for your favorite romance series? Do you demand a full background check on the writing staff of a Netflix series before you watch it?
Most of us don’t even know the names of those creators, much less their backgrounds. And even if you think you do, you don’t—because a lot of creative industries employ ghostwriters and ghost producers. I speak from experience, having worked on many, many different ghostwriting projects in the last few years.
Also, the people at the top of our media companies are often horrific human beings. Have you seen the movie The Jazz Singer? My Fair Lady? To Have and Have Not? Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Any Jimmy Cagney movie? Looney Tunes cartoons? All were made under the reign of Jack Warner at his studio, Warner Bros—and Jack was a famously toxic piece of shit who enjoyed humiliating and hurting people. He deserted his first wife, fired his own son without cause, and was estranged from his own brother until death. Most of those titans of the old Hollywood studio system were like that. As director Gottfried Reinhardy put it, “Harry Cohn was a sonofabitch but he did it for business; he was not a sadist. Louis B. Mayer could be a monster, but he was not mean for the sake of meanness. Jack was.”
Will you now boycott all entertainment produced during Hollywood’s golden era? Is your moral backbone that strong? Probably not.
More recently, a man named Scott Rudin has produced just about every intelligent film adaptation of the last twenty-five years—The Social Network, The Truman Show, No Country For Old Men, Julie & Julia, Revolutionary Road, There Will Be Blood, Notes On A Scandal, etc. He’s accomplished this all despite being an abusive prick. By some accounts, he churns through nearly 50 assistants per year. He routinely throws objects at people’s heads. His assistants literally used to measure the length of his phone cord so that they would know how far to stand back in case they tripped his wire. Another former assistant has framed the pieces of five different early-2000s flip phones that Rudin snapped in his frequent fits of rage.
Did you know any of that? Probably not. Will you continue to see Rudin’s future work? Most likely. He makes damn good art.
This begs the question: Why do we sometimes care about the artist—and sometimes not?
The short answer is this: Media attention. The news media decide, for whatever reason, to zero in on the bad behavior of one individual artist. Then there’s a stampede to condemn. Everybody’s hide gets ruffled, books get burned, movies get deleted, bad reviews get written.
You may approve of this tsk-tsking, but to me this is herd behavior. It serves as a tool for some people to make themselves feel morally superior to others. In some cases, condemning the Bad Guy is nothing more than a status marker. It separates the ones at the center of the herd from the ones at the margins.
Granted, a bad person should be punished by the legal system. But you won’t hear me crowing about it–the same way you won’t hear me crowing about non-artists getting their comeuppance.
My simple response, if I hear about the immoral acts of some artist, is to make sure they don’t get my money ever again. I may still enjoy their art in other ways, but I won’t let them know it.
Why You Shouldn’t Care About Me
Other than travel, my life is not particularly interesting. That’s why I choose not to write about it, other than posting occasional photos on social media about my international journeys.
This isn’t a smoke screen either. There’s no skeletons in this closet, no secrets at all. I’m from a healthy ordinary middle-class family and am just not built for wild or bad behavior. In fact, my future memoir would be the most boring book in the world. Eleven pm Friday night, and I got back to my dorm room and changed into my shorts and picked up my guitar. Boy, it’d been a hard week of reading. My God, I’d have to write it as stream-of-consciousness poetry just to get anybody interested enough to finish the first chapter.
Oh, believe me, I’ve fantasized about acting differently. I’ve imagined someday descending into a lost weekend worthy of William S. Burroughs. Picture it: The seedy motel. The needle plunging the heroin in the space between my toes. The empty cartons of Chinese food strewn about the room. The cigarette butts in the carpet. The strung-out hooker with smeared mascara and an off-the-shoulder t-shirt passed out across the filthy mattress.
Has any of this ever happened? Hell no. The most self-destructive thing I’ve ever done is steal Oreos from a hotel minibar.
From what I’ve seen, most other writers are pretty much the same. We lead really ordinary lives. There are a few exceptions, like Hunter S. Thompson, who forget that it’s their writing, not their personal lives, that are supposed to be fascinating. In his career, Thompson lost sight of this distinction and got swallowed up by his own media-enhanced rock-star self. His writing until 1971 was terrific—Hell’s Angels was great, and of course Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is an American classic. But his writing after 1971 was a snooze. He used all his energy building his persona, giving outrageous speeches, gobbling mountains of drugs, running quixotic campaigns for local sheriff, being generally outrageous. There was nothing left in the tank for the words.
Another issue is that those writers who exclusively use the confessional mode don’t have much to say after a while. They eventually run out of material. It’s not exactly news that Mary Karr, for instance, is a brilliant memoirist—but she’s written three memoirs now. One, two, three. I have to believe that she’s spinning her wheels in the confessional mode. Her poetry is marvelous, but in terms of prose, what else ya got for us, Mary? I say that as a fan.
To me, it’s best if we writers look outside ourselves, because the best stories can’t all happen to us individually. The best stories happen to millions of people all over the world, every hour of every day. Which is why I say…
It’s a big world. Let’s go see it all.