The director David Lynch—who I dressed as this past Halloween—gave this response to a question about the meaning of a puzzling moment toward the end of episode 15 of Twin Peaks: The Return.
“What matters is what you believe happened,” he clarified. “That’s the whole thing. There are lots of things in life, and we wonder about them, and we have to come to our own conclusions. You can, for example, read a book that raises a series of questions, and you want to talk to the author, but he died a hundred years ago. That’s why everything is up to you.”
On the surface, this is a straightforward answer, one Lynch has restated in different ways over the years: the meaning of a piece of art is whatever you think it is. Every individual understands a piece of art through her/his own beliefs and experiences.
I am reminded of a therapeutic approach to the interpretation of dreams that particularly resonates with me.
You tell your therapist what you remember of a dream. The therapist then probes a little more, attempting to elicit forgotten details. The conversation then turns to the “meaning” of the dream. Some therapists may pursue the Freudian notion of a dream as the disguised fulfillment of a repressed wish (so what is the wish?). Other therapists may look to the symbolism of characters and objects in the dream (is every character in a dream really a version of the dreamer?) for interpretation.
Then there is what you might call the Socratic approach; this is the approach that resonates with me. The therapist allows the patient to speculate what s/he thinks the dream means. Eventually, the patient will arrive at a meaning that “clicks” with her/him, the interpretation that feels correct. The therapist then accepts this interpretation as the “true” one.
That the “dreams mean whatever you think they mean” approach aligns nicely with Lynch’s musing is not surprising, given how central dreams and dream logic are to his film and television work.
However, there is a subtext to Lynch’s musing about artistic meaning that is particularly relevant today.
The November 20, 2017 issue of The Paris Review includes author Claire Dederer’s essay “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?”
I highly recommend this elegant and provocative essay.
For simplicity, I will focus on two questions raised by the essay:
- To what extent should we divorce the artist from her/his art when assessing its aesthetic quality?
- Does successful art require the artist to be “monstrously” selfish?
Dederer describes many “monstrous” artists, nearly all men (she struggles when cataloging the monstrosity of women, despite how odious she finds the impact of Sylvia Plath’s suicide on her children) before singling out Woody Allen as the “ur-monster.”
And here is where I discern a deeper meaning in Lynch’s “dead author” illustration.
Lynch’s notion that one brings one’s own meaning to any piece of art is premised on the idea that the artist may no longer be able to (or may choose not to) reveal her/his intent.
But that implies that something about the artist is relevant to understanding her/his art. Otherwise, one would never have sought out the artist in the first place.
The disturbing implication is that it is all-but-impossible to separate art from artist.
This is Dederer’s conundrum, and it is mine as well.
A few years ago, a group of work colleagues and I were engaging in a “getting to know each other” exercise in which each person writes down a fact nobody else knows about them, and then everyone else has to guess whose fact that is.
I wrote, “All of my favorite authors were falling-down drunks.”
Nobody guessed that was me, which was a mild surprise.
Of course, the statement was an exaggeration, a tongue-in-cheek poke at the mock seriousness of the process.
Still, when I think about many of the authors I love, including Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Edgar Allan Poe, John Dickson Carr, Cornell Woolrich, David Goodis…
…what first jumps to mind is that every author I just listed is male (not to mention inhabiting the more noir corners of detective fiction). So far as I know, my favorite female authors (Sara Paretsky, Ngaio Marsh and Agatha Christie, among others) do/did not have substance abuse problems.
Gender differences aside, while not all of these authors were alcoholics, they did all battle serious socially-repugnant demons.
Carr, for example, was a virulently racist and misogynistic alcoholic.
He also produced some of the most breathtakingly-inventive and original detective fiction ever written.
Woolrich was an agoraphobic malcontent who was psychologically cruel to his wife during and just after their brief, unconsummated marriage.
He also basically single-handedly invented the psychological suspense novel. More films noir (including the seminal Rear Window) have been based on his stories than those of any other author.
