Over on the Arts and Faith forum, I'm in the middle of an interesting discussion about artists and the art they create. At question is the degree to which the life of the artist and his or her personal convictions should influence our understanding/interpretation of the art he or she creates. It's an ancient question, but it's also fun to revisit it. And my take is that although we cannot totally separate the artist from art, we should make every effort to view the art on its own terms. Although the artist is reflected to some degree in what he or she creates, it is not nearly to the extent that a presuppositional approach to art would have us believe. Presuppositional approach to art, you say? Er, what's that? It's pretty simple.
Here's where I'm coming from: good people can create bad art, and bad people can create good art. It doesn't always work that way, but sometimes it does. And to the extent that we confuse the person with what he or she has created, or somehow try to project the person into what he or she has created, we misinterpret art.
I also find that most of the time it's a moot point. I write about popular music, and I deal in three-to-five minute bursts of noise where it's often difficult if not impossible to discern an overarching worldview. Most of the time I have no idea what a particular songwriter believes, at least in terms of the Big Questions. Nor do I know how that songwriter lives his or her life, or what deep, dark secrets and sins he or she may be harboring. I simply don't know. And when I do know, the scenario usually goes something like this: "Hey, man, I'm 22 years old, and we formed a band and now we're out on the road, livin' out of a van, and we sit around in a crappy hotel room and drink beer until it's time to play a show, and then we play a show, and we pack up our gear, and get in the van and drive off to do it again the next day." There's not a lot of deeply intellectual, philosophical material to work with.
So I'm probably approaching this from a different standpoint than someone would who is studying a well known, renowned artist such as Van Gogh or Gauguin. Obviously there's a great deal of historical/biographical material available about those artists, and I can see why knowing that information could add depth and insight to a critical understanding of their work.
But I still balk at the idea of making critical judgments about art based on one's moral take on the life of the artist. Whenever possible, I believe these two things should be held far apart. Why? Because good people can create bad art, and bad people can create good art.
I have a friend, a wonderful writer who knows a staggering amount about jazz, who can't write objectively about Miles Davis because she strongly dislikes his exploitation of women and his mack daddy pimp image. Okay, I understand that and respect that. But in this case she's made the right decision not to write about his music, because his music is still great. A bad person created great art. And if you can't get past the person and write about the art on its own terms, then you shouldn't write about it. We're talking about instrumental jazz, a genre that, by definition, could not possibly communicate a worldview which supports the exploitation and abuse of women. So yes, I do fully appreciate how one's distaste for an artist could influence how one interprets his or her art. But the solution, in that case, is to step aside as my friend has done, and let somebody else review the finished product, which has nothing to do with her moral objections.
The entire CCM industry is based on the notion that because people are good (i.e., Christian), then the music they create is worth buying. It's a false assumption. It's equally false to believe that because an artist is bad (immoral), his or her art is somehow negatively impacted. And that's what I'm reacting to in this discussion. It's not always possible to check our moral judgments at the door, but whenevever possible we should do so, unless the art itself reflects the moral/ethical/philosophical beliefs of the artist. Then those beliefs are fair game for the discussion. But in popular music, I believe this happens far less frequently than is commonly advertised. "I feel stupid and contagious/Here we are now entertain us/A mulatto an albino/A mosquito my libido Yea" tells me precious little about the most deeply held convictions of the artist. And that's far from atypical. But it's still great rock 'n roll.