Thursday, November 21, 2019

Good Art, Problematic Creators

Cory Doctorow's latest LOCUS column discusses the renaming of the John W. Campbell Award. We might also mention (although Doctorow doesn't) other similar controversies recently arising in the SF/fantasy world, such as the renaming of the Tiptree Award and the retiring of the H. P. Lovecraft bust as a trophy for the World Fantasy Award.

Campbell Was a Fascist

A panel at a recent Chessicon (which I participated in) addressed the quandary of how to deal with the works of an author whose personal life and/or beliefs violate our contemporary norms. Do the creator's flaws as a human being negate the value of his or her art? One all-too-recent example outside the realm of literature whom we discussed was Bill Cosby. If not aware of his real-life transgressions, wouldn't we still consider his comedy and TV programs worthwhile? And what about the other actors, innocent of wrongdoing, who suffer when reruns of those programs are made unavailable? Similarly, when a certain deceased editor is credibly accused of immoral conduct, would it make sense to boycott volumes edited by that person when the editor isn't alive to suffer, but innocent authors whose stories appear in those volumes are?

I recently heard a podcast reacting against (as I understood the part I heard) a movement to demote Paul Gauguin from the artistic canon because, as shown by his behavior in Tahiti, he was a pedophile and a racist. Should we deal with problematic authors, artists, filmmakers, actors, etc., differently depending on whether they're alive or dead, and if the latter, how long ago? It's understandable that a reader (viewer, etc.) may not want to give his or her money to living creators guilty of reprehensible behavior or known to hold beliefs the reader considers repellent. In cases of long-dead authors and artists, they're unable to either benefit or suffer from audience response to their works. What about recently deceased objectionable creators? Some audience members may object to giving money to such people's estates, but why? More often than not, the heirs are probably innocent of the dead person's offenses.

Concerning creators who lived so long ago that nobody now alive can be harmed or benefited by our treatment of their works, I see no problem with separating the art from the artist. The former can be great even if the latter was a terrible person. Of course, any individual or group has the right to boycott an artist's work as a form of principled protest. Moreover, the issue of actively honoring a problematic creator by naming an award after him or her is a different, more complicated question. In general, however, it seems to me that if we rejected the work of all artists who were flawed or immoral, we wouldn't have much of a canon left.

Doctorow puts it this way:

"Life is not a ledger. Your sins can’t be paid off through good deeds. Your good deeds are not cancelled by your sins. Your sins and your good deeds live alongside one another. They coexist in superposition."

Likewise, the sins of creators who are or were deplorable human beings coexist alongside their accomplishments as artists. Neither cancels out the other.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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