And so forth.
It is not just the authors I admire who are loathsome in their way.
I never ceased to be amazed by the music of Miles Davis, who ranks behind only Genesis and “noir troubadour” Stan Ridgway in my musical pantheon. His “Blue in Green” is my favorite song in any genre, and his Kind of Blue is my favorite album.
But this is the same Miles Davis who purportedly beat his wives, abused painkillers and cocaine, was taciturn and full of rage, and supposedly once said, “If somebody told me I only had an hour to live, I’d spend it choking a white man. I’d do it nice and slow.”
Moving on, my favorite movie is L.A. Confidential.
Leaving aside the shenanigans of co-star Russell Crowe, there is the problem of Kevin Spacey, an actor I once greatly respected.
Given the slew of allegations leveled at Spacey, the character arc of his “Jack Vincennes” in Confidential is ironic.
But first, let me warn any reader who has not seen the film that there are spoilers ahead. For those who want to skip ahead, I have italicized the relevant paragraphs.
Vincennes is an amoral 1950s Los Angeles police officer whose lucrative sideline is selling “inside” information to Sid Hudgens, publisher of Hush Hush magazine, reaping both financial rewards and high public visibility. Late in the film, he arranges for a young bisexual actor to have a secret (and then-illegal) sexual liaison with the District Attorney, a closeted homosexual. Vincennes and Hudgens would then catch the DA and the young actor in flagrante delicto.
Sitting in the Formosa Club that night, however, Vincennes has a sudden pang of conscience and leaves the bar (symbolically leaving his payoff—a 50-dollar bill—atop his glass of whiskey), intending to stop the male actor from “playing his part.” Unfortunately, he arrives at the motel room too late; the actor has been murdered.
Determined to make amends, he teams up with two other detectives to solve a related set of crimes, including the murder of the young actor. In the course of his “noble” investigation, he questions his superior officer, Captain Dudley Smith, one quiet night in the latter’s kitchen. Realizing that Vincennes is perilously close to learning the full extent of his criminal enterprise, Smith suddenly pulls out a .32 and shoots Vincennes in the chest, killing him.
OK, the spoilers are behind us.
This listing of magnificent art made by morally damaged people demonstrates I am in the same boat as Claire Dederer: I have been struggling for years to separate art from artist.
And that is before discussing the film that serves as Dederer’s Exhibit A: Woody Allen’s Manhattan.
Dederer singles out Manhattan (still one of my favorite films) because of the relationship it depicts between a divorced man of around 40 (Isaac, played by Allen himself) and a 17-year-old high school named Tracy (Mariel Hemingway).
Not only is the relationship inherently creepy (especially in light of recent allegations by Hemingway and the fact that in December 1997, the 62-year-old Allen married the 27-year-old Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his long-time romantic partner Mia Farrow), but, as Dederer observes, the blasé reaction to it from other adult characters in the film makes us cringe even more.
As I formulated this post—having just read Dederer’s essay—I thought about why I love Manhattan so much.
My reasons are primarily aesthetic: the opening montage backed by George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (and Allen’s voiceover narration), Gordon Willis’ stunning black-and-white cinematography, the omnipresence of a vibrant Manhattan itself.
In addition, the story, a complex narrative of intertwined relationships and their aftermath, is highly engaging. The dialogue is fresh and witty—and often very funny. The characters are quirky (far from being a two-dimensional character, I see Tracy as the moral center of the film) but still familiar.
And then there is the way saw the film for the first time.
The movie was released on April 25, 1979. At some point in the next few months, my father took me to see it at the now-defunct City Line Center Theater (now a T.J. Maxx) in the Overbrook neighborhood of Philadelphia. Given that I was 12 years old, it was an odd choice on my father’s part, but I suspect he wanted to see the film and seized the opportunity of his night with me (my parents had been separated two years at this point) to do so.
