In view of the whole Kathleen Hale kerfuffle, I am reposting a piece that I wrote several years ago. I have never read Hale’s books, and have little taste for YA lit. But while I don’t condone stalking anyone for any reason, I am flabbergasted by the outrage expressed against her work, current and future. I have loved books, music, and art by people I wouldn’t want to hang out with, and I’ve learned the hard way that there is no point holding the artist’s personality against the work itself. Of course, with the push for artists to have a web presence and platform, it is harder for them to remain at arm’s length, and they often show themselves in the most unflattering light, which is a shame for them and for everyone who might have been moved, transported, delighted by their work. Some of the references below may be a bit dated, but my general feelings about the separation between art and artist remain the same.
A number of years ago, I stopped reading music magazines, despite the fact that I am a great lover and consumer of music. After one interview too many where the members of some band that I had up until that moment enjoyed turned out to be idiots, I realized that what I felt about the artist had a real effect on how much I enjoyed the music. (I can’t tell you how disappointed I was to learn that Johnny Ramone was a staunch Republican; it took the sheen off a brief, post-show meeting with him that took place when I was 18).
I had a similar reaction when I saw the biopic about painter Francis Bacon, Love is the Devil. Though I’d always been a fan of his powerful, bloody, carcass-filled triptychs, the film presented the painter as so nasty, petty, and vile that the art, though it hadn’t changed, was no longer something I wanted to look at, and I felt cheated. I think anyone who knows too much about Picasso may experience the same dissonance.
Now, the more I like the art, the less I want to know about the artists that created it. I’m always happy to learn something about their process, but as for their private lives, I’m probably never going to have a glass of wine with them or debate philosophy, love, and politics, so I feel it’s none of my business. I’d rather let the art speak for itself.
Is an actor or a writer or musician or painter any better or worse based on their personality? In my experience, real artists are often difficult, unreliable and not always pleasant people. Their art is the best of them distilled and perfected. That’s why we fall in love with a singer when s/he’s onstage, or the voice and wisdom of a writer on the page. Writers, in fact, often say that their writing is wiser than they are. To expect these people to live up to their work is foolish. The song, or the book, or the painting is an artifact, outside themselves, that they have put everything they are, they know, and they aspire to be into, then given it to us as a gift. But it is not necessarily who they are the rest of the time, nor do I need it to be.
Is Michael Richards any less funny objectively because he spouted racist epithets? And to fans of Chris Brown, are his songs less catchy because he’s an abuser? We may not want to support these people after finding out their dirty secrets, but what their skills are as artists remains separate from who they are. Who knows what Shakespeare, Dante, Beethoven, and Carravagio were really like, since their every move wasn’t recorded and broadcast 24/7? We judge them on the work they left behind.
Barring any real nefarious acts, it’s ok by me if an artist I like is “not nice.” This requirement of niceness is perhaps the need of people who want to be able to “relate” to the artist, to believe that s/he is no different from you and me–it is a form of self-aggrandizement. It is also the dull consequence of our time, when the cult of personality reigns supreme. Look at reality shows: how many of the real talents get eliminated in favor of mediocre competitors who have more winning personalities or are relatable? Do you really want to listen to lousy music made by someone with a sweet smile and a touching back story? Wouldn’t you rather listen to something fantastic, even though the person who made it is a little odd, or abrasive, or offensive, or anti-social (or a lot)?
Real artists are different from you and me; they are natural subversives, and don’t give a damn what we think of them anyway–that is precisely what makes what they produce interesting. My belief is that art should stand on its own, that it should be compared to other similar works to determine its relative value, and that the person who made it is irrelevant in this assessment, both in the moment and especially in retrospect.