Does knowledge of the artist affect the perception of the art?
Have you ever watched the superbly crafted horror film “Rosemary’s Baby”? Does your enjoyment of the movie change when you learn that the director, Roman Polanski, was arrested for and plead guilty to statutory rape? Have you ever run on the treadmill while listening to Chris Brown’s “Run It”? Do you stop listening to his songs when you discover that he hit his girlfriend?
Like art itself the consideration is subjective and depends on the individual. Many find Brown’s actions abhorrent but don’t hit delete on the playlist while others will turn the radio off when his song is played. Many have watched “The Pianist” and never felt that the emotional beauty of the story was tainted by Polanski’s personal actions.
I am often unfamiliar with the singer of songs or the directors of films. If I like what I hear, I listen. If I like what I see, I watch. And in regard to literature, I usually choose to not look at the author photo or read the author bio. It’s not a rude disregard of the author but rather my desire to allow the work to maintain a life of its own. The characters can truly be alive in my mind when the reality of the person who created them is eliminated.
But can we separate the art from the artist? Moreover, should we?
Film, music, novels, and paintings—these are man-made creations, works of art shaped and formed by a person. And as we are all too well aware, people have foibles, flaws and problems. But do their imperfections, failings, and mistakes actually aid in the creation of their work? And conversely does the art help us to better understand them and their transgressions?
Dylan Thomas, Tennessee Williams, O. Henry—alcoholics. And those suffering from mental illness included Patricia Cornwell, Jack Kerouac and Edgar Allan Poe. These are just a few of the writers, who suffered disease, affliction, had failings and flaws and who also created brilliant, thought-provoking and remarkable pieces of work.
Graham Greene, author, playwright, and literary critic suffered from bipolar disorder. The disease had a profound effect on his writing, which he understood as is evidenced in a letter he wrote to his wife Vivien, telling her that “unfortunately, the disease is also one’s material”. Another example is the painter Vincent Van Gogh who also suffered from mental illness. In fact, there are many who believe that the swirling lines of the sky in Van Gogh’s The Starry Night are a possible representation of his mental state. And much of this same shaken style is visible in all of his work during his time in an asylum.
Michael Jackson, an undeniable talent and a force in the music industry for four decades, was scrutinized when he was accused of child molestation. For some, the allegations cast a shadow over his music as many vilified him.
Jackson wrote a song entitled, “The Man in the Mirror”. The lyrics tell the story of how change starts with the individual. One must start with oneself to make a difference. It seems he somewhat understood the importance of one’s actions and the ramification of those actions.
And as the watchers of film, the readers of books, the listeners of songs, we have to ask—does the man in the mirror matter?
Perhaps it depends on your ability and willingness to separate or your ability and willingness to accept because the reflection of a man will reflect in his work. And our knowledge of that will shape our perception. However, whether what we discover makes us understand the use of colors better or makes us turn off the radio is our choice.
Causes Sherry Parnell Supports
St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Habitat for Humanity, Heifer International