January 5, 2011

Judge the Art, Not the Artist

Years ago, my brother and I were talking about music.  Somehow the subject of Mr. Sting (as Zappa called him) came up, leading my brother to explain that he couldn't get into his stuff because Mr. Sting was too much of an asshole.  I found that odd.  Regardless of Mr. Sting's personality, he's written some great tunes.  Maybe Bring on the Night is brilliant because he's a prick, rather than in spite of it?

I try, as best I can, to separate the artist from the art he makes.  For the longest time, that was in recognition of the simple reality that some great creative types are actually horrible people.  More recently, it occurred to me that I wouldn't appreciate people not reading my books or stories just because I'm an atheist.  I was stunned that a large chunk of the respondents in a thread on Absolute Write last year entitled "Would you buy/read a book by an author you don't like?" answered "yes."  One would think that writers would be loathe to suggest that anyone read or not read their stuff based on anything other than the quality of the work.  It seems odd to me.

The grade-A example of such a writer, who came up in that discussion, is Orson Scott Card.  He's written a whole bunch of successful novels, including Hugo winners Ender's Game (good) and Speaker for the Dead (brilliant).  He also writes columns on his web site about politics, some of which are horribly bigoted when it comes to gay rights, among other things.  I would not want to have Card over for dinner.  But that doesn't impact my enjoyment of his earlier work (he's gone downhill since, thankfully).

This issue was front of mind this week because over the weekend the girlfriend and I watched On the Waterfront, Elia Kazan's 1954 Oscar winner.  It's a film with a lot of history in it. 

For example, Marlon Brando's amazing performance, an early example of "method" acting in a Hollywood flick, "changed American movie acting forever," according to Roger Ebert

The score was Leonard Bernstein's first (and last, IIRC) dedicated film score and is equally brilliant (and quoted from liberally in LA Confidential, I think). 

But it was also Kazan's first film after he appeared before HUAAC and named names.  As such, he made no bones about the film being his answer to all those detractors who blamed him for turning in friends to McCarthy's witch hunt.  From Ebert's review:
Brando's line finds a dramatic echo in A Life, Kazan's 1988 autobiography, where he writes of his feelings after the film won eight Oscars, including best picture, actor, actress and director: 'I was tasting vengeance that night and enjoying it. On the Waterfront is my own story; every day I worked on that film, I was telling the world where I stood and my critics to go and - - - - themselves.''
As Ebert points out, Kazan's motives when making the picture keep some viewers from just watching the film.  They can't separate the art from the artist.  Which is a shame because, even after more than five decades, On the Waterfront is a powerful, dramatic, and exciting film.  And in the context of the film, Brando's character does the right thing and it extracts a great cost.  You don't, after all, have to agree with Kazan at the end of the day when it comes to his HUAAC testimony.

The scorn can extend beyond the artist himself and arise not from his own work or life but rather than how others picked them up and used them.  One would think the 100th anniversary of Leo Tolstoy's death would have warranted celebrations in Russia.  Not so.  He was celebrated by the communists - even though he wasn't one - and was excommunicated from the powerful Russian Orthodox Church before his death because of it.  They're still holding on to that grudge.

The bottom line is most artists probably have unfortunate opinions or habits, if you dig into their lives deeply enough.  Hold high enough standards for your authors or musicians and you'll likely be able to enjoy only a tiny sliver of the books and music out there.  It's a natural and understandable human reaction to let our disgust of a person taint all that they do.  That doesn't mean we shouldn't push past that initial reaction and push forward.

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