Separation of the Art from the Artist

Anne C. Miles > Writing > Separation of the Art from the Artist

I love The Princess Bride. It’s probably my favorite movie. It was magical and beautiful and wondrous and nearly perfect. I love Inigo Montoya. I love Vizzini. I love Andre the Giant’s character. I love Buttercup and Westley. We quote the movie constantly around our house.

Rob Reiner directed the film and I will forever be grateful to him for it.

I’m not a big Rob Reiner fan though, as a person. I disagree with him on many points. I don’t dislike the guy. I don’t know him. I just disagree with him. Knowing how much I disagree with him, I likely wouldn’t enjoy having dinner with him. I wouldn’t pass on the opportunity though, if it arose.

The bad thing about social media is that we get to see all of the opinions and thoughts and political and religious views of all of our favorite artists. I’m a Fantasy buff (obviously). I recently found out that David Eddings, one of my hands-down favorite writers, was involved (with his wife, Leigh) in a child abuse scandal shortly before he made it big as an author. It broke my heart to discover this.

I love his books. The man wasn’t of high moral character at that point in his life. Obviously. But did Eddings change?

It made me wonder. Did he learn from his mistake? Did he regret it? Did he repent? How can bad people make good art? As a rule of thumb, bad people make really bad art. It repels or revolts me. But here are two examples I can think of, of people who I am tempted to despise personally who made really good art.

What does “Judge not, that you be not judged” really mean?

CS Lewis said that loving your neighbor as you love yourself meant that you needed to examine how you loved yourself. And apply that attitude to your neighbor. If I look at myself, at my own life, I have been FAR FROM perfect. No, I never abused a child. But I have in other ways failed, epically. I forgave myself. I have been forgiven. I have received healing. I hope I’ve become better. I’m still growing.

But is that the criteria for forgiveness? That someone becomes better? Recognizes their mistake, changes? Must a person repent before we can accept them? What about their artwork?

Is that how God works? Is that even how we treat ourselves?

The Bible says “it is the kindness of God that leads us to repentance.”

So if His kindness actually leads us to repentance, it stands to reason, He withholds judgement. Withholds anger. If I want to love like He does, I need to practice forbearance as well.

Discernment is the idea of knowing right from wrong. Judgement is the application of a punishment. When you seek to deliver umbrage upon another person, that is judgement.

It isn’t that I don’t recognize an action as good or evil. I do. But I don’t get to play judge, jury and executioner over that person. We say “hate the sin and love the sinner.” As Lewis said, I think the only person we really do that for, is …ourselves. By studying how we forgive ourselves we can learn to do it for others.

And what of the art?

People are made in the image of God. We reflect his glory. That is true whether someone is a believer or a raging atheist. We have all been given gifts. We all have that thing or things in our lives where we manifest the glory of God. That’s why you see that guy at work who just kills it, he is amazing at his job. But his personal life is crapola. He’s a sucky husband or whatever. It’s God who is the author of all good. So when you see that guy, succeeding in the career portion of his life, he is manifesting grace and the glory of God whether he knows it or not. Whether he admits it or not.

This includes art. Some people are gifted by God in art. The person who created the art might be a total jerkface. But the art, if it is good, is a manifestation of the glory of God. This system can keep us humble too. If we could claim any real ownership of the work, if we could say “I did that, without help,” then we would be rightly full of pride. If we say instead, “God’s grace worked through me to create that beautiful thing,” we are much closer to the truth.

All right. So then how can I separate the art from the artist? By understanding that all art flows from the hand of my Creator through broken vessels. If I refuse to read The Belgariad and dismiss it as trash because the man who wrote it was a monster (if he was, I don’t know. I have only a newspaper report of the incident.) then I’m judging. I’m enacting a verdict on the guy. Not even on the guy, but on the art.

When I really don’t believe that at all. The Belgariad from all I remember of it, was a great series. I don’t know Edding’s heart, but I’m inclined from reading his books to believe he repented. I don’t believe he really was a monster. But maybe he was. His work though, by the grace of God, was good.

Now, Marion Zimmer Bradley was an unrepentant rapist and pedophile. Should I read her books? Do they have value?

Most of MZB’s work repelled me even as a child. I didn’t know what she was, but her books were filled with Nasty. I couldn’t name what it was I didn’t like at the time, I was too young. But I read The House Between the Worlds when I was young and remember really hating her elves. Loathing. I loved the idea of crossing over to another world from a hobby shop though, that idea stuck with me.

I could never read any of her other work. I found out much later what the woman was, from her daughter. It did not surprise me. But does her work have value? To many people it does. I don’t believe her work is good. So I won’t read it.

I think we write what is in our hearts. I think our artwork reflects our inner man. I don’t think a truly vile person can make really good art. I think to do so, we must be growing in grace. But I do think it is important to separate the art from the artist. I think Tolkien’s idea of subcreation matters.

From Tolkien Gateway:

‘Sub-creation’ was used to describe the creative efforts of the AinurElvesDwarves, and the race of Men (including Hobbits), all of whom are themselves creations by Eru Ilúvatar or in the case of the Dwarves, by the Vala Aulë and given life by Eru. It is called ‘sub-creation’ because original creation is the province of Eru alone, and that which is made by those created by Eru is derivative from the works of the One.

A notable example of sub-creation and its limitations is Morgoth‘s efforts to produce the races of Orcs and Trolls. Unable to duplicate true creation, Morgoth instead corrupted or emulated beings already in existence. Orcs were produced from corrupted Elves, while Trolls were said to have been made in mockery of the Ents using the element of stone. Morgoth was not able to simply bring new beings into existence but had to use resources that already existed in Arda.

Not to take his idea too far… but my idea of how art works is… God works through us to manifest His glory in varying degrees. Glory means “an accurate estimate or opinion of.” Jack Sparrow and Dr Who. Kid Rock and yes, Tolkien. If the work has goodness and truth in it, it flowed from God. Subcreation. The more it reflects God truly, the higher the impact and more important the work. When it doesn’t flow from God, when it reflects the glory of the man, well. The work has value as well because man is created in the image of God. But it depends upon the soul of the man in question. It’s much less impactful and less important than work done through and in the glory of God.

In some cases, the work is an orc, a troll, or The Mists of Avalon.

My husband and I watched The Good Place recently. It was funny, buying a tomato became an ethical choice. Was the tomato organic? Was it farmed by slave child labor? We have so many complicated choices in front of us. The show really underscored the idea. Doing something innocuous might be really evil if you look at it a certain way. It will make you crazy to consider all the implications of every choice you make.

I have to please God. To do what HE wants me to do. Seeking the Lord’s will and crying out to Him for wisdom to know the right thing to do, that’s where I’ve landed.

All art is a Rorschach test. Maybe it isn’t the artist we need to be concerned with. Maybe focusing on our own response to the work put forward, to see what God is trying to say through it to us is what matters. God after all, used a donkey to speak to Balaam. The important thing is the message. Thoreau said this:

It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.

Henry David Thoreau

And for those artists whose work does touch us deeply, a prayer for them would be a good thing. We’re all flawed. All of us. Prayer is probably the place to start. Not judgment.

Anyhow. That’s where I’m at on separating art from the artist.

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