On The “Problematic” Artist

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I’m going to touch upon a subject today that I probably should not touch upon…but I was thinking about it all last night in this gush of manic intellectual blather, and I need to just get it out of my system.

A few days ago I listened to an audiobook of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth to help me go to sleep. Now, the fact that I turned to such morbid fare as Lovecraft to help me overcome insomnia is a separate issue. I instead want to address the two immediate impressions this short story had on me.

Let’s start with my second impression: how taut, well written, and suspenseful Lovecraft’s prose was. Truly: a master of horror. I didn’t expect to be so transfixed on just some rando audiobook presentation of an old story that I found on YouTube.

That was my second impression. My first impression was: geez, this is a little racist.

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The story is about a creepy town by the water, Innsmouth, filled with freaks. And as it goes through the history of Innsmouth, the first sign of “trouble” for the area—the start of the “contagion,” if you will—is clearly mapped out. The men began to intermarry with “South Asian” immigrant women and etc.

It’s at this point that I had to take into account (perhaps rightly, perhaps wrongly) the author’s very well-known personal view on topics such as immigrants and interracial couplings—which was pretty fucking bleak. As the story goes on describing the freakish progeny of these couplings—describing with horror their specific facial features—I could not help but make a connection with Lovecraft’s own xenophobia:

“But the real thing behind the way folks feel is simply race prejudice—and I don’t say I’m blaming those that hold it. I hate those Innsmouth folks myself, and I wouldn’t care to go to their town. I s’pose you know—though I can see you’re a Westerner by your talk—what a lot our New England ships used to have to do with queer ports in Africa, Asia, the South Seas, and everywhere else, and what queer kinds of people they sometimes brought back with ’em…”

“… There certainly is a strange kind of streak in the Innsmouth folks today—I don’t know how to explain it, but it sort of makes you crawl. You’ll notice a little in Sargent if you take his bus. Some of ’em have queer narrow heads with flat noses and bulgy, stary eyes that never seem to shut, and their skin ain’t quite right…”

But the point of this essay is not to debate whether H.P. Lovecraft is “racist.” There are plenty of essays that do that. Rather: now that he has been labeled “problematic,” what is my personal relationship to his material? Do I stop reading all of it as a matter of principle? Do I throw out everything that was “good” about his work, because it has all been tainted?

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As you probably well know if you’re a regular reader of this blog—there is also a tremendous amount contained in Lovecraft’s work that is occult & esoteric in nature. So if I now consider him “problematic”—do I stop researching that angle as well?

Now that I think of it—there is a tremendous amount in the annals of the occult & esoteric in general that is “problematic” in nature. Aleister Crowley=highly problematic. The way Theosophy ended up influencing the Nazis=highly problematic. There’s a passage in the Ra Material that puts down homosexuality. Philip K. Dick’s views on homosexuality swung as wildly as his moods. The Spear of Destiny by Trevor Ravenscroft is one of the great batshit esoteric epics of all time; but there is one line at the end that is so jaw-droppingly unexpectedly anti-Semitic that it blows your fucking mind and almost discredits EVERYTHING that came before it.

William Burroughs allegedly accidentally shot and killed his own wife while drunk; his picture is tacked to the wall in front of my desk, in deference to his writing being one of the biggest influences on my early work. Is that “problematic?” Is it time to “ditch” Burroughs (who remained an unapologetic gun fan to the very end of his life)? If I decided that “yes, it is time to ditch Burroughs,” what does that even mean? Does that “erase” his influence on my work?

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Here’s another recent example of what I’m talking about: I recently had an opportunity to read the first issue of Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor comic. Pekar: another of my heroes. So there’s a story in it where he’s a kid (and I’m assuming it’s him, because a lot of his work is auto-biographical) and he convinces this other kid, this African-American girl, to play “doctor” with him. And he climbs on top of her and sticks his penis in her and says it’s a “thermometer.” And these are *kids*—not teens, but kids. She is drawn with pigtails and holding a baby doll, and portrayed as extremely naive; at the same time, the first shot of her shows her dress hiked up so you see her underwear, immediately “coding” her as “sexual.”

