In Which it Turns Out I’m Incapable of Separating Art from Artist

30 November 2015 by 16 Comments


The internet has made it a fantastic time to be a member of fandom…ANY fandom.

internet fan

Yeah, you’ll find people you don’t necessarily want to associate with, but how awesome is it to be able to interact with the creators of all that awesome shit you geek out over?

Um…turns out, sometimes it’s kind of the worst.

Or, it’s the worst if you’re anything like me and find it difficult to separate the creator from their creation.

Last year, lots of people were talking about Marion Zimmer Bradley and her husband, Walter Breen.  I found out several years ago that MZB had covered up her husband’s rape of children, but until then didn’t know that she had also been serially molesting their daughter.  You can find links to a bunch of other posts about all of this on Jim C Hines’ blog here.

A few years ago I was thinking about how Mists of Avalon had been one of the very first female-centric fantasy novels I’d read that showed women (even moms) could be BAMFs, just as well as men could.  So I went clicking around on the internet (as one does), hoping to find other women my age who’d had a similar response to it.  That was when I learned about Breen’s conviction for pedophilia, as well as the fact that he continued engaging in sexual activities with minors for years after; and that his wife had known and done nothing about it.

I decided that maybe I didn’t want to re-read that book anymore and put it back on the shelf.

Learning that she sexually abused her children has strengthened my resolve to never read her work again, but I see so many people crying that the work ITSELF isn’t diminished by the ACTIONS of the author.

This is bullshit.

Bull.  Shit.

When art speaks to me, it makes a home in my soul.  A gloriously well-lit home that is so inviting, it might as well be built of gingerbread and candy.

When the creator of that art falls from grace (whether it’s child rape, NAMBLA support, a claim that gay marriage marks “the end of democracy in America,” beating their spouse, drugging women to coerce them into sex or whatever else), the home that was built inside me falls into disrepair.  The windows boarded up, the lights extinguished, the entire place left for cobwebs and rodents.

I COULD ignore this sort of thing, but…y’know.  There’s this pesky thing called ethics and I have them.

nope train

So then comes the question of how to respond.

Do I quietly sit by and say nothing?  Do I keep reading/consuming the art created by these people I no longer feel even a modicum of respect for?  Do I continue to recommend these works (that may have had a major impact on me; taking a second to acknowledge how very sad I am that I can no longer in good conscience give my sons a copy of Ender’s Game), but with a footnote as to why someone may want to purchase second hand?

It’s a tough decision.

Even tougher when the artist is no longer living.

For me, in this instance, I think I have to nope these books out of my own personal canon.  The 15y/o sj that was recovering from years of abuse who so desperately needed those Amazons of Darkover to look up to as a model of strength has been curled up inside my mind, sobbing; unwilling to believe that she was so badly duped by someone she so looked up to.  I’ve had to excise these books for her.

I am somewhat envious of the people who have the ability to separate art from artist.  They get to hold their bookish friends close, while I have to let them go.  They get to introduce their children to their friends from childhood.  I don’t.


And, hey:  I welcome discussion about this topic, but let’s keep it away from cries of censorship, please?  That’s not at all what this is about.  This is about losing something integral to how you view yourself as a person, not a call to avoid anyone or anything.  Thanks, guys.  <3


sj (never SJ) hates everything. Except books and music. Sometimes she hates those too. Ask her about drinkalongs.

16 thoughts on “In Which it Turns Out I’m Incapable of Separating Art from Artist

  1. I am also incapable of separating art from artist – at least for living artists. I think that it’s for a lot of the same reasons – the book, the movie, the art, the song all take up residence in my heart and soul and I don’t allow shitheads to live in my heart. I don’t allow horrible people into my home, so I’m sure not letting them have a piece of my soul. And I don’t feel right contributing to their financial well-being by patronizing them.

    I think that I’m more accepting of the idea that people in the old days might have done bad, bad things or held beliefs that I find anathema, but were prevalent at the time, because they aren’t profiting from my consumption and I don’t tend to find out too much about what kind of people they were anyway.

