The art and the artist

The art and the artist

Note: this is a re-post of an article which originally appeared in this blog on 2011/03/26. I am scheduled for major surgery on January 17th, and I don’t know how quickly I’ll be able to write after that. So, to keep the content going, I am pre-scheduling posts. It’s possible conditions have changed since I wrote it, but I’ll try to lightly edit these when that’s necessary for clarity. 

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:

The Chronological Cultural Context Conundrum

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 phraseology, 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 me 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. [2019 Update: I don’t eliminate an entire publisher, just books on which text-to-speech has been intentionally blocked…I decided that might encourage that publisher to stop blocking, since it gives them an internal sales comparison. Blocking TTS seems to have largely stopped]


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!

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* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.


21 Responses to “The art and the artist”

  1. Clint Bradford Says:

    I read your blog because I appreciate YOUR take on matters. Please do NOT start “over-thinking” or “self-editing” your posts and opinions, because it is the flavor and nature of your posts that make us subscribe to your blog. If you start to second-guess and “self-censor” yourself, you will, IMHO, start to lose followers/subscribers. Unless, of course, all your followers are mindless sheep … in which case, do whatever you want. (grin) My wife and I are finding, at our ages (mid-50s), that we find many topics and rants that some see as “sign o’ the times” as rubbish, and, occasionally, repulsive. It is your responsibility – as a publisher – to be guided by what YOU believe to be “right and wrong.” There – I lay it all on you (grin). -Clint bradford

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Clint!

      Thanks for the kind words!

      I write what I think, but that doesn’t mean I don’t take into account my readers’ feeliigs. In particular, I appreciate people letting me know respectfully when they disagree with me…in some cases, it’s made it clear that I could have stated my position better.

      Probably one big place where I know many of my readers disagree with me…the stand I take on text-to-speech access. Many people just don’t want to hear about it 🙂 , and others think I should tell them about freebies from those companies.

      I think there’s a difference between being true to yourself and ignoring the feelings of others.

      I appreciate what you’ve said…it is all on me…and that “all” includes having some consideration for the feelings of others. 🙂

  2. Morgan Says:

    here’s my 2 cents… i judge the work separate from the artist… i view avoiding stores b/c of their policy as a separate issue. stores directly impact ppl (their policies, prices, who they purchase from, etc.) but a book i don’t view as having the same direct negative impact. i’ve never boycotted a book also b/c some of the best works are born from a twisted mind…

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Morgan!

      I have to agree with your last statement, personally. Some of our best insights into sanity come from the insane…

  3. Edward Boyhan Says:

    One of the things that disturbs me about the issue you raise is how increasingly of late, if an artist does or says something objectionable/painful/heinous to a group of people, we attempt to shut that artist down through ad hominem, economic, or other attacks. This rarely works; often the views/behavior expressed are shared by quite a lot of others — so attempts to prevent the offender from functioning only ratchets up the response from the other side. If an artist expresses a view, or engages in behavior that you find objectionable, you have an obligation to confront that view or behavior and attempt to refute it. I do not think anyone has the right to prevent artists from presenting whatever views or engaging in any behavior (we can talk about legal vs illegal behavior against a background of civil disobedience I guess — I am after all a child of the sixties 🙂 ) that they wish; you have the right, nay the obligation, to engage in refutation, if it offends.

    I don’t believe that someone’s notions of “political correctness” should form the basis around which speech and/or behavior are allowed or disallowed.

    I realize these are difficult, and often emotionally charged issues. You have already pointed out the difference in mores in different time periods; so Burroughs wasn’t far off the norm of his time. But beyond time there is also geography and culture. What is a social norm in San Francisco can be quite different from Dallas, Texas; or more radically: from Damascus, Mumbai, Bangkok, or Shanghai.

    To go back a generation or two let me throw out some names that your piece immediately caused to come to mind. “Das Kapital”, “Mein Kampf”, PG Wodehouse, Ezra Pound. The first two are works that many would find objectionable (MK perhaps more than DK), but both are still read discussed/debated widely, and in general they aren’t on any widespread proscribed lists that I am aware of. Both Wodehouse and Pound engaged in activities during WW2 that many (at the time) found highly questionable (Pound more so than Wodehouse). Many tried to shut them down as artists with limited success. Whatever his political shortcomings, Pound is regarded as one of the great poets of the 20th century. Wodehouse continued to produce work right up until the day he died 30 years after the end of WW2. We are all the richer for the failure of those who wanted to prevent him from working. In the end England’s loss was America’s gain.

    At the end of the day it is the totality of a lifetime’s work that is of import to me; not so much a single work (Harper Lee suddenly comes to mind as an artist who will be judged on the merits of a single work — as that is all she has produced :)).

  4. Sherri Says:

    Sometimes I can separate the artist from the art, and sometimes I can’t. Sometimes, when I find out something about the artist, what they have done or some stance they have taken that I find objectionable, then I find that the memory of that takes me out of the art. Not always, and not even necessarily related to how objectionable I find the stance/action. For example, the mystery author Anne Perry murdered someone, yet I can read her books (murder mysteries, no less!) without being reminded that she was convicted of murder. On the other hand, there are other writers whose political stands I find distasteful, and I can’t help but be reminded of those stands when I read them.

    It’s not always predictable, and I don’t claim it’s logical or rational, but it’s just simply true: sometimes I can’t separate the artist and the art.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Sherri!

