Ask a Book Critic: Should We Separate the Art from the Artist?

One of the most common answers to this question, one that has been repeated so often it has come to be seen as though it’s an ontologically self-evident truth: “You must separate the art from the artist.” This argument says that this is the best way to approach all art, no matter what you are trying to get from it. And to fail to do so is both childish and gauche, because only philistines think it necessary to reconcile their feelings about a piece of art with their feelings about the people who created it.
But the idea of separating the art from the artist is not a self-evident truth. It’s an academic idea which was extremely popular as a tool for analyzing poetry at the beginning of the 20th century, and has since evolved in several different directions. It’s one possible way of thinking about art, but it’s certainly not the only, or even the most interesting, way to do so. And, honestly, separation can only ever really be achieved in ignorance, whether genuine or feigned.
Most respectable critics working today agree that it’s not particularly useful to strictly ignore an artist’s biography when assessing their work. In the 1990s, postmodernism fell to the New Historicists, who argued that all works of art were embedded in the time and place they were created in, and that to thoroughly understand them, we had to understand their social contexts. And so many critics tend to acknowledge the ideas of New Historicism and the ideas of postmodernism simultaneously. Most of the people I speak to, some of which are in fact critics, have said they try to draw from both theories in their work, and that they don’t think it is necessary to draw a strict dividing line between art and artist.
I do think that if you want to understand what work literature does in the world, starting with its historical moment is an important step. But I also am fully committed to the idea that every generation of readers remakes an artworks significance for themselves. When you try to separate works of art from history, whether that’s the moment of creation or the moment of reception, you’re impoverishing the artwork itself to say that they don’t have any relation.
Yet, for postmodernists the artist isn’t just separate from the art itself, the artist is in fact dead. Which is a sentiment Roland Barthes declared in 1967. The author doesn’t create a text, Barthes argued. The reader does, just by reading. Every time readers encounter a text, they remake it anew — and in a way the author has no control over — which means the text has no stable, definitive, final interpretation. Barthes’s position is that “there is no specific meaning, there is no truth, there’s nothing to understand. The role of the reader and the role of the text are as co-creators of meaning.”
New Republic culture critic Josephine Livingstone took this same approach in making a Barthesian argument for a feminist reading of Woody Allen’s films: “I consider Woody Allen and Roman Polanski’s movies gifts, to me and to the culture — even when they’re bad — and I’m never giving them back,” she said. “I don’t want Allen and Polanski to have control over their own legacies or even over their own works. If they don’t get to dictate how I interpret their films, then they don’t get to control anything about the film industry. We, the viewers, do.”
For Livingstone, there’s a straight line between the way we tend to think about Allen and Polanski — as auteurs whose thoughts about how their work should be interpreted shouldn’t be discounted — and the enormous power that allowed them to (allegedly in Allen’s case, and admittedly in Polanski’s) prey on young women with impunity. Every time we care about the author’s intentions and psychology, this argument goes, we’re remaking what Barthes called the “Author-God.” We’re giving the author both interpretive power (over how we think about their work) and institutional power (over how they get to treat people without consequences).
At the heart of this question, however, the dilemma is always the same: How do I reconcile aesthetic pleasure with moral disgust? Which of my feelings will win? What do I do with art I love that was created by a monster?
For me, this question has always presented a false dichotomy because this question presupposes we should want our artists to be virtuous, and that we should expect morality and ethical behavior from artists. I don’t understand why we expect this or why we should expect this. Whatever you think about David Foster Wallace, for example (who stalked and abused Mary Karr), it is certainly the case that he is a cultural touchstone. His work was important at a particular moment. As such, this justifies spending time studying him, in critical and challenging ways with a critical eye.
Because the issue here is not just: “Is this artist monstrous?” but is this work of art asking me as a reader to be complicit with the artist’s monstrosity? This is a far more interesting question and is really the question most people mean to ask. Especially since there is one very basic and concrete thing that connects most living artists to their work: money. Which means plenty of people will choose not to engage with a predator or alleged predator’s art on the grounds that they don’t want the artist to benefit from their consumption of the artist’s work. This is an activist perspective which has nothing to do with the work of art itself. It’s a purely moral decision made about the artist themselves: You have no wish to make them more famous or more wealthy and promote their platform in the world.
Fair enough. Audience anger, and the suggestion that accusation destroys someone’s career, seems to be a simple example of transference. What is tainted is an audience’s ability to engage with the work. It makes the process of navigating the consumption of art or content produced by such a person more difficult, more complex. It makes the audience complicit, and audiences resent being made to feel complicit when all they have done is continue to enjoy something. The audience may be the largest group involved in any such negotiation around an accused or convicted creator, but it is also by far the least important.
Nevertheless, one of the best things about being a writer, as opposed to, say, a philosopher or a theorist, is that when I am faced with a tough question, such as the one under consideration, I don’t have to choose a single answer. I follow the prophet Walt Whitman: I contain multitudes, and I contradict myself whenever I choose to. And we can argue about the responsibilities that critics hold toward the art they cover, and what criticism is for, and how critics should choose to focus their attention. But for the average person, consuming art with no professional obligation but simply because they love it and it gives them pleasure — there’s no way for me to say how they should approach art, or what they are allowed to love and how. What I can do is explain how I’m continually thinking through these ideas myself. This, admittedly, is not a philosophical or ethical decision on my part; it’s merely an emotional one.


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