Recently Roxane Gay wrote about her own inability to separate the artist from the art, specifically in the case of Nate Parker and his forthcoming, artistically and historically important film The Birth of a Nation. As much as she wants to see the movie, she can’t bring herself to go, because of Parker’s complicated and questionable history regarding sexual assault.
That’s a big deal. I don’t blame her. Gay makes a good case, and I encourage you to read her New York Times op-ed. As she says, the woman Parker was tried for raping committed suicide in 2012, leaving a young son, and can no longer speak for herself.
Parker has not done a very good job, in many people’s minds—particularly many women’s minds—of speaking for himself. He seems to have taken the “some of my best friends are” [women, in this case] defense.
And I get what she says about Bill Cosby, too, how in the light of the revelations and allegations of his assaults on women, the jokes aren’t funny anymore.
And yet. We’ve found out a lot of things, over many many many years, about the lives of artists, haven’t we, and does it really diminish their art? Anne Sexton, Pablo Picasso, Gunter Grass, V.S. Naipaul. Who even knows where to truncate the list.
Perhaps it’s harder, in the hot flush of the moment, to go to a film made by someone we’re particularly angry with. Especially when, as in the case of rape, we don’t know how else to mete out what we’d like to think of as justice. And with Cosby—well, it’s not as if a comedian is likely to leave a legacy for the ages, anyway.
Martin Heidegger, the philosopher, was a Nazi. I’m inclined to toss out his work out of laziness. I don’t have the energy or the training to go through it with a fine-enough-toothed comb to decide whether or not this influenced his philosophy, or whether his philosophy influenced his decision to join the Nazi party. My own idea, though, is that you have to align your reasoning with your reasoning, and fascism, for a philosopher, seems based on a line of thought.
I admit I am uncomfortable with the work of the poet Ezra Pound. This is as much because I feel he is sneering at me as because of his fascism.
In these cases, I’m backing off on a work or a body of work because of an artist’s general gesture or a thinker’s intellectual orientation, rather than his or her character. If I don’t like Picasso’s work because I don’t like cubism (though that’s only part of Picasso’s work), that’s one thing. If I don’t like Picasso’s work because I don’t like what I’ve heard of him as a person, that’s another.
Of course, if I didn’t like Picasso as a person, it would be completely my prerogative, and would be free to ignore his work, and even free to call on others to do so. However, I rather think that trying to influence others to avoid artistic work for any reason other than aesthetics is on the same spectrum as book banning. Not that it is book banning, just that it’s the same impulse.
I’m not sure if I think Gay has gone quite that far. She tells us that she is wrestling with her own feelings about this particular artist and her own history. It’s a personal matter for her. Nevertheless, she is telling us about it. And in her best-selling collection of essays, Bad Feminist, which I also recommend that you read, she says she tries to lead by example. So when she tells us she won’t be seeing The Birth of a Nation, isn’t she, in fact, attempting to “lead” us to do the same?
At least, she wants us to consider the question of whether we should separate the person from the art. Fair enough.
Gay concludes she cannot do so. She is less clear about whether this question must be asked in every case, in this case, or only in cases where there is such an egregious wrong that has been done.
A while ago I wrote about an author who shared her disappointment, over Twitter, when she was not included in the New York Times’s 100 best list for the year. Social Media then decided that it was not EVER going to read ANY of her work. I’m exaggerating, but only a little. You’d think the woman had confessed to personally gassing Jews.
Another case in which, it seemed, the artist could not be separated from the art. The Wrong wasn’t rape. It was Not Being Nice Enough.
As far as I know, Gay had nothing to do with that particular event. I only bring it up to illustrate how willing people are these days to place artists on pedestals, and how happily they will kick them off—we will NEVER read any of your work, many people said. You, the person, are somehow associated with your entire body of work, and if anything you do, anything at all, offends me, we will retaliate against your life’s work.
Gay, of course, is writing with much more depth and personal anguish about her own struggle to come to terms with a complicated issue that includes her own personal history with both sexual assault and her desire as a black woman to see black history brought to life in film. Her own quest to forgive and to expand her capacity for empathy. And her limits in doing so.
And what I am talking about is what Gay is asking us to talk about: whether we should or should not separate the art from the artist. I agree Parker’s is a tough case, even for me.
How we feel about The Birth of a Nation might change in ten years, or twenty. Or perhaps a better film will come out, or Parker will fade into obscurity for any number of reasons anyway.
I find myself wondering why we do not ask similar questions about separating other contributors from their contributions. Such as scientists. What if someone isolated a novel treatment for heart disease—the number one killer of women—and yet turned out to have got off scot-free for rape in the past? We might want this guy fired from his job, but we’d happily take the drug, I suspect. We lionize Einstein because he was smart and appears to have been nice. But what if he beat his wife? Relativity would still matter. Darwin taught that women were inferior to men. We haven’t thrown out evolution.
Perhaps this hypothetical is even more critical to pose: What if there’d been a Social Media backlash on Newton (total jerk, in case you didn’t know), just before he figured out gravity? (Well, granted, someone else would probably have stumbled across gravity, but who knows when, how, or etc.) What if Tim Hunt, the biochemist who went through hell when Social Media flipped out over his supposedly misogynist (which were totally non-) remarks at a gathering for women scientists, had been forced to resign for those comments before he made the breakthroughs that won him the Nobel prize?
Why do we hold artists to a different standard?
Maybe we just feel that art is more… relative. We can pick and choose among artists, and only time will tell which body of work we will value despite the behavior of its maker. The only problem is that we do need to give artists time. If we toss them out because we don’t like them, we may not get to know their work at all. And then we will never know how classic it might have become. That would mean 98 percent (a rough estimate) of what’s hanging in the Louvre would not be there. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that a different 98 percent would be there. I think we’d only have 2 percent of the enduring art we have now.
Then again, maybe not. If it’s true that nice people finish last, maybe we’d just see more great art from nice people hanging in the Louvre. My instinct, though, is that the mob will just find some reason to hate everyone sooner or later. And sooner or later, each and every one of us will do or say something that someone will feel is Not Nice. Even Roxane Gay. With Social Media at everyone’s fingertips, the reaction can be overwhelming.
If the Not Nice Thing really (remembering, again, the cautionary tale of Tim Hunt) is a racist statement or an uncovering of rape or participation in genocide, by all means, censure the individual. But not her work.
Once, I reviewed the work of a Canadian memoirist I greatly admire. It was a glowing review, with one tiny criticism over what I thought was a poor argument against hunting. (I am not a hunter; I just thought that, as a cattle rancher, she made a bad case.) We exchanged several long letters in which it became clear that because we disagreed, she was never going to allow a friendship to develop. This was suprising, as I myself typically don’t hold divergent opinions against people. I have friends who are Trump supporters with whom I have (so far) managed to stay friends. I was immensely disappointed; there was no writer I would rather have befriended. While reading her books, I had fantasized about walking with her, I had imagined countless cups of tea. I have heard similar stories from others regarding favorite authors time and again.
I still love her books. I cite them, and I give them as gifts.
The point is, our heroes are often not the people we would like to think they are. Not always worse, just not who. We make them up.
We think of art and science as the best of us, or I do. It’s what we sent to the stars, after all, aboard Voyagers I and II.
It’s a mistake to assume the same of the artists and the scientists.
Thanks to writer and publisher Richard Krawiec for initiating a provocative discussion on Facebook following the publication of Gay’s essay, and to the many participants whose comments helped inspire and inform this post.