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Can A Work Of Art Ever Be Detached From Its Creator?

by Samuel Marlow. Published 6th November 2013

Most of us have seen the disclaimers at the start of some DVDs to the effect that the distributor is distancing itself from the interviews and commentaries therein. This seems fair enough. If an actor or filmmaker were to say in an interview that he or she felt petrol cars should be banned in favour of electric, it may hurt a studio's product placement deal with BMW for example.

But what about when a creator, be they author, filmmaker, artist, composer, holds opinions that are highly offensive or breaks the law. To what extent is their work then a lightning rod for public opinion?

The issue has been brought to the fore with the recent release of an adaptation of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, and an attempt by some people to organise a boycott of the movie.

Orson Scott CardAuthor Orson Scott Card

The movie, starring Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield and (Sir) Ben Kingsly, is the story of a future where children are being selected to command an attack on the home-world of an alien culture that very nearly destroyed humanity in a war decades earlier. After a desperately busy first act, the action settles down and some interesting themes start to be explored. One of these is the danger of cultural misunderstanding and the potentially tragic repercussions of blind fear and hatred of an other.

It is strange, then, that Card has gone on the record numerous times regarding his opposition to gay marriage and the promotion of "a gay lifestyle" to children. While recognising that Ender's Game in both its original novel and subsequent live-action form do not push Card's alleged homophobic agenda, the people organising the boycott are concerned that Card will use his royalties from the movie to fund his campaign. Whether this is even possible is not certain, as the specifics of Card's contract with the studio are not public knowledge - it may be his fee is not tied to box office (though, in reality, it is likely that it is).

All of which got me thinking, and wondering if a person's views, beliefs and opinions make their work more or less valid.

Ender Wiggin and Bonzo Madrid

It is important to point out that there is nothing wrong with Card's opposition to gay marriage per se, and he has as much right to campaign for what he believes as the next person, but it may be more surprising as science fiction, his chosen genre, normally seems to pride itself on being enlightened and forward thinking. While some commentators have hit upon perceived homoerotic content in the original novel (either diminished or expunged from the movie), pointing out there seems to be only one girl at Battle School, that the students spend a lot of time in a state of undress, and one, now-infamous, "nude shower room wrestling" scene, it may be this was simply an attempt by the author to reflect the laddish locker-room reality that is easy to see at most hyper-macho environments - for the last word in homoerotic, one need look no further than WWE or professional football.

Ignoring the possibility, then, that Card may be overcompensating for his own confused sexual identity, if his views are not expressed in the work, is that work any less valid?

Richard WagnerComposer Richard Wagner

Nineteenth Century German composer Richard Wagner was famously a rabid Antisemite, but there are no shortage of people attending performances of his works (though admittedly he is not still getting royalties). Many other musicians and actors have been convicted of crimes such as drug abuse, domestic violence, and destruction of property only to have their appeal increase with their fans. Many rappers are openly misogynistic and homophobic with their work actually reflecting these views, yet sales of their music remain unaffected.

Are there some sleights that the public will not stand for, then?

A gallery local to me had a grand exhibition of Rolf Harris' latest paintings last year, which the artist himself attended. According the rumour-mill one client recently attempted to return one of the paintings purchased at the event on the grounds it has diminished in value in light of Harris' alleged child-abuse crimes. Ignoring my personal opinion that you should only buy art you are buying to enjoy for what it is, not as an investment, is the quality of Harris' paintings in any way altered by the allegations made against him? Are the brush-strokes he made not the same brush-strokes?

Roman Polanski, convicted in his absence of doping and having sex with a thirteen year old girl, remains a darling of Hollywood with many A-list actors, directors, critics and other commentators suggesting the crime of rape is somehow less serious when it concerns Polanski because his films are so good...

Roman PolanskiRoman Polanski at his trial for rape in 1978

Is it more that there is no rule of thumb but, as with so much, we do not make a considered judgement on the merits of someone's personal life versus their body of work, but will rather make excuses for that person or choose to overlook aspects of them we find distasteful if we approve of their work, and take personal transgressions as extra damning evidence if we do not care for their work?

If that is the case, is it possible that, regardless of what someone says, does, thinks or believes in their private life, we have been dismissing works of genuine art in many fields because we refuse to consider them on the grounds the work is in some way tainted? More worrying, in the case of artists from previous centuries, could it be these artists were simply ahead of their time in their convictions? And if that is possible, is it also possible that some modern artists who we have rejected on the grounds of their beliefs may be proved by history to have been right all along?

Finally, is it also possible that the door swings two ways? That while we are damning work that, in all other respects, is great, we are also overly generous with work by people who may not be competent artists but we approve of in other ways? We have seen, in so-called "reality" shows like X Factor and Britain's Got Talent the importance of having a good "story" - some personal tragedy or tale of woe and adversity that may compensate for a performance that would not otherwise be considered to be of suitable quality.

Perhaps the only solution is to put the creator far from thought and enjoy the work solely on its own merits.

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