I don’t know what to do with good art by predatory artists. So I asked some literary critics.
For a few years when I was a teenager, my favorite movie was Edward Scissorhands.
I loved its spiky early-’90s Tim Burton aesthetics; I loved the sweetness of its story, hiding under so much self-conscious weirdness; and I loved Johnny Depp’s wounded, vulnerable performance as the titular scissor-handed boy, who couldn’t get close to anyone without hurting them. I laughed when Edward accidentally punctured a waterbed in a wordless, humiliated frenzy. I cried when he accidentally injured his girlfriend. I cried more for Edward than for the bleeding girlfriend, actually, because I could see that it hurt him to hurt her, and I was more interested in his pain than in hers.
Edward Scissorhands eventually stopped being my favorite movie, but I continued to love it in that part-embarrassed, part-sentimental, part-genuine way you love the art you imprint on as a teenager. That Johnny Depp seemed to be turning into a caricature of himself, and that Tim Burton’s aesthetic was developing rapidly into a shtick, didn’t stop me from loving it. The movie that Burton and Depp made together in 1990, the movie that I had loved in the mid-’00s, seemed to me to have nothing to do with who they were as artists or people in the 2010s.
And then in 2016, Johnny Depp’s then-wife Amber Heard accused him of domestic violence and produced credible evidence backing up her side of the story. All of a sudden, there was something new to reckon with when I thought about Edward Scissorhands.
I loved this movie. It made me feel all kinds of deep and profound teenage feelings, and those feelings were real and I could not unfeel them. But now, whenever I thought about Johnny Depp, I felt a deep and profound disgust, a moral outrage. That was a real feeling too, and I couldn’t unfeel it either.
My Edward Scissorhands dilemma is one that has been repeated over and over again by thousands of people throughout the past year of #MeToo. Over and over again, we have learned that the people who created the art we love have been accused of monstrous acts. The art could be Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” or Louis C.K.’s Louie, or Shakespeare in Love, or Manhattan, or The Cosby Show, but at heart, the dilemma is 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?
One of the common answers to that question has been repeated so often it has come to seem as though it’s an ontologically self-evident truth: You must separate the artist from the art.
Separating the artist from the art, this argument goes, 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 artist from the art is not a self-evident truth. It is an academic idea that was extremely popular as a tool for analyzing poetry at the beginning of the 20th century, and that has since evolved in several different directions. It’s one possible way of thinking about art, but it’s not the only one.
To get a handle on what all the options out there look like, I interviewed three literary critics on the phone. I asked them to walk me through how the idea of separating the art from the artist emerged, how it’s changed over time, and what the alternatives are now. My hope was that by the end of our conversations, I’d have a better sense of how to solve my Edward Scissorhands problem — and how to deal with all the art created by men who have been accused of monstrous things over the past year of #MeToo. Here’s what I learned.
When the New Critics reigned at the beginning of the 20th century, separating art from artist was radical
The idea of separating art from artist was one of the major critical tools of the New Criticism of the early 20th century. The New Critics burst onto the scene just as the study of English literature was coming to be seen as worthwhile, rather than as a waste of the attention that should have been paid to the classical literature of antiquity.
Their intention was to save literature from the accumulated mythology of the 19th century, to elevate it from an art to a science. And to do so, they created the idea that a work of art must stand on its own. “I have assumed as axiomatic that a creation, a work of art, is autonomous,” wrote T.S. Eliot in 1923, and the New Critics followed.
Eliot was talking specifically about poetry, and he was arguing that impersonality was a poetic ideal, says Daniel Swift, a senior lecturer in English at New College of the Humanities London.
“Great poetry [for Eliot] was when the poet managed to eradicate all traces of the individual self from the poem he was writing,” Swift explains. “And just as this was an ideal for the poet, it was also a way for readers to evaluate the poem at hand — not by looking for traces of the author’s life, and not looking for what the author might have intended, but instead seeing it as self-contained and self-referential and separate from the world.”
New Criticism emerged around the same time that science was becoming the most prestigious and accepted way of thinking about the world, leaving the arts and humanities looking a little shabby and fuzzy and imprecise by comparison.
“What it was trying to do, to a degree, was to turn literary analysis into a science,” says Clare Hayes-Brady, a lecturer in American literature at University College Dublin. “Literary criticism as a legitimate academic discipline emerged just a little before [New Criticism], and part of the reason you’d want to make it a science is to make it seen as a legitimate field of study.”
If literary criticism was a science, then critics had to strip away the mysticism of trying to climb inside an author’s mind and see what he — and it was almost always he, then — was trying to telepathically communicate to the reader. The text had to stand on its own, and if it didn’t, the New Critics argued, that proved it wasn’t really good art.
Essentially, this argument says that the best way to engage with any really good piece of art is to treat it as a transcendent work that can stand on its own outside of history and speak to anyone from any place and time. It also says that if a piece of art can’t stand on its own and speak to anyone, it’s not really great. As Yale English professor Amy Hungerford points out, “It’s a circular argument.”
