The Artist Doesn’t Matter

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.

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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.”

“Which setting?”

“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.

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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”.

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Oscar Wilde

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.

The Spain Tourmaline: $.99 Sale (Nov. 10 to Nov. 16)

Spain.Tourmaline.finalThe Spain Tourmaline is on sale for the next week (November 10 to November 16)! It’s only $0.99 — that’s 80% off regular price. Available wherever ebooks are sold:

Amazon US: http://amzn.to/2BZDp2D

Amazon UK: https://amzn.to/2DbEQKB

Amazon AU: https://amzn.to/2JVI0n1

Amazon CA: https://amzn.to/2DdMyUr

Apple iTunes: https://apple.co/2FcAG80

Kobo US: http://bit.ly/2OBljVK

Also available at Scribd, Tolino, 24Symbols, Google Play, and other retailers.

Description

Dissatisfied with the tourist beaches of Costa del Sol, gemstone detective Ainsley Walker dreams of discovering the real Spain…

THEN

Her life changes when she accepts an offer to help an aging bullfighter find his jewel-encrusted sword for his grand comeback—an assignment that plunges her deep into the wild, beating heart of traditional Spanish culture.

Andalucía.

In the blink of an eye, Ainsley finds herself on a fast-paced adventure that carries her from bullfights to bull ranches, from tapas bars to tearooms, from Catholic processionals to Moorish patios.

Along the way, she discovers joy, pain, friendship, agony—

—and the ancient bonds of life and death.

From an author who worked on the foreign desk of The Washington Post…

… who was a finalist in a prestigious short story contest sponsored by the estate of F. Scott Fitzgerald…

…comes a travel adventure that will change the way you see your life.

Length: 71,000 words
Sixth in the series.

If you haven’t read The Spain Tourmaline, grab a copy today!

Recommended Reading: October 2018

Earlier this year, I realized that I had been reading fewer books by unfamiliar authors. This hasn’t happened because of a newly shortened attention span. My mental state hasn’t yet deteriorated into a series of electrocuted-frog twitches. True, Twitter is a huge time sink, but it hasn’t changed my neural wiring or anything.

No, here are the real reasons:

  1. As a writer and editor, I stare at words for hours and hours every day. At night I often need a break.
  2. During the last few years, I’ve grown into the mentality of a professional. This means that I’m tougher on other people’s books now than I used to be. I’m not necessarily proud of this.
  3. We’ve living in a golden era of television. Between Netflix and Amazon alone, we have hundreds of thousands of hours of high-quality filmed entertainment. For example, most fiction I’ve read recently can’t hold a candle to The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, whose scenes are brilliantly written, and which won enough Emmy trophies to build an army.

Anyways, it hit me earlier in the summer that I missed that habit of adventurous reading. You know, the one that I’ve enjoyed most of my life.

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(photo: Hayley Finn via Flickr)

So I assembled a list of books to read. Many websites such as Goodreads will help you curate a list like this, but I did it the old-fashioned way—on a Microsoft Word document. (Side note: Twenty-five years of market dominance, and Word still shows no signs of wearing out.)

I decided that the list would consist of either

  • writers whom I’ve always known about but had never read
  • writers whom I hadn’t read in the last ten years and had forgotten about.

Unfortunately, I discovered that my patience for other people’s fiction is still pretty thin. Again, I’m not proud of this. Several fiction titles I abandoned without finishing and won’t mention them here, with one exception.

Here are the six titles I enjoyed the most. All links Amazon US:

 

Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee

In so-called “literary fiction”, voice is everything. (Because plot usually doesn’t exist.) In Disgrace, the author’s voice is strong on the page—solid, serious, and with something always swimming just below the surface. Maybe that’s Coetzee’s Dutch Afrikaaner background, maybe that’s just his reported cantankerousness. Anyways, this book was appealing and weird and yet kind of off-kilter at the same time. This despite the fact that the first half of the story itself—a college professor who has an affair with a student and loses his job—felt incredibly tired. It made me think of Tom Wolfe’s admonition to writers to get the hell out of the ivory tower and see how people actually live for a change.

Halfway through, however, the story took a strange twist, and suddenly I found myself in a racially provocative sequence of scenes in rural South Africa involving the protagonist’s grown lesbian daughter. I was motivated to finish this one, and I think I can see why he won the Nobel Prize a few years back. It was unpredictable and fairly masterful, even if Coetzee doesn’t seem like the kind of guy I’d want to share a coffee with. Still, I’d definitely read another book by him. I remember Mark Sarvas enthusiastically recommending his title Summertime on his now-defunct blog The Elegant Variation.

 

My Misspent Youth, by Meghan Daum

For my money, Daum is the best essayist in America. I haven’t read another book of essays that were so nimble and supple. Her insights are as sharp as a diamond cutter’s tool, and each essay still feels contemporary. I say still, because it’s to my eternal shame that it took me nearly twenty goddamned years to finally get around to reading this book, her first.

My Misspent Youth is a collection of essays about Daum’s partly successful, partly agonizing time as a young person struggling in New York City, which ended when she fled to the hinterlands of Nebraska before the age of thirty. If you’re smart and educated and thoughtful and ambitious, and if you’ve ever moved to a new city as a twentysomething (and suffered financially for it), you’ll recognize yourself in these pages. I particularly loved “Variations on Grief”, her bitter essay about a friend who died young without having accomplished anything in his life. That was uniquely honest.