I recall little about seeing Manhattan with him, other than being vaguely bored. I mean, it was one thing for old movies and television shows to be in black-and-white (like my beloved Charlie Chan films), but a new movie?
I do not remember when I saw Manhattan again. At one of Yale’s six film societies? While flipping through television channels in the 1990s? Whenever it was, the film clicked with me that second viewing, and I have only become fonder of it since then.
Two observations are relevant here.
One, it is clear to me that the fact that I first saw Manhattan at the behest of my father, who I adored in spite of his many flaws, heavily influenced my later appreciation of the film.
Two, this appreciation cemented itself years before Allen’s perfidy became public knowledge.
These two facts help explain (but not condone) why I still…sidestep…my conscience to admire Manhattan as a work of art.
Ultimately, I think the following question best frames any possible resolution of the ethical dilemma of appreciating the art of monstrous artists:
Which did you encounter first, the monstrous reputation of the artist…or the art itself?
I ask this question because my experience is that once I hear that a given artist is monstrous, I have no desire to experience any of her/his art.
Conscience clear. No muss, no fuss.
That includes not-yet-experienced works by an artist I have learned is loathsome. I have not, for example, seen a new Woody Allen since the execrable The Curse of the Jade Scorpion in 2001.
But if I learn about the artist’s monstrous behavior AFTER reacting favorably to a piece of her/his art, I will often find myself still drawn to the art.
Conscience compartmentalized. Definitely some muss, some fuss.
My love of these works is just too firmly embedded in my consciousness to unwind. Thus, I still love the music of Miles Davis. L.A.Confidential remains my favorite movie. Manhattan may have dropped some in my estimation, but it is still in my top 10.
I am reminded of this line from “Seen and Not Seen” on the Talking Heads album Remain in Light:
“This is why first impressions are often correct.”
And here is where I think Lynch’s impressionistic approach to finding meaning in art and the patient-centered approach to dream interpretation—art and dreams mean whatever we think they mean—relate to the question of loving art while loathing the artist.
Art is a deeply personal experience. The “Authority” Dederer so pointedly disdains in her essay can provide guidance, but (s)he cannot experience the art for you or me.
Put simply, each of us is an “Authority” on any given piece of art—and also on whether or not to seek out that art.
As a child, I found myself hating The Beatles simply because I was supposed to love them. However, once I discovered their music on my own terms, purchasing used vinyl copies of the “Red” and “Blue” albums (which I still own 30+ years later) along with Abbey Road, The Beatles (the “White” Album), Sgt. Peppers’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Revolver and Rubber Soul…suffice to say I have 124 Beatles tracks (out of 9,504) in my iTunes, second only to Genesis (288). The Beatles also rank sixth in total “plays” behind The Cars, Steely Dan, Miles Davis (there he is again), Stan Ridgway and Genesis.
Each of us is also the Authority on our changing attitudes toward a given piece of art, including what we learn about the artist, knowledge which then becomes one more element we bring to the subjective experience of art.
Dederer speculates about whether artists (particularly writers) somehow NEED to be monstrous to be successful.
(Upon writing that last sentence, the phrase “madness-genius” began to careen around my brain).
As a writer with advanced academic training in epistemology-driven-epidemiology, I would suggest this study to assess this question.
A group of aspiring artists who had not yet produced notable works would be identified. They would be divided into “more monstrous” and “less monstrous,” definitions to be determined. These artists would be followed for, say, 10 years, after which time each artist still it the study would be defined as “more successful” and “less successful,” definitions to be determined The percentages of artists in each category who were “more successful” would be compared, to see whether being “monstrous” made an aspiring artist more or less likely to be “successful,” or even made no difference at all.
This would not settle the question of the link between monstrosity and art by any means, but it would sure be entertaining.
When Dederer talks about the monstrous selfishness of the full-time writer, she focuses on the temporal trade-offs writers must make—time with family and friends versus time spent writing. Writing is an almost-uniquely solitary endeavor, as I first learned writing my doctoral thesis, and as I continue to experience in my new career.
