This is, in many ways, an especially difficult time to be an artist. That, by itself, makes it important not only to continue creating, but to carefully consider some of the things that make it difficult, and how to respond to them.
There are a number of issues related to the current trend of scolding, boycotting, and gathering hate against any comedian, writer, actor, or artist who has been accused of being sexually inappropriate. But there is one piece of it in particular that’s been nagging at me.
I heard it most clearly expressed in response to a comrade’s post about Ezra Pound. The post pointed out that Pound was virulently antisemitic, essentially a fascist, and yet a brilliant poet, whose work could reach the sublime, could deeply affect lives. It is a profound contradiction, and yet, there it is. In the comments to this observation was a remark to the effect of, “There are plenty of other poets.”
I’ve heard this same thing a number of times in a number of forms, and it keeps eating at me: In order to hold this opinion, one most consider art a commodity. “Well, heck, there’s plenty of tomato sauce out there, why should I buy from a reactionary like Hunt? There are plenty of poets out there, why should I read a reactionary like Pound?” It disturbs me that the answer isn’t obvious: because Pound is giving us something we can’t get from anyone else. The things I’ve taken from Patrick O’Brien are entirely different from what I’ve taken from either C. S. Forester or Jane Austen; my life has been enriched by all three, and my understanding of human personality has been enriched by at least two of them.
And here’s another thing: What would happen if it were revealed that, for example, Shakespeare had done certain things, or had certain personality traits, that were foul and disgusting? Would that mean those who understood the world better, those who understood what it means to be human more deeply through his work would have those experiences wiped away? Or, let me put it in more concrete terms related to our own field: has the recent controversy about Joss Wheton destroyed the sense of power, the feeling of, “I can do anything I chose to!” that so many girls took from “Buffy”?
This post is not attempting to argue that individuals, by virtue of being artists, ought not to be held responsible for their actions. What I am asking you to consider are the consequences of treating works of art (in the broadest sense) as interchangeable commodities. As that idea spreads, what does it do to those trying to create art, trying to find a way to express in images and in moments something lasting, powerful, revelatory? Those who profit from art (in the narrow, scientific sense of profit), will of course always judge art by its bottom line. Do creators of artistic works really want to accept that method? Do you honestly think the world will be better if we start looking at books, at film, at comedy, as simply “product?” And yet, “Why would I read Ezra Pound? There are plenty of other poets” does exactly that.
I understand and sympathize with those who feel, “This person is slimy and disgusting and I’m not comfortable giving him my money.” We live in a society in which wealth is accepted as the final arbiter of quality, and none of us live outside of that society, so it is impossible to be unaffected by it. It is natural to see “giving the person money” as an important aspect of how we address art and artists. But maybe it isn’t the most important aspect? Maybe in your intense desire to “punish” someone who has done, or been accused of doing, something reprehensible, you are contributing to making this a society in which art, instead of a means to uplift us all, becomes just another product, of no more significance than a can of tomato sauce? If this attitude spreads among those who read, can those who write be immune? I do not believe so.
You say you cannot separate the art from the artist. Maybe it’s worth trying a little harder. I agree with art critic David Walsh: “To become whole, human beings require the truth about the world, and about themselves, that art offers.” I am asking you to consider what will happen if these things become unimportant compared to our opinion of the personality of the creator. I beg to submit that this will be, in the long run, terribly destructive to art and artists.