John Ostrander: Art vs the Artist

by John Ostrander

Last column I talked about James Gunn and how he was fired by Disney from the third Guardians installment for some really stupid tweets he published about a decade ago. They were appalling, no questions about it, but I wondered if Disney really needed to fire him for it. Gunn himself has renounced them and apologized. I was further aggravated by the fact that it was a right wing troll who engineered the whole reveal basically to punish Gunn for being anti-Trump.

However, lurking beneath that question is a bigger problem – can you separate the art from the artist? SHOULD you? 

I am of so many different minds about this it makes my own head spin. Oscar Wilde was tossed into prison for being gay and pretty flamboyant about it; today his The Importance of Being Earnest is performed almost continuously around the world. I can’t watch an episode of The Cosby Show since it was revealed just what a slime Fat Albert’s daddy really is. Then again, I also haven’t been able to watch one of Robin Williams’ comedy specials since learning just how much pain he was in.

One of the things I’ve always admired about Shakespeare’s plays is that we know very little about Will himself. Oh, there certainly are some biographical tidbits but mostly we know Shakespeare’s mind – what he thought and felt – from his plays and poems. And it was a remarkable mind and could cover a host of different thoughts, even on the same subject. Check out Measure for Measure, Act 3, Scene 1 for two very different meditations on death.

(BTW, we’re not going to get into whether or not Shakespeare actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Yes, I have listened to the theories – which is all they are – and, so far as I’m concerned, they are codswallop. You can argue the point all you want; just don’t bother doing it with me.)

What could we possibly learn about Shakespeare’s life that would add to our understanding of his plays? The work exists and is its own justification.

If that’s true, shouldn’t that apply to others? Yet, I don’t want to see a film by Roman Polanski; I did see one (The Ghost Writer) before I knew Polanski had directed it and it was a powerful piece of work. My Mary has no use for Woody Allen (whom she regards as a pedophile) and no desire to see any film he’s made. D.W. Griffith pioneered many of the film techniques still used in cinema today but Birth of a Nation (originally titled The Clansman) glorifies the Ku Klux Klan and is undeniably racist. So is a musical number in A Day At The Races where the Marx Brothers (who I adore) put on blackface to hide among them singin’ and dancin’ darkies in order to escape the law. It’s damn uncomfortable to watch but I haven’t sworn off Groucho, Chico, and Harpo or that film.

Perhaps it’s a matter of degree? I was raised a Roman Catholic (these days I term myself a Recovering Catholic) and there is one thing the Church really knows how to do to parse sin – you had mortal sins, you had venal sins, you had an occasion of sin and even a near occasion of sin.  You needed to hit the confessional box if you were even THINKING of sin (and, as a young teen-age boy in the 60s, I did a lot of thinking about sin). Maybe we could consider the degree of culpability in each case. James Gunn’s tweets were stupid and offensive but surely they don’t rise to the level of a guy whipping out his Johnson and masturbating into the potted plants.

Then again – who am I to say? I’m an aging old white fart and, to some, that might invalidate my opinion on the matter. Then again – maybe a generation or two down the line they maybe be able to watch Cosby or Spacey or any of the others whose acts taint what they’ve done. The work will stand as the work, independent of its creator and their foibles. Picasso treated the women in his life pretty badly and yet his work stands as a testament to the man’s genius.

Picasso exemplifies that people are not all one thing or the other. Having great talent, great ability, does not means you are going to be a role model; often, far from it. It is that messy humanity that becomes distilled in the work and the work, I think, justifies itself because it gives a great deal to our own messy humanity.

I think, ultimately, the work must be considered apart from the life of its creator. It must have a life of its own if it is to last. And should be considered apart from the life of its creator.

Just don’t ask me to watch reruns of The Cosby Show any time soon.


John Ostrander is one of LB’s favorite writers in any medium. It’s been awhile since he’s been here, but now John’s back with a new column at a new blog, PopCultureSquad, where this piece first appeared. You can learn more about John and his many masterworks HERE

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