  2. This is something I’ve not come to good conclusions about – I’m betwixt emotions and decisions about it.

    In some ways, it seems to me that there’s a difference between distasteful (even repugnant?) attitudes and opinions and truly heinous actions. A grandparent who is kind of a racist who perpetuates, through their inexperienced and uncharitable opinions, a culture of neglect and abuse for minority groups? That’s someone I can probably still have a relationship with, who I may allow my kids to have a relationship with (albeit with a lot of prep and debriefing afterwards), and who I may hope to influence for the good, and even learn from, (just not about things like appropriate attitudes on race). But someone who participated in lynchings or church burnings? Yeah, that’s gone from thoughtless, uncharitable attitude to truly evil activity. I don’t think I can tolerate that.

    Then again, when I think about something like the Cosby situation, I’m conflicted. I’d describe his actions, as far as the media is accurate in reporting them, to be truly heinous. I’m not sure I can watch Cosby, myself, anymore. It’s just too icky. It’s just too messed up.

    But then I think of the struggle to find a long-running family-friendly show that shows a minority family loving each other and working through difficulties and demonstrating viable alternatives to a really dysfunctional cultural paradigm, (and, let’s admit it, being legitimately fun and funny for all ages) and I think: if I had a six-year-old foster kid in my home, a kid who’d never seen a model of a healthy family or of an involved father, of careers and participation in American institutions like banking and education and using hospitals and public libraries . . . might my personal distaste be trumped by the good that that kid might get from watching the show, completely unaware of its seedy underbelly? I don’t know. Even though I cringe about the artistic quality of “Family Matters,” maybe a kid would learn just as much from Urkel?

    I don’t have a lot of answers, but I feel your pain, and this stuff is going to get harder and harder as every artist’s life becomes transparent in an age of easy internet research and constant exposes.

    • Your mention of slightly racist grandparents is a good thing to bring up. I recently (well, within the last year) started speaking to my mother and her husband again, and have to constantly fight the damaging things my kids see and hear when they’re over there. We sit them down, and we’re all “grammy may have said [THIS OFFENSIVE THING], but that’s not something we ever want you to say and here’s why.”

      And then we have a long discussion with them about why mommy and daddy feel the way they do about it, and how we hope they’ll agree with us (and they always do).

      But you’re right. With The Cosby Show noped out of so many personal canons, what really is there to replace it?

      • I honestly don’t have an answer to this, either. I think I said to you when it happened, I was legit as devastated, if not more, than if my own dad had done this. And I have a similarly complicated relationship with the show as I would with a family member–love that you can’t just turn off, and bits and pieces of it sewn into the quilt of my being, mixed with total revulsion and betrayal.

        • Yes, and that’s pretty much exactly how I feel, too (and I know we talked about this then, as well). With all the shit we had to deal with in our respective growing up times, the Huxtables were (for me) this family that showed that not everything was perfect, but that families who truly loved and cared about each other still existed. And…idk. It’s so hard.

  3. I think I’ve been lucky so far to not have found out horrible things about authors I’ve really loved – but I also hadn’t injected much variety into my reading until I became an adult. When I’ve decided to remove a piece of art from my collection or not patronize an artist anymore, they haven’t been a part of me that was irreplaceable, so to speak. And in that I think it makes the decision a lot less difficult. I think that it’s a perfectly reasonable personal decision to make for you and for your kids, because people are terrible and do some terrible things, and leaving the veil over these people’s actions isn’t necessarily good, either.

  4. Well. I mean absolutely, yes – the book, the picture, the poem, the film, the play, the whatever makes a a home in one’s soul, that is a beautiful and perfect way to put it. Beautiful because perfect – because there is something intimate in opening yourself to a book, and it become part of you. So that if the author commits something you don’t want to be part of you, you feel that creeping in as well – too close.