These days Daum apparently runs an occasional essay-writing class in New York. If her talent can rub off, I’d say don’t walk, but run to her doorstep, and beg for a sprinkling of that magic fairy dust.

 

Sabrina, by Nick Drnaso

A graphic novel about the murder of a young woman, and her boyfriend’s sense of grief as he goes to a friend’s house in Colorado to recover. I’m no expert on graphic novels, but I always enjoy them as long as nobody’s wearing colored tights, flying through the air, or shooting webs out of their palms.

Drnaso’s last book Beverly got a lot of attention, and though I don’t know that one, I can report that Sabrina is worth your time. The illustrations are pretty small and basic—honestly, there are better visual artists out there—but the story nonetheless had me turning the page. He’s not afraid to draw characters in mundane situations, which heightens suspense. He’s also not afraid to move to the next scene without resolving that tension. This may lead some people to derisively label the book “arty”, and make snide comparisons to David Lynch, but to me this unpredictability is a draw. It’s a story that takes its time and is not easily summarized.

 

Waiting, by Ha Jin

I need two things from fiction. First, if it’s a story about a radically non-Western culture, I need someone from my own culture to serve as an interpreter. You know, a Virgil to be my guide. Second, I also prefer writers with strong authorial voices, who aren’t afraid to make statements of opinion in the book.

Neither of these preferences should come as any surprise, since both of these qualities define Ainsley Walker, the protagonist in my own Ainsley Walker Gemstone Travel Mystery series. Let’s be honest. In the end, much of fiction really just boils down to a matter of taste. This pisses off critics to no end, but it’s really true. That zombie apocalypse novel with the ugly cover may seem awful to you and me—but to a twelve-year-old boy who can count the total number of books he’s ever read on his left hand, that bloody zombie tale is going to be a great book. He’ll remember it for the rest of his life.

Unfortunately, this book didn’t have either of my two preferred qualities, so it wasn’t for me. Waiting is a story about a man in China who waited eighteen years to divorce so he could marry his nurse. Why did I include it on this list? Because Jin, who wrote the book in English, was born and raised in China. Holy Christ in a Happy Meal, is that all kinds of crazy talent. I mean, though I speak Spanish well, I can’t begin to imagine writing a professional-quality book in that language, much less winning the National Book Award for it. If he wrote Waiting by himself, Jin is otherworldly.

 

The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories, by Ernest Hemingway

There’s nothing new I can say about Hemingway that hasn’t already been stated a thousand times by a thousand critics over the last century. What I can say is that I hadn’t read a word by him in a decade. I didn’t care much for his writing when I was younger, though that changed at age twenty-five, when I picked up A Moveable Feast, which stands to me as a supremely artistic way of telling a memoir, even if he didn’t finish it. (Or maybe because he didn’t finish it.)

Anyways, this particular title is a collection of various short stories, a couple of which were frankly boring, but most of which were vintage Hemingway, like the famous title story. Yes, he displays some sexism, and he chooses to draw women in a consistently negative light, but you should know that about him by now. Complaining about Hemingway’s machismo is like going to the hardware store and complaining that you can’t find any milk. You went to the wrong store.

As I was reading, however, I was fixated mostly on his style, trying to imagine how radical it must’ve looked to an America that was still in the throes of the Nathaniel Hawthorne type of hundred-word sentences, a chain of dependent clauses parading across the page nose-to-tail like a procession of pigs. Hemingway’s grandest achievement was to hack away a lot of that linguistic overgrowth, and as a result he became probably the most consequential writer in our history. Today, asking a writer to define Hemingway’s influence is like asking a fish to describe water.

 

No is Not Enough, by Naomi Klein

Ten years ago, at the end of a trip to Europe, I found a copy of Klein’s then-new title The Shock Doctrine in the English-language section of a bookstore in Madrid. I didn’t have anything else to read on the long flight home, so I bought it.

I read the book for eight straight hours. It was a brilliant, profound look at how governments and organizations exploit natural crises for their own ends. I was aghast at the Chicago School of Economics’ influence upon Latin American politics, especially in Chile. The stuff about the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina also put into context a lot of stuff happening during the W era.

This title, published last year, isn’t quite as good, but it’s not because of her lack of analysis, style, or passion—those are all still there. It’s just that this title is less shocking (ba-dum!) and less original. It’s a fairly predictable attack on the horrible actions of the current U.S. administration. Watching her take shots at the lizards in power felt too easy, maybe because they’ve already being well and deservedly ambushed by many other lesser intellects.

Klein is an unabashed leftist—she sits on the board of The Nation—which is too far out to la izquierda for my own tastes. Still, I found myself nodding in vigorous agreement as she identifies and discusses the two biggest threats to global civilization: income inequality and climate change. I’m still a fan, but I’d beg Klein to turn her enormous brain towards issues that are less obvious than the treasonous rat-bastards currently running the federal government. That crime family are going to be short-timers anyways; it’s Klein’s big-picture analysis of long-term trends that makes her so great.