Separating the Art from the Artist

So yesterday I came across this post. For those of you who don’t want to click over, allow me to summarize: a publishing company agreed to publish a book. The book’s about ready to be published–all that’s left is to finalize little things like the authors’ bios. One of the authors mentions that he lives with his wife and children. The other’s bio includes a tidbit about how he lives with his boyfriend. He changes that to “partner” when the publisher has a hissy fit, but that doesn’t appease the publisher. They want all mention of a partner or boyfriend left out of the bio. The author refuses.

The publisher cancels the novel.

Why? Because the publisher is Cedar Fort, a Utah press that sells primarily to Mormons–and they’re freaked out about alienating Deseret Book, a church-run bookstore in Utah that’s a prime place for books to be sold.

Um . . .

Yeah. How is this not grounds for a huge lawsuit? How is it possible that a publisher does something like this? The book wasn’t promoting homosexuality. It’s a YA fantasy, for crying out loud. One of the authors is gay. So what? To withdraw from a business agreement because the author wanted to mention that he lived with his partner? That boggles my mind.

Of course, the sad truth is that there is no doubt a not-insignificant number of people for whom seeing “lives with his partner” in a bio *would* be a deal breaker. And that’s just wrong to me.

But let’s talk about the flip side of this argument. Orson Scott Card. Here you have a Mormon saying some very hurtful things about gays, and you have a not insignificant number of people who want to boycott Ender’s Game because of it. Never mind that the movie is done through Hollywood. That the book has nothing to do with being anti-gay. That hundreds of people worked on the thing who no doubt have nothing against gay people at all, some of whom have publicly said so.

The Ender’s Game example doesn’t come close to approximating the problems at issue with the first example, but I do see them as sides of an idea I’ve been rolling around in my head for quite some time, and that is:

Should you separate the art from the artist? Can you?

I know of plenty of people who seem unable to do so. They hear about what an actor or an author has done outside of his acting or his writing, and they decide they’re never going to see another movie or read another book from that person.

I don’t do this. Why not? For many reasons. First of all, if I avoided the art of every person who has done something I disagree with or which I find morally reprehensible, then there’s not a whole lot of art I’d be allowing myself to see. Actually, likely no art at all. We’ve all done things we’re not proud of. Or things we *are* proud of, but shouldn’t be. Artists are mortal and full of flaws. That’s part of what makes them able to make great art.

What about outspoken gay-rights actors? Or anti-gay authors? Or artists who cheat on their wives? Or–or–or–

Or how about this. How about the idea that my personal views on morality and right and wrong might be different than what other people believe? Should I hold other people to my same standards? I think drinking coffee is a sin. Does this mean I should stop talking and associating with all coffee drinkers?

Of course not.

My standards aren’t your standards. I don’t get to decide what your standards are. As long as its legal, who am I to throw stones? (And speaking of legal, is breaking a contract because of sexual orientation really legal?)

Here’s an excellent article in the New York Times that goes over all the awful things famous artists have done.

For me, art is art, and people are people. I can’t go around doing a Wikipedia search before I read or watch anything, to make sure that the creators did or did not live a certain lifestyle. Nor would I want to. The art should stand on its own. If Ender’s Game is an awful movie, let it fail on its own shortcomings. If Woven was a great book, it should have had the chance to get out in front of the public and fly–regardless of partners or boyfriends or whatever.

Ah well. For now I’m just disappointed in Cedar Fort for what they did, and sad that it’s going to reinforce the stereotype that all Mormons are anti-gay. My hope is that a different publishing company picks up their book and uses this free publicity to launch it to even greater success than it would have had at Cedar Fort, but publishing is a fickle beast, and you never know what it might bring next.

What are your thoughts on the connection between artists and their art? Does it make a difference to you? Why or why not?

13 thoughts on “Separating the Art from the Artist”

  1. An interesting and thoughtful article. But I think it’s a bit off the mark. This publisher didn’t refuse to publish this book because the author was gay, which seems to be the majority opinion being discussed all over the internet. They knew this author was gay and were perfectly willing to publish and promote his book. Their sticking point appears to have been that they were unwilling to promote the homosexual lifestyle an any way, especially in a YA book. When they related this to the author, he is the one who had a hissy fit. Rather than allow his work to be published without any mention of his sexuality, he chose to have it canceled.

    In short, the publisher was entirely willing to separate the author from his art. The author, however, was not.

    1. Interesting take, but that’s not quite how I see it. The author was describing who he was. He was providing a simple bio. Does he live with his partner? Yes he does. Was the other author promoting the heterosexual lifestyle by mentioning he lived with his wife? I don’t think so. The author in question is gay. His bio didn’t say “I’m gay, and you should be too!” It was a simple accurate statement. I’d be objecting just as loudly if the author had wanted to put he was Mormon or a Scientologist or ____________, and the publisher balked. Being gay does not “promote the homosexual lifestyle.” Publishing a book by a gay person doesn’t, either.

