The art and the artist
I recently reviewed a book, and talked specifically about how the way the book treated certain different groups of people bothered me.
However, I also talked about the good writing in the book.
A reader reasonably called me on that, and it brings up what to me is one of the classic questions.
I’ve written before about the problem of changing standards over time…about how something that is very offensive now may not have been as offensive when it was first published:
This is a bit of a different question though, and I thought it was worthy of a separate post.
Suppose that you knew an author (or other artist) held an attitude that you found abhorrent? Could you judge the writing fairly? Should you?
What if an author wrote a really racist book…and other books that weren’t. Should all of the books be ignored (or even censored)?
It’s a complicated question for me. I honestly want to judge the art separately from the artist.
I think, for example, that Frank Sinatra was one of the great singers…his phraseaology, his emotional content, was incredible.
However, I also know that he is at least alleged to have done things I find morally difficult.
Tarzan has been removed from some schools for being racist. No question, Jane’s nurse in the first book is certainly a stereotype. Tarzan refers to Tarmangani (people of European descent) and Gomangani (people of African descent) as two different types. It’s also been suggested that just the fact that Tarzan is a European who dominates the indigenous population is a racist stereotype. However, Tarzan does have people of African descent as friends.
Even with the latter element, let’s say Tarzan is racist. Does that mean no one should read any Edgar Rice Burroughs? Should one not commend the excitement in the other series?
Let’s say you knew an author was a murderer…would that make you skip the book?
I can see taking that position. This is a case where it would make a difference for as to whether the book was under copyright or not. I might not buy a book from an author who behaves in a way I find unacceptable, because I don’t want them to get the money. For an odd reason, I didn’t watch the movies of a really famous actor while the actor was alive.
My Significant Other and I have stopped shopping at certain stores, because we disagreed with their policies. I don’t buy books from companies that block text-to-speech access, because I don’t want to give them money.
I still think the books from those publishers can be quality works of art.
I’m sorry if I offended anyone by both praising someone’s writing and talking about prejudicial portrayals in that author’s works in the same post. My goal in doing that is to give you what I liked and didn’t like about the book, and to give you enough information so you can make the decision for yourself.
Should I simply not write about people who either write offensive works or who had…difficult personal lives?
I have to tell you, I’m not sure what books that would leave. I think it might be hard to find an author never wrote about violence, had characters engage in chauvinistic behavior (or portrayed women as inferior), or who never used racial/ethnic/religious/sexual preference stereotypes. An ethnicity might be called stubborn, or lazy, or unimaginative, or superstitious, or a host of other negatives.
My feeling is still that it’s best to alert you to what I find offensive, and then let you decide.
What do you think? Can you separate the art and the artist? Should you? If an author has written offensively once, does that taint everything that author writes? Does it matter how the stereotype is portrayed? Should art be judged on its own merit, or should a work be rejected based on the author’s life? I’m really interested to hear what you think about this one!
This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.