But circular or not, New Criticism is incredibly useful in the classroom. Serious literary scholars don’t use New Criticism now, in the same way that serious physicists don’t use the 1930s consensus on the atom to do their work, but they do draw from it when they teach their students how to start analyzing a text.
New Criticism is based in close reading, in delving deeply into a text and unpacking every word, without having to worry too much about what was happening when it was written — which means that when you embrace New Criticism, you can get a lot of good, solid analysis done over the course of a single class period or a single student paper. You don’t have to mess around with a lot of secondary sources: You can look at the text and it will tell you all you need to know.
That’s why New Criticism is one of the first kinds of literary analysis many students learn in school — and with it, they often learn that there is nothing worthwhile to be gained from thinking about the way an author relates to their text. It’s from here that we see some of the reflexive admonishments that we must separate artist from art, that to do otherwise is childish; after all, it’s what we’re taught in school.
If I were to lean on New Criticism in dealing with Edward Scissorhands, I could say, very simply, that all that matters is the things that the movie makes me feel, and any ideas I have about Depp separately from the movie are irrelevant. They should be set aside. The movie itself is pure and separate from the rest of the world, and it is all that counts.
For some of the postmodernists, the artist wasn’t just separate from the art. The artist was dead.
New Criticism was the main way critics approached their work in the early 20th century, but in the midcentury, postmodernism — which rejected New Criticism’s quasi-scientific ideas about every text having a stable and knowable meaning — became the only game in town. Some postmodernists, too, argued that the artist should be kept separate from the art, but for different reasons than the New Critics did.
The most famous reason of all was that the author is dead, as 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, says Hayes-Brady, 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.”
It’s a slippery and complex argument, which means it can be applied in a few different ways to works of art by predatory creators. On the one hand, we could argue that if the author is dead, then so is the actor, and whatever Depp may or may not have done in his private life has nothing to do with his performance in Edward Scissorhands. That argument isn’t too far off from the way the New Critics would have thought about the film.
On the other hand, we could argue that if the author and the actor are both dead, then we don’t have to take their intentions into account when we think about their work.
In February, New Republic culture critic Josephine Livingstone took this 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).
That might mean, for instance, that it’s my critical duty to stop thinking of Edward Scissorhands as a Burton-Depp movie and to remember how much of it was created by other people — how much my enjoyment of it depends on Dianne Wiest’s performance and Tom Duffield’s art direction and Colleen Atwood’s costumes. Because the more we remember that a movie doesn’t depend on Johnny Depp, this argument goes, the less power he has available to him to protect himself from the consequences of his alleged actions.
However, it might also mean that if I see connections between Depp’s alleged domestic abuse and the way that Edward Scissorhands asks me to pity Edward when he hurts his girlfriend, rather than pitying the bleeding girlfriend herself, I don’t disregard those connections. They’re part of the meaning that I’m creating as a viewer, even if they’re not the meaning that Burton and Depp might have intended. And per Barthes, their intent is not really my problem. As far as I’m concerned, they’re dead.
Today, most critics 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 today, critics tend to acknowledge the ideas of New Historicism and the ideas of postmodernism simultaneously. All three critics I spoke to said they tried to draw from both theories in their work, and that they didn’t think it was necessary to draw a strict dividing line between art and artist.
“Personally, I don’t really believe that any of us are scientifically pure enough to be able to take our own feelings about any artwork away from our writing about that art,” says Swift. “We’re necessarily engaged in a back-and-forth.”
“I’m not a biographical reader, particularly. In my own study, I encourage myself and my students to focus on how a text operates,” says Hayes-Brady. “But I don’t think it’s useful to divorce a text from the context in which it was written and from the person who wrote it.”
“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 artworks’ significance for themselves,” says Hungerford. “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 a relation.”
The critics differed, however, on the question of whether it’s ever reasonable for a critic to decide not to engage with art made by a predator. There are two basic arguments here. One of those arguments, presented by Swift and Hayes-Brady, says that engaging critically with a work of art is completely different from endorsing the morality of the artist.
Swift recently wrote a biography of Ezra Pound, the noted poet and noted fascist. “There isn’t anyone more morally troubling than Ezra Pound,” he says, “and we have to acknowledge that Pound was anti-Semitic and a fascist, and acknowledge the seriousness of those things. But that doesn’t mean we should forget Pound, because that would be a forgetting of the seriousness of what he did.”
“For me, it’s 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 that or why we should expect that,” says Hayes-Brady. “Whatever you think about David Foster Wallace [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, that justifies spending time studying it, in critical and challenging ways with a critical eye.”
