Liking stuff made by horrible people

The question of how we deal with discovering art we love — music, plays, film, books — has been created by someone awful is not an easy one. I can generally separate the art from the person, but other people simply can’t. Unless it’s a gut decision — e.g. I don’t want to read Orson Scott Card’s fiction since his rants about Obama enlisting black street gangs as his secret police (I still value his  writing how-to books though) — it requires some sort of moral calculus: is anyone racist/sexist/homophobic objectionable (obviously I’m focusing on liberal issues here, though I realize conservatives face this issue too)? Is one tasteless homophobic joke a decade ago a deal breaker (I have no specific case in mind)? What if they committed sexual assault and served their prison time? Now that Baen Books has been caught out allowing lots of far-right rhetoric in their online forum, Baen’s Bar (some details here and here) is anyone who publishes with them tacitly supporting extremism?

My views haven’t changed since I posted about this a few years back: it’s a personal decision (ditto if the writing itself is problematic in some way). If A doesn’t want to read J. K. Rowling because she’s so anti-trans that’s perfectly reasonable, but I  don’t think reading her means someone’s endorsing her views. Not everyone agrees though. Right-winger Michael Medved once admitted he didn’t want to give a good review to a film because he’d heard the screenwriter donated to Democrats; his review was actually favorable, but he did see No Review as a valid option.

Conversely, Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns and Money thinks judging art based on the creator’s personal life is bullshit: “The problem with just saying “I’m not going to listen to this” or “I’m never watching a Woody Allen or Roman Polanski film” is that it not only rapidly turns into judging art based on the personal behavior of who made it, which is an artistic black hole, but it also ignores the fact that most art is a collaborative process and you are also erasing a lot of great people in the process.” Refuse to watch Woody Allen and you miss great actors; refuse to listen to Phil Spector-produced music and you penalize Darlene Love and other talented singers.

Loomis quotes Amanda Marcotte dismissing Judging The Creator as “narcissistic self-involvement” and “self-purity as a substitute for activism” — besides, even if the director and the actors are good people, how do you know the cinematographer wasn’t an abuser, huh? So what’s the point?

I think they’re full of it. While it’s certainly true that piously refusing to listen can be a demonstration of self-purity, it can also be sincere; I have an automatic hackles-rising reaction to this kind “oh, you’re just virtue-signaling” dismissal of other people’s positions. And the argument that shunning bigots or rapists is pointless because there are other bigots and rapists you don’t know to shun is dumbass. A personal decision not to buy books written by known child molesters is not invalid because other authors you like may be molesting in secret. Sure, if Marcotte and Loomis want to separate art and artist, that’s cool — like I said, I do — but holding that out as the solution? Not so much.

It’s true that if you don’t watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer because Joss Whedon is a creepy person (Michelle Trachtenberg, who was 15 on the show, says it was policy he would never be left alone with her) you miss out on some awesome performances by the cast. And Darlene Love’s singing is indeed awesome. But guess what? If you never saw a single episode of Buffy you’d still be able to fill your life with amazing performances by amazing actors. While Spector has had a huge impact on pop, I’m guessing one could live a full musical life stuffed with talented singers even if you never heard anything he’d had his hands on (I “guess” because I don’t have the musical expertise to be certain). There’s a lot of great stuff in the world, so much we’ll never listen to/watch all of it. Using the creator’s morals as a sorting system isn’t inherently a bad solution.

Liberal evangelical Fred Clark writes that in some cases, separating creator and creation can be toxic: if we’ve taken inspiration from Buffy, did we absorb some of Whedon’s negative attitudes along with the good stuff? Clark derived much insight from books by theologian John Howard Yoder “and I don’t know what to do with that, because while I had no idea at the time I was reading and underlining and wrestling with the profound ideas expressed in that book, it turns out that John Howard Yoder was a serial rapist and a deeply twisted spiritual abuser.” He quotes from Christian author Tanya Marlow: “What does it say to survivors of abuse everywhere when the church quotes from sexual predators as authorities on human life or the things of God?”

Like I said, I have no clear answer to any of this. But you’re stuck with my thoughts anyway.

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