The Art or the Artist
Where do you draw the line between the artist and the art they create? If a piece of artwork, whether it’s a painting, a book, a song, or heck, even a game, touches you in some meaningful way, is that experience ruined by a later revelation that the creator may be a deeply flawed human being? At what point do the actions of the artist ruin the art? At what point do the merits of the art redeem the artist?
Recently I learned of some very disturbing allegations about Marion Zimmer Bradley, an incredibly influential figure in Science Fiction literature. While she wasn’t one of my favorite authors, I did read some of her work when I was younger and I had always respected her place in the history of Science Fiction. To many, her novels were hugely impactful, especially for the exploration of feminism and LGBTQ issues in a traditionally male dominated genre. Her novel ‘The Shattered Chain’ was one of the first I ever read that presented a lesbian character as something more than just a caricature, as something normal and not aberrant.
Though she passed away nearly fifteen years ago, the sordid information about her past recently re-emerged in fandom and caused many to question the value of her work, both as an author and as an advocate for the genre. I say re-emerged because the allegations of her covering up her husband’s pedophilia and her own verbal and physical abuse of her children are not new. They had been known for decades among certain portions of fandom, but due to her position as a grand maven of Science Fiction, the allegations were brushed aside, hidden, or ignored. The specifics of her purported behavior are immensely disturbing, but a significant portion of outrage today is related to the way many devoted fans continued to try and explain away or justify what she did. Rather than acknowledge the horror of what she may have taken part in, many fans responded defensively in an effort to preserve the value of her contribution to Science Fiction, or more intimately, her work that was personally important to them.
Negative backlash and blind defensiveness are a conjoined set of responses that appear whenever a ‘hero’ is revealed to have done something unacceptable. Whether it’s an ill-thought-out comment, a troublesome opinion, or even actual crimes, one portion of the audience lashes out at the artist and everything they ever created, while another races to try and justify the artist’s actions or even vilify those that brought the problem to light. The rest of us are stuck in the middle.
In some ways, both extreme responses come from a very similar place. Those that lash out refuse to accept that anything of value could have come out of someone they now deem evil, so what they once enjoyed must now be denied. For example, no matter how much some people loved ‘Ender’s Game’, they can no longer value the book because of Orson Scott Card’s stance against gay marriage. Conversely, those that rush to defend are trying desperately to preserve the value of the artwork that touched them by preserving the reputation of the creator. Neither side can uncouple the artist from the art and there is no room for grey areas between the white and black of right and wrong.
The accusations against Marion Zimmer Bradley are pretty extreme. The articles I’ve read and the evidence they’ve produced are pretty damning. No matter what you think of her legacy, the allegations cast a long shadow on a lifetime of work in a field that means a lot to many of us. One commenter put it succinctly in saying that finding this information about someone she had admired made her suddenly doubt the works that had so impacted her life.
This topic isn’t a normal one for this blog, but it’s something that’s been churning around in my brain since I learned about MZB’s past. As nerds, we treasure the things that excite us, whether it’s comics, games, movies, books, or whatever. Like everyone else, we also can forget that the creators we idolize are human and have lives beyond their work that we enjoy. Finding out they’re not a very nice person, or even just hold vastly different opinions on controversial subjects, can be disconcerting. How do you continue liking the art if you no longer like the artist?
I don’t have any answers, but I know that I try and separate the art from the artist. Once it leaves their hands, it takes on a life of its own and we as the audience bring a piece of ourselves to the mix anyway. I highly doubt that I would have agreed with C.S. Lewis on much if he were alive and we were to have a conversation, but the Chronicles of Narnia touched me deeply as a child and still colors the person I am today. Knowing what I do about MZB’s past is absolutely going to affect my opinion of her legacy and her work, but I am not going to regret having enjoyed her books in the past.
Have you ever had your opinion of something you enjoyed changed because you found out something disturbing about the creator?
Hey, I actually read one of the Sword & Sorceress anthologies that they mention, though the stories inside were mostly written by other authors. That’s about it for Marion Zimmer Bradley, but I do devour everything that Orson Scott Card writes apart from his biblical figures books (Card’s usual rich inner character lives becomes too dryly like the bible in them, maybe).
I guess I just don’t have much issue separating the content of novels from the politics of their writers. Like with the Narnia series, my interpretation of events tends to elideoverpower the Allegory or metaphor some. Or perhaps I so rarely get to read a long string of books by the same author and -also- good that it doesn’t usually come up.
Not to Godwin’s law myself, but I would even be interested in reading Mein Kampf if I could get through it. One of my “favorite” books is one by Aynn Rand, not because I agreed with the message, but rather because it was written so powerfully that it was able to evoke a hatred of what I perceived as the underlying “moral”. I didn’t agree with the message, but I’ll read other books of hers because I read books that make me feel & think more deeply, not solely to make myself feel good.
I empathize with Mormons in the modern day, though. It’s hard enough to adjust to the modern pace of change when it lines up somewhat with my atheistic, evolution-ist beliefs, it must be much harder with the profusion of somewhat archaic Mormon beliefs.