Luckily, my wife and daughters remain strongly supportive of my choice to become a “writer,” so I have not yet felt monstrously selfish.
There is a different kind of authorial “selfishness,” though, that I would argue is both more benign and more beneficial to the author.
When I began this blog, my stated aim was to focus solely on objective, data-driven stories; my personal feelings and life story were irrelevant (outside of this introductory post).
Looking back over my first 48 posts, though, I was surprised to count 17 (35.4%) I would characterize as “personal” (of which three are a hybrid of personal and impersonal). These personal posts, I observed, have also become more frequent.
Even more surprising was how much more “popular” these “personal” posts were. As of this writing, my personal posts averaged 28.4 views (95% confidence interval [CI]=19.9-36.9), while my “impersonal” posts averaged 14.5 views (95% CI=10.8-18.1); the 95% CI around the difference in means (14.0) was 6.3-21.6.
Moreover, the most popular post (77 views, 32 more than this post) is a very personal exploration of my love of film noir.
In other words, while none of my posts have been especially popular (although I am immensely grateful to every single reader), my “personal” posts have been twice as popular as my “impersonal” posts.
I had already absorbed this lesson somewhat as I began to formulate the book I am writing. Initially inspired by my “film noir personal journey” post, it has morphed into a deep dive not only into my personal history, but also the history of my family (legal and genetic) going back three or four generations.
This, then, is the “selfish” part: the discovery that the most popular posts I have written are the ones in which I speak directly about my own life and thoughts, leading me to begin to write what amounts to a “hey, I really like film noir…and here are some really fun stories about my family and me” memoir-research hybrid. One that I think will be very entertaining.
Whether an agent, publisher and/or the book-buying public ever agree remains an open question.
Just bear with me (I had to write that phrase at some point) while I fumble around for a worthwhile conclusion to these thoughts and memories.
I am very hesitant ever to argue that means justify the ends, meaning that my first instinct is to say that art produced by monstrous artists should be avoided.
But I cannot say that because, having formed highly favorable “first (and later) impressions” of various works of art produced by “monstrous” artists, I continue to love those works of art. I may see them differently, but the art itself has not changed. “Blue in Green” is still “Blue in Green,” regardless of what I learn about Miles Davis, and it is still my favorite song.
And that may be the key. Our store of information about a piece of art may change, but the art itself does not change. It is fixed, unchanging.
Of course, if Lynch and the patient-centered therapists are correct that we each need to interpret/appreciate (or not) works of art as individuals, then how we react to that piece of art WILL change as our store of information changes.
Shoot. I thought I had something there.
Well, then, what about the “slippery slope” argument?
Once we start down the path of singling out certain artists (and, by extension, their works of art) for opprobrium, where does that path lead?
The French Revolution devolved into an anarchic cycle of guillotining because (at least as I understand it) competing groups of revolutionaries began to point the finger at each other, condemning rival groups to death as power shifted between the groups.
This is admittedly an extreme example, but my point is that we once start condemning monstrosity in our public figures, it is difficult to stop.
It is also the case that very few of us are pure enough to condemn others. We all have our Henry Jekyll, and we all have our Edward Hyde, within us. I think the vast majority of us contain far more of the noble Dr. Jekyll than of the odious Mr. Hyde, but we all enough of the latter to be wary of hypocrisy.
And if THAT is not a good argument, then I have one more.
Simply put, let us all put on our Lynchian-therapeutic cloaks and make our own decisions about works of art, bringing to bear everything we know and feel and think, including our conscience…while also understanding that blatant censorship (through public boycott or private influence) is equally problematic…
These decisions may be ethically uncomfortable, but as “Authorities,” they are ultimately ours and ours alone.
Until next time…
 Fun fact about Goodis: Philadelphia-born-and-raised, he is buried in the same cemetery as my father.