  2. Unfortunately under Utah law, this isn’t illegal. There was a bill a couple years ago called the Common Ground Initiative which would have made it illegal to discriminate in Utah based on sexual orientation in a number of spheres, like employment and housing. It said nothing about marriage. The writers of the bill pulled all their initiatives from a statement by the church which listed specific ways in which the church is not opposed to furthering gay rights.

    And it got struck down. I personally wrote my congresspeople before that happened, encouraging them to support it, and got an email back saying that if we give “those people” an inch, they’ll take a mile. We can’t treat them like human beings, essentially, because we’re too afraid of them.

    I was very upset about this whole thing. But what it boils down to is that without legal protections or federal rulings, this kind of stuff can happen all the time here, and probably does.

    1. Beyond disappointing. Come on, Utah! You should be leading on this whole “treating people with dignity” thing . . .

      Thanks for sharing, Janci.

  3. No kidding. I mean, I still think this could go to court and win, because keeping anti-discrimination laws off the books doesn’t actually make discrimination *legal*, but it does make things murkier.

  4. There is a prominent author who has written a book whose main premise is that because two mentally ill men, who happened to be Mormon, committed some gruesome murders, that therefore ALL Mormons are potential horrible murderers. The idea was that because these mentally ill men – diagnosed, clearly ill – said that God had told them to kill these people, and that because Mormons believe in personal revelation therefore all Mormons are dangerous potential killers, and that Moronism should be feared and stopped because all Mormons are just a step from horrible murderers. This book made me incredibly angry because the reasoning is horribly bigoted, one-sided, sensational, and not at all seated in logic or objective facts. There are some other books that this man has written that I have seriously considered buying, but when I found out that it was this same author I decided I did not want to support such a person, even though these books most likely did not contain any anti-Mormon material.

    So, is that the same as what you are talking about? I don’t think it is exactly the same. This man didn’t just show himself to be disagreeing with me personally, he also showed (I felt) some pretty bad thinking errors and a propensity to twist facts to make his books more sensational. Since he writes mostly nonfiction I felt justified in not trusting him to present an accurate depiction of the story he was telling. And, I have later found that to be at least partially true in some criticism of his other works.

    I don’t think it is as clear cut as either you agree with the author or you don’t agree with the author, but do you trust the author to present what you are looking for in a book. I think it is okay to not buy more books if an author has betrayed your trust. That said, I read and love books all the time by people who disagree with me. My favorite fiction author is an outspoken atheist who has some pretty not nice thing to say in his books about religion, but I still love reading him because I trust him to write the kind of story I am looking for when I buy his book, and I think he has some pretty wonderful things to say about human nature and life in general. I think if automatically rejected every piece of media that involved someone who disagreed with me, I would miss out on A LOT of stuff that I love. But, I do think creators can go too far and I don’t see anything wrong with discontinuing following a group or an author that has shown that they’re not making the kind of stuff you want to see.

    1. Not buying more books by an author because you didn’t like the previous books by the author–there’s nothing wrong with that at all. There are plenty of authors and artists out there that I avoid because of past experiences with their works. There are only so many movies I can watch and books I can read, after all. In the case of your book in question, if you feel like the author did shoddy research or presented the Mormon faith in an unfair light in one book, I don’t think it’s a stretch to avoid the author because you think he’ll do it to another point of view in a different book.

  5. I think it’s also worth considering, in this context, the idea that art doesn’t happen until it is experienced–that is, I can write a kick-butt book, but if nobody reads it, then it, as an artistic object, is incomplete. In that sense, the observer of the art is just as important as the creator. And in THAT sense, all art belongs equally to everyone. I might be offended at Card’s opinions, but the door swings both ways–for all I know, HE might be offended that I, as a gay dude, have read his work and made that experience my own. Is he weirded out by my gay cooties? Is he weirded out that thousands and thousands of gay people have gotten their gay cooties all over his canon by talking about his work with their other gay-cootie-infested friends? Does he know that Ender’s Game often speaks to people who feel conspicuously different, as is often the case with gay people, and in that sense, uplifts and reaffirms who we are, which I am quite sure (based on his other writings) is not his intent? The point is: you can’t control which people consume your art or what they get out of it. You could be a monster and write something most people consider ghastly, but someone, somewhere could find it beautiful, no matter what you were trying to do. So it’s not just a question of whether the consumer should separate the artist from the art–there’s the unchangeable fact that the artist themselves cannot, ever, completely control how and what the art says, nor to whom it speaks. So I have just as big a right to experience art as anyone else, and I’m not going to let a creator’s attitude bully me into thinking that there’s art I’m not “supposed” to enjoy. Don’t like the fact that I’m gay? Tough. I’m reading you, in that act I’m touching my life to yours, and I’m not going away.