    But then there’s Kipling. Politically in so many ways I loathe his standpoints. He has a view on ethics and education and the world I cannot share – in fact, he inhabits a world I don’t want to share. And yet. He’s also opened a totally new world for me. I learned to love, no, respect animals because of his books – to see animals as beings and persons with their own ways and rights which cannot be all weighed through human morals. I find him endlessly intriguing, especially when his (human) characters seem to understand each other and I know every word they speak and understand nothing what they’re saying. It is like encountering people from another galaxy… And the man is the damnedest story-teller. He can paint epics and universes in few clipped sentences. I’ve always loved the art of the short story, and he’s the Master. I cannot renounce him – though I very much fear I could not sit in the same table with him without feeling ill. And it’s not as if his politics weren’t in the stories – oh they are! And yet.

    The Finnish communist politician Hella Wuolijoki (who almost got executed during WWII for being friends with Russians – and then became a minister after the war…) had on her desk a quote from who she termed “the imperialist Kipling”
    “All along of dirtiness
    all along of mess
    all along of doing things rather more or less
    mind you keep your rifle just so.”
    So I know that despite definite political differences, for which she was ready to risk dying for, she too could feel in her marrow that the imperialist Kipling could hit stuff spot on, so that it stayed in your soul and made you strong.

    I’m now racking my brain trying to think of an author whom I would have discarded because I found what they did – well, I cannot stomach Alleyn’s movies though I am not at all sure, from the evidence I can read what really happened – but then, I never was much of a fan before either. I’m really sad about Bill Cosby… he’s maybe like your Mists of Avalon for me – because “I Spy” was one of my absolute favorites as a kid, and because Coretta Scott King wrote in passing how after Martin Luther King was murdered Cosby just came to their house one afternoon and spent his time playing with the kids, and because I really loved “The Cosby Show” (oh here we risk a long conversation) precisely because it was black middle-class family and I could relate to so many issues surfacing. So now it’s all spoilt and I feel really sad.

    Maybe Kipling never did something underhand – it is all in plain sight? At least one cannot claim to have been deceived. But Bill Cosby drugging women to have sex with them – what on earth was even the point? – that is making Heathcliff Huxtable a big lie.

    • I guess Kipling was a creature of his times. As you say, he wasn’t deceiving anybody, either.

      This is such a hard one. We can’t expect artists to be perfect. I’m not perfect. There’s a line, though, and when that’s crossed it taints the art for me. I don’t feel I have to be able to sit at the same table with an artist, but someone who has sexually abused others has spoiled their art, for me at least.

    • Yes, absolutely, I feel like Heathcliff Huxtable (and the whole family) is just one big lie now.

      And I realize not everyone is familiar with MZB, but when I was a kid and gobbling up Tolkien like there was no tomorrow, her Amazons, and the women of Avalon really spoke to me in a way that no one else had.

      It’s absolutely heartbreaking to lose these things that I once held so precious. And I feel like it would be different had I known about this going in? Like, hey – this author is kind of a piece of shit, so just don’t expect too much. Then I would be having all of these different feelings. I am having a hard time explaining, I think.

      • I had no idea about MZB and all of that horror. The Mists of Avalon is one of my very favourite books, me feeling much like you about it. In fact, you know me as a person who keeps little physical things if I can have them in a digital format because I simply can’t stand clutter, yet that book still sits on my one, small bookshelf. Can I keep it there in good conscious anymore? I don’t think so. That kind of makes me sad, as that book has done so much for me psychologically. It was there for me at my worst time- I could go there and whatever was going here simply disappeared into that mist. Can I ever read the book again? Probably not, because now I tend to associate it with that bad time, and knowing what I know now, just never. I’m glad I never read any other of her books. This article makes me not want to know anything about my favourite authors, actors, film makers…

        • Right, and there’s the rub, as it were.

          Like, just a few moments ago I noticed that one of my reviews for an author I adore is fucking quoted on the publisher’s page for the book which is eleventy billion kinds of amazing, right? But by the same token, the same thing that allows my words to be read by HIS publisher allows me to know these (quite frankly) gross things about these authors I revere. So it’s super difficult to even figure out how I should respond here, or what an appropriate response would even be.

