Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Biographies and backstories can taint our perception of artistic creations. The more that is known of the life and views of the artist, the more potentially challenging it is to embrace the art. Classic examples include the bigoted composer, the abusive author, the misogynistic painter, the egotistical architect, the politically opinionated actor. Without providing names, these epithets likely bring specific individuals to mind—a fact that itself shows the difficulty of separating the art from the artist. Because human minds and human hands are the imaginative and actualizing forces behind the art, the artist’s personality is, it would seem, inextricably woven into the work.
It hardly needs mention that the foregoing dilemma is specific to controversial creators. The upright artist is outside of this discussion, as is the one we know little about. It is also true that the nature and severity of a negative trait will determine our ability or inability to excuse a less-than-noble artist. Still, the reality remains: as soon as we learn of something incriminating or offensive (universally or personally) about an artist, the experience of his or her art is irreparably influenced.
Although this judgment is natural and perhaps unavoidable, there are three ways in which it is unfair to both artist and audience. First, like any human being, the artist is composed of an assortment of qualities, some good, some bad, some neutral. Artists may differ from “ordinary” people in areas such as talent, training, creativity and vision, but they have flaws and virtues like everyone else. Indeed, the inner complexity of the artist is popularly thought to exceed that of others—a stereotype that should, at the very least, caution us from reducing the artist to his or her blemishes.
Second, artistic expression is an indicator of higher attributes. That things of beauty can emerge from someone possessing a despicable quirk is proof of an internal coexistence of dark and light. It should not be forgotten that Beethoven, whose compositions are among the outstanding achievements of Western culture, practiced his craft in a pigsty apartment, replete with piles of garbage, un-emptied chamber pots, and a stew of foul odors. These physical conditions were an extension of Beethoven’s psychological condition; but just as his music transcended the filth in which it was written, so did it rise above the smudge in his mind.
Third, a work of art is but a stage in a larger process. The creative offering—whether a piece of music or a building—is made to be perceived. Art is not fully formed unless and until it enters the consciousness of someone other than the artist. It has no absolute identity apart from the perceiver’s interaction with it. Reception is, in a sense, the completion of creation. Our own personalities—our characteristics, inclinations and experiences—actively shape what we perceive, thereby nullifying (or mitigating) whatever trace of the creator’s persona is present in the work.
The key is to preserve our initial response to art, which occurs on a pre-rational and pre-interpretational level. It is only when the analytical mind kicks in that gut reactions are obscured by thoughts of the artist and other reflections. To avoid such second-level impediments, it is helpful to remember that art is not artist.
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