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Even if they were the same age, was that assault? Am I an asshole for asking this?

The story continues, and they run into each other again as adults. She is now a prostitute, pimped out through her boyfriend. The “Pekar” character later pays her and they have sex. It clearly means nothing to her, but he thinks it’s some type of great experience and that he may have a “relationship” with her.

Now: was being tricked into having sex as a child a factor in her overall lack of self-esteem leading to her being pimped out by her boyfriend? Because she was always sexually exploited?

See: I don’t believe that the intention of that story at all were these questions I’ve just asked. I believe that her character was meant to be a “shell,” a glassy-eyed “nothing,” who is always just presented and used as a sexual object. And I think the fact she is also African-American only adds to it; the cliche of the “over-sexed” female of color.

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But my point is not whether this Pekar story is “offensive”—but again, what is now my “relationship” to his work after reading this? Do I “need” to “censure” him in any way? Does this story “taint” the rest of his body of work? This was his first issue—do I need to take into account how much he presumably grew as a person and an artist in the decades following its publication?

Please do not misunderstand: this is not me dictating how you or anybody should feel about this story or H.P. Lovecraft or anything else. I am honestly just asking a question that I KNOW doesn’t have a hard-and-fast simple answer.

Now, some people honestly believe there is a hard-and-fast simple answer to all this. And it’s either:

  1. Art and morality/ethics are completely separate, and anyone who thinks otherwise is an SJW PC asshole.
  2. A single offensive idea/act taints the entire oeuvre of the artist, and said artist & their works should then be wiped off the face of the Earth like the racist misogynist homophobic pieces of shit that they are.

If you “live” on Twitter for any length of time, you know that this sharp dichotomy exists.

Lastly, what about the artist who is problematic—but whose problematic qualities are part-and-parcel of the “message” of their work?

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For example, I’ve bashed director Bryan Singer on this site before. But neither Singer or actor Kevin Spacey’s problematic behavior would prevent me from watching The Usual Suspects again. Because: Jesus Christ, if ANYBODY fucking embodies the “spirit” of what that movie is about…it’s those two.

Ditto for Roman Polanski. Both Rosemary’s Baby & The Ninth Gate are about shadowy secret societies that commit unspeakable actions. When I think of Polanski and his lifestyle in Hollywood both pre- and post-Manson Years…I’m sure this dude knew very well of the story which he presented. I don’t feel that watching Rosemary’s Baby “supports” his alleged pedophilia; rather, his personal flaws seem to “inform” the “energy” of that creepy-ass film.

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I could go on and on. I have my opinions on things (oh boy DO I), but I do not think there are “easy answers” to the issue of the “problematic” artist (or philosopher, or religious guru, or whomever). Our decision to reject/avoid/condemn their works based on their beliefs is a highly personal one; it can’t be “legislated” (though I know that some people believe it absolutely can).

Lastly, we need to consider the subconscious impact of our own primal fealty to various people and groups on whether we “condemn” or not. There are feminists who are blind to the bad behavior of those in their own “progressive” social circle. There are conservatives who will condemn a liberal’s actions but are unable to “see” that their own heroes have been accused of the exact same thing. There are “progressives” who condemn conservatives all the time for being anti-LGBT but literally cannot process that Ricky Gervais has cracked anti-trans jokes, or that director James Gunn did the SAME goddamn thing as well as a lot more.

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Is it ever possible to be completely objective?

Is it ever possible to make the “right” choice?

***

One more time: the purpose of this essay is not to tell you what you should do, or how you should feel—but I am interested, on an intellectual level, what you think.

That said: I frequently find that this topic seems to set people off almost immediately.

