Artists have a unique position in our society. They are the dreamers, the visionaries, the gifted. The service they provide has no true rate of pay. Art touches the heart, opens the mind, and nourishes the soul. There is no set path, no rule book. There are artists who are rich and famous. There are artists who are “starving.” There are artists who care nothing for commercial success, and create art for “art’s sake.” The idea of success is largely defined by the artist’s concept of what that means, by the community at large, and by future generations. Art is an ever growing, changing, and evolving journey.
But some artists are also narcissistic, egotistic, selfish, myopic, amoralistic, and even dangerous people. Recently, a fellow editor and writer posed an interesting question. She said that she had accepted work blind, but when the names were revealed, she recognized the name of a man who had been openly accused by several different women in a specific writing community for attacking and abusing them. The work was good. The work had been accepted. But the person … she wondered if she should rescind the acceptance. She was searching the line where the person and the art meet.
It is a shaky territory – the idea of artist privilege, the separation between the art and the person, the self-perception of some artists, and the allowances we sometimes make for people because they are artists.
Sometimes our society raises the art above the person, and the person becomes infallible; they can do no wrong. Other times, a person is openly condemned because of their behavior and actions. Nothing will save the person, not even their art, and society will condemn them by withdrawing their artistic support. Some artists feel a sense of privilege themselves. They feel that their status as an artist elevates them above other people; they are not subject to the same laws and mores as the rest of the society. People with a sense of artistic privilege rely on people to still accept them artistically when they engage negative/hurtful/dangerous actions and behaviors in their personal life.
Many people do not disassociate the person from the art. If the person is considered to be a great artist, many people naturally think that he or she must be a great person.
When it was revealed that the popular sci-fi/fantasy author Marion Zimmer Bradley knew that her husband was abusing their daughter and other children, and was complicit in allowing it, people reacted very strongly. The author was not alive when these facts came to public knowledge, but that did not stop the backlash or the consequences. Apparently, there were people who knew what was going on in Bradley’s personal life, but they did not speak out and the knowledge was ignored/suppressed because she was such a popular author. When this was revealed, many people swiftly withdrew their artistic support. They do not want to celebrate her. They do not want to read her books. They do not want to share her books with their children, or with future generations of readers. Jim C. Hines discusses some of these ideas in his essay “Rape, Abuse, and Marion Zimmer Bradley.” He provides a list of relevant links for a balanced view, then says:
“There’s more out there, including people defending MZB, as well as people insisting we must “separate the art from the artist” and not let MZB’s “alleged” crimes detract from the good she’s done. And there’s the argument that since MZB died fifteen years ago, there’s no point to bringing up all of this ugliness and smearing the name of a celebrated author. I disagree … Are you going to tell victims of rape/abuse that nobody’s allowed to acknowledge what was done to them? That the need to protect the reputation of the dead is more important than allowing victims their voice? … We ignore ongoing harassment and assault for years or decades because someone happens to be a big name author or editor. Half of fandom shirks from the mere thought of excluding known predators, because for some, sexual harassment and assault are lesser crimes than shunning a predator from a convention.”
Or from popular culture. I’m thinking of Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, OJ Simpson, Robert Wagner, Michael Jackson, Roman Polanski, Richard Pryor, Robert Blake, Jerry Lee Lewis … All of these artists have had major scandals with degrees of artist privilege when the questionable behavior in their personal lives crossed a line in the public eye.
For working artists and the “not-so-rich-and-famous,” the behavior and actions underlying artist privilege are more subtly expressed. Many people ignore/excuse their character flaws because they like the art these people create. As long as these people keep making art that others like, they have a wide berth in how they act and behave in their communities. However, it is worth noting that the reputations of each of these artists has suffered. The times in which their personal behavior was questionable have left a subtle but definite ripple effect in how their art is received.
I think that our art is inexorably tied to who we are, and who we are is inexorably tied to the world. The last danger of artist privilege is the idea that the artist is unconnected to the baseness of the world, and lives within the self-important I, without regard to the true privilege that it is to have the time, economic means, space, and ability to make art in the first place. This is the “ivory tower” of artist privilege.
Art is not only an act of creation; it is a journey through process into a product. The artist is a medium through which our individual/collective dreams, thoughts, ideas, and visions are translated, interpreted, and then given back to the world. Art is more than the creation of a single person. Once we give our art to the world, it is processed by other people, which gives the art a deeper, wider meaning and context. In a sense, once we give our art to the world, it is no longer ours. Our life, our person, is always ours. It is in the beat of our hearts, the blood running through our veins, the eyes that open and close. The artist has an expiration date, so to speak. The work of an artist does not conform to the same sense of time. That is true artist privilege.
Artists need to be cognizant.
Art does not have a life of its own. An artist’s person will always shadow his or her work. Art has power, but that power comes from the art itself, not from the person creating it. There should be appreciation, not hero worship. There should be acceptance, not blind following. The world does not owe the artist anything. Yet, the artist does owe something to the world. Some artists abuse the power they find through art. Other artists try to harness that power and find a way to give it back to the world in positive ways. Consider Maya Angelou. Her life – I’d say even more than her work – has made her one of the most inspiring and beloved artists of our time.
Today I want to share a poem that I feel speaks directly to the idea of art and artist privilege. This poem is by Ruth Forman, and I’ve loved this poem for a long time, ever since I first read it in June Jordan’s Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint – an overall excellent book!
Poetry Should Ride the Bus
by Ruth Forman
poetry should hopscotch in a polka dot dress
n hold your hand
when you walk past the yellow crackhouse
poetry should dress in fine plum linen suits
n not be so educated that it don’t stop in
every now n then to sit on the porch
and talk about the comins and goins of the world
poetry should ride the bus
in a fat woman’s Safeway bag
between the greens n chicken wings
to be served with Tuesday’s dinner
poetry should drop by a sweet potato pie
ask about the grandchildren
n sit through a whole photo album
on a orange plastic covered La-Z-Boy with no place to go
poetry should sing red revolution love songs
that massage your scalp
and bring hope to your blood
when you think you’re too old to fight
poetry should whisper electric blue magic
all the years of your life
never forgettin to look you in the soul
every once in a while