This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on January 19, 2016.
Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
Why bother trying to divorce the art from the artist when the art is inherently a reflection of the artist?
We’re taking it as given that “art is inherently a reflection of the artist”, and that is true. You’re not leading me on when you tell me that what some creates will bear their fingerprints. This isn’t just a truism of art either. Study any line of work long enough and you’ll start to pick up on patterns, quirks, and motifs that makes individual efforts stand out. The stitch of a single quilter might not have any impact on the two of us, but someone who has spent decades providing their families with warmer nights is bound to recognize what makes it stand out. The same goes for a building engineer designing an HVAC system or a collector refining which comics series they want to complete.
Quilting or other pursuits don’t necessarily come with the same baggage as art though. The goals of many jobs and hobbies can be easily stated. Quilters quilt. Engineers engineer. Collectors collect. There are certainly politics within these things, but they come from personalities and disagreements on how to do the thing itself.
Art is inherently political. The purpose of a single piece or story is to convey a message. That message may be about a truth of existence, a perspective on the world, the nature of humanity, or a very specific political objective. It may very well be all of these things and then something more. All art is political though. All art proposes a point of view and beliefs, which some people are bound to disagree with. It doesn’t matter what anyone who made a literal bucket of cash from producing Rogue One says, their film contains political statements. That doesn’t mean they are well said or particularly interesting, but they are absolutely there.
For many consumers art reflects their own politics, or at least politics to which they are amenable. You don’t expect to see Bill Maher showing off the merits of a Kirk Cameron movie, although that may be a bridge too far because that man’s movies are meritless. But I think you catch my drift. While some of us, the two of us for certain, often find ourselves enthralled and fascinated by things that don’t support our worldview, that’s often not the case. Separating the craft and success of intent from a message that flies in the face of your fundamental beliefs isn’t fun or easy for lots of folks. That’s totally fine too, we don’t all make dozens of hours each week to consume media.
That lack of time and earnestness in consumption also builds into the answer of “why” here. When we only have so many hours in the day, many people look to art as a retreat or balm. I hosted a movie marathon on New Year’s Day specifically designed to gear up for the year in which we will have to say “President Trump” on a daily basis. Please excuse me for a moment while I vomit.
Okay. I’m back. We watched movies like The Great Dictator, Do The Right Thing, and Mad Max: Fury Road. All of those films confront the difficulty and complexities of the modern world, but they have a message of hope at their core. They believe in common decency, community, and social justice, and support the idea that these ideals will ultimately win the day. For those of us watching, they were reminders and comforts. The only exception was Paths of Glory, a movie that also supports all of these ideals, but with a very bleak outlook on their ability to thrive outside of rare moments.
I cherish all of these films because they’re important to me, both as works of art and representations of what I believe. They sit proudly on the shelf above my desk and I share them regularly as a fan of their art and politics. These works matter a lot to me.
So what happens if I discover that the artist who made them is someone I don’t just disagree with, but revile? How does that affect my relationship to the art?
I can only speak for myself and don’t think that does much good for answering your actual question. All I’ll say on that is no matter what I find out about Spike Lee, Do The Right Thing will continue to be one of my favorite films. I don’t believe Lee can ruin or alter the movie that was released in 1989 with anything that he does or we discover today.
But what I believe and my own approach to art and artists doesn’t matter. The world doesn’t revolve around me and there’s no real “right” answer to be argued for here. Everyone approaches these topics in their own way. Everyone shares a unique relationship with every piece of art they encounter. No matter how similar, none of us actually watch the same movies or read the same comics. How we process them is half-based in our own consciousness, and even that’s something that changes over time. I think that’s something to be celebrated, but it also leads to a pretty wide array of reactions when people learn more about creators, specifically when they learn something negative.
Let’s take an example of when someone might want to divorce art and artist. Let’s take the obvious comics example and discuss one of our favorite subjects in this column: Frank Miller.
In the past couple of decades, Frank Miller has said things that are openly islamophobic, sexist, classist, and quite a few other things. He’s revealed a very ugly side to himself and continued to drive the point home. There’s no better example than Holy Terror, but it’s difficult to take in any of his post-9/11 work without sensing a lot of vitriol and hatred towards specific groups.
Miller is also one of the greatest artists ever produced by American comics. His work on Daredevil, Sin City, Batman, The Dark Knight Returns, and so much more have inspired an entire generation of creators. His fingerprints don’t just cover his own work, but much of American comics, both in and out of the superhero genre). He’s a titan whose influence and power are undeniable.
So how do you go about squaring the comics that you love and that may have taught you about hope and civil service (that’s my takeaway from “Year One”) with a man who has so much hatred for the Muslim community? It’s not an easy question and there may not be a good answer.
That’s probably why many people aim to divorce the art from the artist. It’s easier to embrace the thing you love without the ugly strings of reality threatening to taint it. You don’t have to defend your love of Daredevil, if you act like Miller’s actions don’t have any connection to that work. Faced with cognitive dissonance in which art that upholds your cherished political beliefs is created by someone who flies in the face of them, the option to divorce them is inviting.
I think that’s the answer to why this happens much of the time. It may not always be this caustic of a scenario, but separating art and artist certainly simplifies the process of understanding and consuming art. It gives us an out in which our own interpretations can stand absolute and unchallenged. I understand this impulse. That doesn’t mean I think it’s a good one though.
So I’ll add an addendum to what is already my answer to your question. Even if Miller espouses hateful ideologies now, it doesn’t mean that what I or someone else might see as valuable in his work disappears. “Year One” is still a story of hope. Daredevil is still about the importance of the social contract. The Dark Knight Returns is still about finding strength when faced with impossible masters. These comics do not become diatribes of hate just because of what Miller has said.
You can read them that way, but you can also reverse that direction. They’re insights into a man who has become defined by ugly, anti-social emotions that reveal something we can still relate to and cherish. The themes and ideas we value become a bridge to show that our strident political enemies might possess some common ground, and that within everyone lies the potential for art that rises above their own lives. Miller has made things that continue to inspire us today and that transcend any rants about terrorists or protesters. They belong to us as much as to him, a piece of himself that he shared with us years ago and that continues to give.
I find that reading hopeful.