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Years ago, I had the privilege of hearing Joyce Maynard speak and read from her memoir At Home in the World, which is the story of her relationship with novelist J.D. Salinger when she was very young. The book describes his abuse of her, his emotional manipulation, his disposal of her when she was no longer of use to him.
I’ve not been able to read – or even muster up much consideration for – Salinger since. I lost all respect for him when I heard that story. For me, Maynard’s experience tainted every work of art he’d ever created, and I have never been able to go back to his stories, even as I know they hold insights and artistry that transcends the man.
Years later, some writer friends and I were discussing the notice that Annie Dillard had put on the homepage of her website. In it, she announced that she wasn’t responding to letters and can’t write by request because she needed “to read and concentrate.” For some of my friends, this notice was arrogant and dismissive; it smacked of privilege and a lack of literary citizenship. They were put off her work forever. I, as someone who aches for more time to create, understood the note, respected it even, and found my love of Dillard enhanced, not diminished.
The thing these two incidents taught me was that each of us has, often unspoken, rules about what is tolerable in an artist and what isn’t – what we will accept in their behavior and still read their work and what will turn us away from their words forever.
The Artist vs. The Art
Over on Facebook a couple of days ago, we were having a discussion about this question – do we separate the artist from the art? – because I’ve been reading Island Born by Junot Diaz to my son. After #metoo accusations came out against Diaz, I found myself contending with this question again. I ultimately came to decide the value of Diaz’s art outranked what seem to be largely discredited claims of the mistreatment of women, although every time I pick up his books I weigh the question again.
For me, part of the decision is based on much I value the art itself. I have never been a big fan of Salinger’s work, so it’s easier for me to dismiss it. Diaz, however, is someone’s whose writing I revere, so it’s much harder for me to give it up.
Another factor I weigh is the seriousness of the allegations and the credibility they are deemed to have, which I know is a shaky and really biased element. In the case of Salinger, Maynard’s story is not singular, and the extent of his mistreatment of her was profound. For Diaz, the allegations were not as long-term or as in-depth (although I do not in any way dismiss the trauma and damage these women may have experienced from Diaz’s actions), so I can let them go more easily, which isn’t necessarily a good thing.
Some Criteria? Maybe?
Maybe we could separate the artist from the art if:
- the artist is no longer living and can, thus, no longer profit from their art,
- we can be certain that any harmful behavior has stopped,
- or if the person has admitted their wrong-doing (Salinger never did, and Bill Cosby will never get another kind word from me again) and attempted to make amends.
Maybe those are some criteria we could put into play.. . as hard -maybe impossible – as that might be.
On some level, I think we need to separate the artist from their art entirely. I just don’t know if that’s possible. Plus, then we have to dismiss the good that artists do beyond their art, and I’m not sure I want to do that either.
I don’t think there is one for everybody, and I certainly don’t want to prescribe it if there is. Maybe this is just one of those things we each have to decide for ourselves, to discuss with each other, and to respect the differences of perspective after those discussion.
That said, I’d love to know your thoughts. Should we consider an artist’s harmful behavior when valuing their art? Why or why not? What boundaries do you personally draw around this idea of separation? Let’s chat – respectfully – in the comments.