Friday, 8 August 2014

Artist versus Content - An Increasingly Prickly Issue?

I had been musing about this subject for a couple of weeks now as a good topic for a post for my blog before having heard that the actress and comedienne Joan Rivers had been quoted making controversial statements about current events in the Gaza strip. I figured that made for a good catalyst to start me off. While I won't repeat her statements here for fear of redundancy and opening up a can of overly-political worms, they have been taken in a rather negative light, and this is merely the latest in a long line of issues in which famous figures whether celebrities or artists have come under fire for having unpopular opinions. And in the case of Joan Rivers, I believe the detractors happen to have a point.

Even worse however are the artists who have come under fire not only for having unpopular opinions, but who have committed graven and unforgivable acts of criminality and brutality. At least one of the latter instances involved a musician who I personally admired the work of, and yet can no longer listen to because he attempted to have his girlfriend murdered; I am not going to be naming names here, but anyone familiar with the case can likely make a decent educated guess. This is of course to say nothing of the more famous case surrounding the former front-man of a rock band who was convicted of several extremely disturbing charges of child molestation.

One has to feel sorry for the other band members and fans in both cases, I suppose.

I'm not someone who follows the whole hazy cloud of tabloid headlines and magazine articles that make up celebrity culture, and don't really have much interest in it, but this specific issue has been overlapping with my primary field of interest for a while. I am, as has been advertised pretty well on here, strongly interested in literature both graphic and prose, with a strong emphasis on fantasy and science fiction. Much to my chagrin, several famous and (once) respected authors in both genres have in fact been revealed as having made statements that were extremely offensive and horrible to experience. The best-known example of the former is the now infamous author of both genres, Orson Scott Card, whose magnum opus Ender's Game was recently made into a blockbuster film.

Anyone familiar with the name of the film will probably also be familiar with the surrounding controversy that accompanied the film's release, with many people advocating a boycott of it. The reason for that is that the author Orson Scott Card is a staunchly homophobic individual who has given out personal statements in favour of banning gay marriage, keeping anti-sodomy laws on the books, and the idea that all gay people are basically abuse victims who were driven insane. A lot of people apparently did not want financial or artistic support being given to a man who held and maintained such hateful and backwards views, and most of my sympathies here are with them. I have not seen the film, nor do I have any intention of doing so. The right to hold an opinion is balanced by the fact that one has to deal with the consequences of what that opinion might evoke when shared with people.

More recently a famous and long-dead author of feminist-orientated science fantasy works was revealed to have inflicted vicious sexual abuse upon her own children. It's very easy to see why people were shocked and appalled at that.

In all of these cases however, we run into a single basic problem. Certainly it's more than possible to adore creators who you at least moderately or possibly even severely disagree with, or who has committed various actions that you might hold them in contempt for, but how far does that stretch? At what point is one's respect or love for a given album, novel, or otherwise be completely and utterly shattered by the artist's own feet of clay? And just as importantly, how far should one's separation of the artist from their art go?

I don't think I have an answer to that, because it's not exactly a simple or objective issue with a right or wrong answer that one can easily point to. The first and most obvious thing one might have to deal with is the fact that everyone has different opinions and subjective experiences of these things, and I suppose I can only really share mine.

There unfortunately isn't any real supporting information amongst my various textbooks on critical theory for what to do with this sort of situation. I'm not entirely sure what they could possibly have had to say about it, but I checked nonetheless.

Orson Scott Card was my first real experience with this phenomenon. I have never read one of his novels, but I'd heard of him spoken of in glowing terms as part of various fan communities, being mentioned next to various names like Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert. He was a very big name in a field of very big names, and naturally I put him down on my list of authors that I ought to read one day. Eventually I ran into the brick wall that was Orson Scott Card's reputation, and began reading various statements from him that led very quickly to the conclusion that I was one of those who didn't want to offer my support to someone with views that I found to be as objectionable as they were.

The next instance was author Dan Simmons, known for his Hyperion books, who was later revealed to have made several anti-Islam statements following the beginning of the so-called 'War on Terror'. In fact going so far as to contribute to the growing number of right wing anti-Muslim revenge stories that were being written in certain parts of the science fiction community. I was unfortunate enough that this occurred after I had already purchased some of his work with the intention of reading it, so that I now have a big spot on my shelf taken up by an omnibus that I'm not sure I'll ever actually read. I'm not doing too well at the goal of avoiding politics so far, but I suppose that is a side-effect of the fact that literally every issue in the world has become to some degree politicised.

In any case I began researching authors after that, so that I didn't accidentally wind up supporting someone whose actions or statements were offensive to me. This does open me up to something of a slippery slope, I suppose; I could very easily turn my library into a figurative echo chamber. Only allowing authors whose views coincide with mine would run counter to the goal of challenging oneself, and tightening my guidelines even further might result in me having nothing left to watch or read.

I must also again bring up that issue of the art itself.

Is it fair to Ender's Game or Hyperion to neglect reading them due to the opinions of their authors, given their somewhat vitriolic nature? But then, how far can one separate out the art from the artist's own variety of opinions anyway? Of course, there are certain situations where one might have mitigating features invoked, and those are of course the situations where the individual artist is not the only one involved. It certainly isn't fair whatsoever to Danny Glover if I never watch Lethal Weapon again due to Mel Gibson, or to the rest of the cast of the film Space Balls simply because Joan Rivers happens to voice a robot in it.

I wonder whether or not that extends to Ender's Game itself. The book might have been the creation of one man, but the film itself was not. It starred a number of famous actors, and had a director, screen-writer, a number of effects artists and other people involved in the film-making processes that I probably ought to learn more about come to think of it. Notably Harrison Ford, who has a long history of supporting gay marriage and various progressive viewpoints, and who stated that he didn't think the views were relevant to the story itself. The director of the film himself stated that he thought the film's message itself served to counter the author's own bigoted views.

They do on one level make a persuasive argument, and I'm not entirely sure I can make a definitive statement on this one way or the other. All I know is that Orson Scott Card's views made me pretty certain that I didn't want to see the film or read the book, but I'm not going to stretch that so far as to say that my own views on that should apply to other people.

I'm never going to say that somebody should never read or watch Ender's Game or Hyperion. As I said, it's a very thorny issue, and one that at least bears a bit of thinking about on a personal level. I know I have my limits, but I'm not going to begrudge those whose whose limits stretch farther.

It would also perhaps be fair to mention that this gate opens in both directions. I have no doubt that there are people out there who find themselves unwilling to read my strongly left-wing and progressive views on the world, who perhaps find my support of gay marriage (for instance) morally objectionable. I admit that I don't understand those views, but perhaps they have an equal and opposite inability to understand mine.

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