So I’ll just throw these questions onto the gasoline fire:

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  • Are the parts of Jordan Peterson’s philosophy that actually makes sense (like the whole “clean your room” thing) completely obliterated by the WTF stuff he says?
  • Are the parts of Scientology that make sense completely obliterated by the WTF stuff related to the religion?
  • Is Louis CK “rehabilitatable?” Whether you answer yes or no: what does that even mean? Who is the arbiter of what that rehabilitation is, and that he has successfully “completed” it?
  • Let’s say you have a favorite comic book since you were a kid, and then decades later you meet the creator and he not only is an asshole but sexually harasses you and tries to get you fired. Can you still find any value in that original comic? Is it even possible? Asking for a friend.
  • Should Roseanne have been fired?
  • Should James Gunn have been fired?
  • If you buy products with the Cthulhu mythos referenced, are you in effect supporting Lovecraft’s xenophobic beliefs?
  • Is it possible to simultaneously laud a writer’s talent and also say they were kind of a piece of shit?
  • Should the artist be separated out completely from his or her personal philosophy and actions? Or is that impossible? Will there always be a subtextual link between the two; a link which makes supporting the artist the same as supporting their possibly wrongheaded beliefs?
  • Is it possible for people to publicly have a rational discussion about the issues I brought up here?
  • Where do the ducks go in the winter, mommy?

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3 thoughts on “On The “Problematic” Artist

  1. Jon

    This is another very thoughtful post. My own, personal cop-out is that when and whether somebody separates the art from the artist is an entirely personal decision that relies on a combination of how much the art “means” or “speaks” to you weighed against the artist’s transgression. I love pro wrestling and there are several wrestlers (SEVERAL) that have done horrible things to people, but I still watch their work. I used to love Afrika Bambaataa but after people started accusing him of molesting/taking advantage of them as children (and then at least one of those accusers ended up murdered) my collection of this records was just sitting there collecting dust until I finally got rid of it. I think since we are talking about art and how it affects people on an individual level, any hard and fast rule about when to “cancel” somebody is just not feasible. This is not an excuse to ignore or downplay any bad acts on the part of the artists, though, but if their art helps that much in making this hellworld a bit more comfortable for you, then I don’t think anything is wrong in still enjoying it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, pro wrestling is a BIG one. I loved Rowdy Roddy Piper, but his past wrestling work—specifically, “Piper’s Pit”—is a VERY mixed bag. That said, later in life in interviews he was the first one to admit that some of that stuff was uncomfortable & wrong. So then I have to also take into account how much these performers grew as people over the years. But as you said, it’s difficult to have a hard and fast “cancelation” rule.

      Like

  2. Keener

    I think it all depends on the person, on a case-by-case basis. Rob Lowe has some skeletons in his closet, but I think the overall good of Parks & Recreation outweighs that; on the other hand, while I can enjoy the artistry of a movie like Chinatown, I kind of don’t want to contribute to Polanski’s DGA residuals, if I can avoid it, so I don’t buy it on streaming or anything like that.

    I would also argue that people can redeem themselves, and others cannot (depending on what the nature and severity of the issue is to begin with). Johnny Cash could clean up his life and build on his legacy, while Spade Cooley (had he not died of illness) would never have recovered in the public eye after murdering his wife.

    It’s really frustrating when someone’s misdeeds/awful takes get worse as the years go on, but they still have work that’s helpful, inspiring, etc. Case in point: I don’t think I would ever want to hang out in a room with Dave Sim (for a number of reasons that can easily be Googled, of which his life “philosophy” is the least of his issues). Politically and socially speaking, we’re on different planets. That being said, I learned so much from his Guide to Self-Publishing that I really want to recommend it to fellow artists, as it has a lot of “nuts and bolts” content that very few people ever really go into (unless you’re already in a studio background of some sort). It’s even available online somewhere as a PDF downloadable book…but I cannot in good conscience recommend it, because I know that by doing so, I’m putting money in Sim’s pocket.

    Liked by 1 person

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