The other argument says that our time is limited, we cannot devote equal critical attention to every work of art out there, and it’s reasonable for critics to curate their choices a little. That’s the stance Hungerford took in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which she explained why she chooses not to read or assign David Foster Wallace. “Why should we turn the podium over to this author among so many others, to invite him to stand at the microphone of literary culture for a thousand pages and more if it’s not pretty clear to a moderately well-informed person that his work is worth our attention?” she wrote.
What’s at stake for Hungerford is not just that Wallace was a misogynist, but the way she sees Wallace’s real-life misogyny replicated in his work. “We’re manipulated by the text at every moment in ways that are structurally similar to the way he manipulated the women in his life,” she told me. “In that case, the structure of the artwork bears the marks of the misogyny.”
But Hungerford is still willing to engage with some art by morally suspect authors. She points to Philip Roth, who is infamous for his vicious portrayals of women and whose novels, Hungerford says, “have themes of misogyny, but they may or may not ask us to bear that relation to those subjects ourselves.”
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?” It’s the same argument that has come up repeatedly with R. Kelly, who writes songs about sex and consent and age differences between lovers, and who has also been accused of sexually assaulting very young women and girls.
“This is a person who makes music that is incredibly sexual in nature. This is someone who has written lyrics that play with the idea of age and consent, right?” said Jamilah Lemieux of Kelly in 2017. “I am not somebody who is comfortable listening to somebody like that singing about sex. I would not want to send the message to him or to anyone else that I am complicit in things that it seems that he has done to young girls and women.”
If I were to follow this model with Edward Scissorhands, then the bellwether moment for me would the scene in the film where Edward cuts a girl and we are asked to weep for him, rather than for her. I would have to ask myself whether the movie is asking me to be complicit in a worldview that teaches us to empathize more with men who hurt women than with the women whom they hurt, and thus allows them to get away with terrible crimes. And if I conclude that the movie is asking me to be complicit in that worldview, I might decide that my duty as a critic is to turn my attention elsewhere.
Or, if I were to follow the model that Swift and Hayes-Brady suggest, then I could incorporate my knowledge about Depp’s life into my reading of Edward Scissorhands. I could continue to pay attention to this movie, but I could also continue to acknowledge the harm that Depp has allegedly done.
No matter how you think artists are connected to their art, you can always refuse to give them your money
I’ve been talking a lot about complex philosophical theories around how art and artist are interrelated, but there’s one very basic and concrete thing that connects most living artists to their work: money. That 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.
“That’s an activist perspective that has nothing to do with the work of art,” says Hungerford. 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.”
“I think it’s understandable for a reader to make a decision that they don’t want to spend their money on this author’s work,” says Hayes-Brady. “That’s an economic decision rather than a critical decision, and I think an understandable one.”
The helpful thing about this position is that it is unassailable and inarguable: Going to see a Johnny Depp movie, or buying one on DVD, gives him money. If that is not something I want to do, then I don’t have to do it.
But this approach is still filled with gray areas. What if I already own a copy of Edward Scissorhands? What if I pirate it? What if I borrow a friend’s copy? What if I go to a public place and it’s just playing on a screen and there’s nothing I can do about it? In one of those cases, should I just watch it anyway and soldier on through the grossed-out feeling I get because, after all, it’s not helping Johnny Depp?
There are no one-size-fits-all answers, but there are some good options
I don’t have satisfying answers to any of the questions I’ve brought up here. I can’t tell you how you should feel about your favorite piece of art that was made by someone accused of doing terrible things. I cannot direct you to one specific literary theory that will give you the single correct way of approaching art.
And none of the scholars I spoke to can either. “At the end of the day, a work of art that speaks to you is a work of art that speaks to you,” says Hayes-Brady. “It’s not a rational decision, what we love. It’s not possible to have loved a text and then retrospectively to unlove it.”
But equally, she adds, “If you discover that an author you love has done something terrible, I think it’s normal to have an emotional reaction.”
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 thinking through these ideas myself, for the art that I love. And after all of this thought and all of this theorizing, I’ve ended up more or less where I started: I can’t unfeel my teenage love for Edward Scissorhands, and I can’t unfeel my disgust for the current Johnny Depp. And for me, right now, my emotional reaction to the photographs of Amber Heard’s bruised face is stronger than my emotional reaction to one good performance from nearly 30 years ago. This is not a philosophical or ethical decision on my part; it is an emotional one.
What this theoretical apparatus gives me is a way to think about changing my mind if I want to, if it feels valuable to me. I can follow Barthes and Livingstone and decide that Edward Scissorhands doesn’t belong to Johnny Depp; it belongs to me, and I get to recreate it myself. I can follow Hungerford and pay the most attention to the question of whether Edward Scissorhands makes me complicit in Depp’s alleged abuse. Or I can follow Hayes-Brady and decide that I don’t need the people who make my art to be morally virtuous.
All these tools are there, just waiting for me, just as they are waiting for you. And the moment we start to question how we should think about any work of art, we can pick them up and wield them accordingly.
This article was originally published on October 11, 2018.