Separating Art from its Creators

I saw a post on Facebook this morning regarding upcoming HBO series Lovecraft Country, about a black family traveling across the US south in the 1950s. The post itself was a review from the LA Times, but the caption was simply: “I hope Lovecraft is churning in his grave.”

For those of you who don’t know, H.P. Lovecraft is widely considered to be the father of modern horror literature, with stories like The Call of Cthulhu and The Mountains of Madness inspiring countless further sub genres, retellings, and stories across nearly every form of media in existence. He was also incredibly racist; through both his published and private writing, Lovecraft consistently put white people at the top of the social hierarchy – particularly those of English decent – and once even called black people “beasts in semi-human figure.”

What caught my eye about the post, however, was neither the review – calling it a “middle finger to a century of racist sci-fi” – nor even the somewhat provactive “churning in his grave” comment, but the series of responses to the original poster on whether or not H.P. Lovecraft’s stories – his art – can even be appreciated in the modern world. Responses ranged from those who felt the man was bad and so therefore are his works, to those who openly admitted to not caring about Lovecraft’s social views at all, and still appreciated the sci-fi horror he invented. Many passed his views off as being “of their time”, whilst others pointed out that throughout history there have been both racists and non-racists, and being born in the nineteenth century does not excuse one from being an outright bigot.

Naturally, this brings up the question of whether art can appreciated separate from its creators. After all, most forms of art – from painting to literature to music and film – are in one way or another representations of reality as perceived by the artist, and it could be argued that condoning a particular artist’s creations is the same as condoning their beliefs and viewpoints directly. This is challenging enough of an argument for lesser-known artists, of course; for those who have arguably influenced a genre, or the world at large, it becomes very difficult to look at without defining context, and even then, people will likely never agree on exactly what can – and what shouldn’t – be appreciated.

Perhaps one of the issues at stake is the concept of who ‘owns’ art; despite being created by an individual or individuals, there’s an argument that once released to the public, it becomes the public’s art, and naturally one person’s interpretation will not always be the same as another’s. In this context, a piece of work that is not explicitly racist – even if created by someone with racist views – could arguably be appreciated by the world in its own right, separate from the world-view of its creator. Can Lovecraft’s themes of physical and spiritual horror be valued, if even his themes of white supremacy should not? Possibly so, if we value only the work itself, out of context.

Another issue, of course, is that of message and intent. Lovecraft calling black people ‘beasts’ clearly is of biased, racist intent, and should be condemned as such. But what about, say, J.R.R. Tolkien? In his fantasy world of Middle-Earth, there are no races of color, and indeed the only races shown to be ‘other’ than white anglo-saxons are grotesque, sub-human creatures who more or less represent pure evil. And yet it’s hard to say with certainty that Tolkien was being outright racist in these works, as opposed to simply working with the world-view he was privy to – that of the English/European background that he dedicated his life to studying. In this context, one can easily decry his works as biased toward whiteness, but the message contained within is entirely more wholesome, and one that follows a more direct allegory against industrialism and war – both of which have little to do with race (at least in this context).

And what about when it comes to light that a particular artist may be less-than-savory after their works are published and enjoyed? I think often of Peter Jackson’s cinematic recreation of Tolkien’s worlds, done in close partnership with Harvey Weinstein. At the time, there was little knowledge of Weinstein’s sexual predation, and in some ways his influence and Hollywood clout is what allowed such majestic films to be made in the first place. Without him the world would arguably be a poorer place, and yet the man himself is now known to be someone who should most certainly be reviled; does this mean he should no longer receive credit for his ability to bring about the films that he worked on? Should he be erased from the credits and the history books?

Or even simpler – what if an artist simply doesn’t align with your personal political, social or moral views? Can a politically conservative peson appreciate art created by a liberal? Can someone who disagrees with homosexuality appreciate art created by the gay community? And what if they didn’t know? Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem is one of the twentieth century’s most notable works of music, and Britten himself was famously gay; does this mean that you can’t enjoy it if you disagree with his sexual orientation … but only if you know about it?

I don’t know if there is any right or wrong answer to this dilemma; art is created by artists, and although it often reflects the artists’ viewpoints, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be appreciated in its own regard. Even Hitler painted; should his paintings be burned for the horrific deeds he ended up being responsible for?

What do you think? Can art be separated from its creators, or is it intrinsically linked? If you disagree with an artist’s world view, does it affect your ability to appreciate their work, or can you nonetheless enjoy their output, in spite of their conflicting perspectives?

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