      I think that’s a reasonable point…that one’s response may vary. I suspect it may matter the order in which things occur. If you read serveral books by an author, like them, and then find out the person had what is an unacceptable (to ou) personal life, I think you may be more likely to accept the works than if the order is reversed. I’m curious: did you read Anne Perry before you knew about her history?

  5. Common Sense Says:

    I can’t think of an author whose background I know well enough that his actions would influence my opinion of his book. At most, I read their own little blurb about themselves. I’m just not the groupie type I guess. I judge the art, not the artist.

    One place it does bug me are artists who feel that just because they have a stage and the media watching, they think they are political or foreign policy experts. I also don’t like it when they are politically in my face. Are they so self-centered and spoiled that they don’t realize they’ve lost half of their audience?

    As for stereotypes in an author’s books, it depends on how it’s used. Is it part of the story like historical fiction? Or maybe another character has those stereotypes and gets called on it? I’m not fond of books that try to put a modern day spin in a historical context. Objectionable or not, it should be accurate. If it’s just outright ignorance and stupidity, I probably wouldn’t like the rest of the writing either.

    Actual stereotypical terms don’t bother me at all, it’s just a PC thing and I’m not that sensitive. Terms change over time, that’s just how it is. My grandparents had a derogatory name for just about everyone, including each other. It’s just how people of their generation were. Personally, I think people are just TOO sensitive about this kind of thing. Sticks and stones and all that.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Common!

      I do sometimes know a fair amount authors…I may read other things about them. For example, there is Mein Kampf. The most popular edition (in paper) on Amazon is ranked 27,776…out of roughly 31.7 million. I know enough about Adolf Hitler and his attitudes and actions that it could hypothetically influence my decision to read the book or not. It’s worth noting, of course, that is non-fiction. If Hitler wrote a novel, though, I could still read it…in fact, I’d be interested.

      The flip side for me on your second point is that artists shouldn’t need to be silent simply because they are somewhat public figures…even though it might be wise. 😉 Not many artists/entertainers who express their opinions do so more vehemently than I might hear at a party. Pragmatically, it might be better for them to keep their opinions to themselves when they become famous, but I don’t think that’s required. For that reason, that doesn’t bother me.

      I also agree that it depends very much for me on how stereotypes are used. Huckleberry Finn is a great example: the book has been rejected in some places for the use of the “n word” and some portrayals, and yet it is clearly anti-racist.

      Stereotypical terms: I can put those in context, as I indicated in my Chronological Cultural Context Conundrum piece. While it is entirely possible for the “n word” to be used in a derogatory manner, it hasn’t always been used that way. I can think of several terms for African Americans that have been used over time that were used to refer to the group of people without a specific negative connotation, and developed such a connotation later.

  6. draegi Says:

    You sound like someone from a culture which has had a lot of ethnic integration (America?) who has always had to be careful the way they speak… I find racial stereotypes kindof funny usually, and the more malicious they are, the funnier they end up being. I’m not sure whether that makes me less inhibited than you, or just less sensitive. Maybe it’s the same thing. :>

    (Ignore my clumsy use of ‘they’ there. Although facebook has generally made it a socially accepted singular pronoun it still sounds odd in a relative clause, but hopefully wont to people looking back on it in a few years if enough people force the usage. ;>)

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, draegi!

      The use of the “singular they” started way before Facebook. I don’t mind it at all…we don’t have a good neutral pronoun in Engish.

      Yes, I live where there are a lot of different ethnicities. I don’t see it as a question of having to be careful, but preferring to be careful. It has to go to the basis of humor (which is a subject I’ve taught to other trainers before). The basic is that something is funny when there is apparent danger but no real danger. If you grow up in a situation where using ethnic stereotypes hasn’t in the past resulted in deaths and rioting, the danger may seem unreal to you. In the USA (as you note), we’ve had a lot of different ethnic groups coming together…and a lot of situations where beliefs about ethnic groups have led to real violence and other problems. That may make us more sensitive, as you suggest.

  7. karin Says:

    Your piece reminded me of the “politically correct” version of Mark Twain’s (I am thinking it might have been Tom Sawyer) where the objectionable parts were rewritten to be acceptable for today’s audience. I am certainly able to separate the Art from the Artist. I think it is important to keep the classics as is, so that we can understand history better. I keep thinking of War and Peace. Tolstoy was quite negative about the German people, which I thought was very interesting. It didn’t deter my enjoyment of the book at all.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, karin!

      Yes, there have been many such works. There is one coming out for Huckleberry Finn where the character will be called “Slave Jim” instead of using the “n word”. That changes the story, particularly since Jim wasn’t a slave at the time.

      I’ve used the term “Bowdlerized”, and actually been a bit surprised when people didn’t know what it meant. It comes from Thomas Bowdler, who put out a “family” version of Shakespeare.

      I agree, I like my classics “as was”. 🙂 However, since we don’t have permanent copyright, we can’t control that.

  8. Amanda Says:

    As a mother to a multiracial family, I can separate the artist from the art sometimes and other times not so much. It really does matter how the stereotype is portrayed, you know right away the demographic they are writing for. Which to me can be disappointing.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Amanda!

      I appreciate that perspective. I agree: it’s different for me if the “n word” is just used in passing in a 19th Century work (the same way the author might say “Englishman”) or when it is used in a dehumanizing manner. I suppose part of it depends on what I infer is the intended response in the reader. If it feels to me like the author (not the character) is trying to make the reader think less of a group, that’s when I particularly don’t like it.

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