          (thanks for dropping by <3)

  5. I also struggle with this a lot.

    For me, I do better with works where the creator is dead. I can listen to Wagner, even though he was the worst, because the money from my ticket purchase benefits the orchestra playing his music, not Wagner himself.

    I see it as my obligation to send the message that this kind of behavior is not okay, and the only way I can do that is through my money. So if the artist is still alive and could benefit in any way from my money, then NOPE NOPE NOPE.

    And for some, even who have passed, the feeling of betrayal is too great and I can’t bring myself to reread/watch/listen etc to the work anymore.

    But… some works it is really hard for me to let go of.

    I had a similar reaction when I found out about MZB because The Mists of Avalon actually and literally changed my life. Finding out who she really was broke my fucking heart. I’m still struggling with whether I can ever read it again.

    It’s hard, and I guess I think that the most important thing is that we keep talking about it. That we make these decisions thoughtfully. Because. I mean. Fuck. *sigh.

    • Quite honestly, I thought about you when I originally wrote this and when I was revising it, because I knew your relationship with this book.

      I had a similar relationship (and I think a lot of us within this age range did) to it, and it just fucking hurts so much that I cannot hand this book to my daughter in ten years and be all “this. read. this.”

  6. Yeah… I can’t listen to an enjoy old albums by Cosby, or Woody Allen, or even Moxy Fruvous anymore. It makes me question who I’m willing to put above reproach, because each time the accusations started in those cases, I flat-out didn’t believe them at first. I didn’t have the same attachment to MZB but Mist of Avalon was a game-changer for me in terms of how I read Arthurian legends and high fantasy in general. I had a lot of reactions to it and questioned a lot of what I read in the genre from then on. But yeah, learning about the abuse that was condoned and covered up… I doubt I will re-read the book. I guess I have a hard time separating art from artist as well.

  7. Oy, this one is so hard for me. But I think the thing that caught me the most (in addition to that absolutely lovely bit about things making a home in you) was where you talk about how some part of you that *needed* those works was deeply, deeply betrayed, and there was just no reconciling that.

    I’ve written and deleted six versions of this comment, and I still can’t quite get it right. I think what I want to say is something like this: for me, it’s like, well, of course there’s a struggle to disentangle art and artist when shit gets revealed about the artist that calls the art into doubt, because we don’t have a culture of looking at art *in context* in the first place. Ours is a very author-worshipful tradition, one that ascribes a kind of gravitas and importance to the creator that only gets budged when REALLY bad shit emerges, and often not even then. So that betrayal you’re talking about, sj, makes perfect sense, because no one really teaches us how to do anything but genuflect to the genius of the creator until they do something to hurt us.

    For me, the way to combat this is to see the larger context in which a work arises *as part of that work* itself – not separate from it or tangential to it, but actually inscribed upon it in some way. If the work carries its history around with it, for me, something changes. I still won’t financially support artists who I find ethically questionable, but if that’s not at stake, for me, then, the answer to the question of *what the fuck do we do about works where the creators have been revealed as fundamentally and irretrievably dehumanizing* is that I can accept the enormity of the context in which it now lives, and commit to bringing that context with it whenever I touch the work. For example, I will never endorse Huck Finn as a great American classic without bringing in the enormously complex and messy relationship to race that it both carries and represents; for me, Huck Finn as a book is not only the book itself but also the narrative and context that surrounds the book. Huck Finn ALONE I can no longer simply endorse or share. Huck Finn AS CENTER OF A LARGER CONVERSATION, however, is a different story: the book and the story of the book’s existence and the conversations that can be had around the book all form one larger text that is still meaningful to me. To be able to read or encounter a work within its larger context, where you have enough information to make real choices about what you do and don’t want to take away from it, is something I wish we were all taught to do very early on.

    Blargh. I hope that made SOME kind of sense.

Talk to us!

Get Us In Your Inbox

Hot Discussions

%d bloggers like this: