But does that mean I should also prevent my son from reading "To Build a Fire", a story that doesn't include the slightest whiff of London's racial views? That's a tough question, and one I've been thinking about a lot in light of Mel Gibson's recent meltdown. As I listened to those tapes of Mad Max going genuinely mad, one of my first thoughts was, "How might this affect the love I have for Apocalypto?" In other words, how does one deal with finding out that one of your most beloved artworks was created by a man or woman whose personal behavior is (or was) odious?
The A.V. Club tackled this topic yesterday, at least in part. Much of the essay focuses on the issue of how artistic intent should factor into one's enjoyment of the finished product. But the writer, Tasha Robinson, also delves into the question of whether or not we should let an artist's gross personal failings affect the way we process their creative output:
I acknowledge that there are some excellent reasons to be aware of an
artist's opinions or real life when approaching their work. Hypocrisy is
a big one—it's hard to take Mel Gibson's avowed, public devotion to
religion (and his mega-successful religious film The Passion Of The Christ)
seriously given his apparent private behavior. And I can similarly
understand people not wanting to financially support work by a creator
they consider reprehensible; I have no argument with people who refuse
to see new Polanski movies because they don't want to support the
luxurious lifestyle of a rich fugitive from justice. Boycotting an
artist due to personal reservations may mean you miss out on some great
art, but if it keeps your conscience intact, it's a valid personal
choice. And on top of all that, some people may just want to avoid work
where they know the creator had a purpose and a message in mind and is
actively going to try to sway people with it, as with Lewis' Narnia
books, or John Travolta delivering Battlefield Earth as a testament to his own Scientology. (Yes, there are many other reasons to avoid that film. Don't get distracted here.)
The essay ends with a good point: Art is (theoretically) eternal, but artists all wind up in the grave sooner or later. As a result, we should probably realize that there's an important distinction between the two, and that art ultimately exists independently of the human mind that gave it to the world. Extending that logic a bit more, you could even say that art is akin to an artist's child, and so we shouldn't blame the progeny for the sins of the parent.
But if you don't buy that reasoning, what's the rule of thumb for determining when an artist's reprehensible personal behavior is permitted to interfere with your admiration for their work? For starters, let's face it, many great artists are or have been incredible jerks—though certain sins (such as spreading racial hatred) are obviously less forgivable than others (treating subordinates like dirt comes to mind). And do we give certain artists a free pass because they couldn't help being products of their age? I have no doubt that John Milton didn't exactly believe in the whole brotherhood-of-man thing, at least in the modern sense, but should I really let that color my perception of Paradise Lost?