    1. I think that’s an excellent point, KJ–thanks for making it! (Bonus points for being able to use the term “gay cooties” three times, too.) 🙂

  6. People are people, and diversity of opinion and lifestyle is wonderful. I sometimes seek out things I disagree with to stretch my own thinking and try and understand others. However, messages of hate are a different story, and I try to avoid financially or socially supporting people who proclaim hate for anyone.

  7. I’ve been having much the same conversation with a different friend on Facebook, Nissa. I can see the argument, but I usually don’t end up voting with my dollar other than “I liked this book” or “I didn’t like this book.” There are too many viewpoints out there for me to worry about what I’m supporting or not supporting when I buy a book or watch a movie. I’m solely interested in “Will I be entertained?” That said, if I discovered an author was using his or her profits to do a bunch of evil in the world, I’d stop bankrolling the evil.

    Then again, proclaiming hatred for anyone is something I personally think authors and artists shouldn’t be doing at ail. It was awful when TS Eliot did it back in the day, and it’s awful now. Eliot was an anti-semite, and it’s reprehensible, but I still love me some Prufrock.

    As my friend said, “It probably depends on the quality of the art and the degree of the idiocy.”

  8. “I think drinking coffee is a sin. Does this mean I should stop talking and associating with all coffee drinkers? Of course not.”

    Most people would take this stance, but what if that hypothetical person was lobbying for the illegalization of Mormonism, citing their history in polygamy as proof for their express intent to destroy civil society, or Joseph Smith’s ties to the occult as evidence of anti-social intent. Perhaps they even concoct such gems as the habit of bishops to molest primary children. Perhaps this person is on the board of a political organization with the illegalization of Mormonism as their primary goal. This guy is so successful, his organization actually has started to change public opinion against Mormonism in some places and enact some anti-Mormon laws. You may still maintain close ties with such a person (I don’t know you at all), but many LDS people would be greatly offended by such actions and would, at minimum, keep such a person at arm’s reach.

    Now, this hypothetical fellow is also an author of non-related fiction as well. Would you suggest that Mormons who discover this and refuse to buy this guy’s books are being overly sensitive? Would you tell them that the author is full of flaws and “That’s part of what makes [him] able to make great art”? After all, there isn’t anything “anti-Mormon” in his books. Perhaps you would.

    Orson Scott Card is on the board of the National Organization for Marriage. You are probably aware of this, but if you aren’t please read up on it. Also, read some of his public writing on the subject of homosexuality. You don’t have to come to the same conclusions as the boycotters, of course, but painting them as over-sensitive types who simply can’t abide someone, somewhere disagreeing with them is a very broad brush. For them, Orson Scott Card isn’t someone who disagrees, or even a symbol of a “type”, but is literally someone spending forth time, money, and effort for their legal eradication. I would, at least, suggest expressing some understanding why gay people may decide to not read the guy’s book.

  9. As I mentioned in a reply a few posts up, one of my friends and I were discussing Scott Card’s actions in a bit more detail. I’m aware of what he’s said and done against gay marriage, and I can certainly understand why people don’t want to read his books or at least buy his books and thereby send money his way. Boycotting the movie based on his book seems extreme to me, but I don’t mean to imply I don’t understand why people would do it.

    This post isn’t intended to be about Scott Card. It’s about whether art and artists can be separated. Card is a good example of this because he’s so outspoken and it’s a hot button topic, but the same principle applies to less extreme measures.

    Plenty of people espouse anti-Mormon sentiment. I’m kind of used to it and take it as par for the course. If an actor I like/know/watch says something anti-Mormon-ish, I accept it and move on. If they’re outspoken about it, it is what it is. I personally don’t see the point in depriving myself of an enjoyable movie or book or whatever just because the person who made it is an utter tool. Then again, as my friend said, it boils down to the value of the art and the degree of idiocy displayed.

    Mark Twain didn’t care for Mormons at all. Neither did Conan Doyle. Do I seek out what they said or thought about Mormons before I decide to read their books or not? No. When I find out they didn’t like Mormons, does it upset me? Not really. Plenty of people dislike Mormons. If they’d lived in Missouri and killed Mormons and tried to actively exterminate them? That’s an interesting hypothetical. I believe I’d still read their books and just get over it, but that’s also with the benefit of 150 or more years of space between the action and me reading the art. If someone was actively espousing killing Mormons today? Or killing anyone? That’s a different kettle of fish.

    I’d imagine everyone has a line somewhere where someone does something reprehensible enough that they no longer want to have anything to do with that person. Scott Card crossed well over that line for many people. I don’t mean to say they’re being too touchy. Then again, he wrote some of the dialogue in Secret of Monkey Island, the video game. Should that be boycotted? What if he gave a cover blurb to another author?

    But I don’t want to get bogged down with Card in specifics. The post is intended more to be a self-reflexive look at the line that’s there, and where it resides for each person. For me, if I tell someone I thought Ender’s Game was an incredible book (and I do), and they respond that they hated it because they dislike Card, that’s not really a valid argument for me. The book should be evaluated on its own, separate from the actions of the author.

    But that’s just my take on it.

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