 Woolrich was also a self-loathing homosexual.
 This quote is found on page 61 of the March 25, 1985 issue of Jet, in a blurb titled “Miles Davis Can’t Shake Boyhood Racial Abuse.” The quote is apparently from a recent interview with Miles White of USA Today, but I cannot find the actual USA Today article.
As a counter, and for some context, here is a long excerpt from Davis’ September 1962 Playboy interview.
Playboy: You feel that the complaints about you are because of your race?
Davis: I know damn well a lot of it is race. White people have certain things they expect from Negro musicians — just like they’ve got labels for the whole Negro race. It goes clear back to the slavery days. That was when Uncle Tomming got started because white people demanded it. Every little black child grew up seeing that getting along with white people meant grinning and acting clowns. It helped white people to feel easy about what they had done, and were doing, to Negroes, and that’s carried right on over to now. You bring it down to musicians, they want you to not only play your instrument, but to entertain them, too, with grinning and dancing.
Playboy: Generally speaking, what are your feelings with regard to race?
Davis: I hate to talk about what I think of the mess because my friends are all colors. When I say that some of my best friends are white, I sure ain’t lying. The only white people I don’t like are the prejudiced white people. Those the shoe don’t fit, well, they don’t wear it. I don’t like the white people that show me they can’t understand that not just the Negroes, but the Chinese and Puerto Ricans and any other races that ain’t white, should be given dignity and respect like everybody else.
But let me straighten you — I ain’t saying I think all Negroes are the salt of the earth. It’s plenty of Negroes I can’t stand, too. Especially those that act like they think white people want them to. They bug me worse than Uncle Toms.
But prejudiced white people can’t see any of the other races as just individual people. If a white man robs a bank, it’s just a man robbed a bank. But if a Negro or a Puerto Rican does it, it’s them awful Negroes or Puerto Ricans. Hardly anybody not white hasn’t suffered from some of white people’s labels. It used to be said that all Negroes were shiftless and happy-go-lucky and lazy. But that’s been proved a lie so much that now the label is that what Negroes want integration for is so they can sleep in the bed with white people. It’s another damn lie. All Negroes want is to be free to do in this country just like anybody else. Prejudiced white people ask one another, “Would you want your sister to marry a Negro?” It’s a jive question to ask in the first place — as if white women stand around helpless if some Negro wants to drag one off to a preacher. It makes me sick to hear that. A Negro just might not want your sister. The Negro is always to blame if some white woman decides she wants him. But it’s all right that ever since slavery, white men been having Negro women. Every Negro you see that ain’t black, that’s what’s happened somewhere in his background. The slaves they brought here were all black.
What makes me mad about these labels for Negroes is that very few white people really know what Negroes really feel like. A lot of white people have never even been in the company of an intelligent Negro. But you can hardly meet a white person, especially a white man, that don’t think he’s qualified to tell you all about Negroes.
You know the story the minute you meet some white cat and he comes off with a big show that he’s with you. It’s 10,000 things you can talk about, but the only thing he can think of is some other Negro he’s such close friends with. Intelligent Negroes are sick of hearing this. I don’t know how many times different whites have started talking, telling me they was raised up with a Negro boy. But I ain’t found one yet that knows whatever happened to that boy after they grew up.
Playboy: Did you grow up with any white boys?
Davis: I didn’t grow up with any, not as friends, to speak of. But I went to school with some. In high school, I was the best in the music class on the trumpet. I knew it and all the rest knew it — but all the contest first prizes went to the boys with blue eyes. It made me so mad I made up my mind to outdo anybody white on my horn. If I hadn’t met that prejudice, I probably wouldn’t have had as much drive in my work. I have thought about that a lot. I have thought that prejudice and curiosity have been responsible for what I have done in music.
 This has actually impacted me directly. Privacy concerns prevent me from using names, but I have had long and painful discussions with people close to me who were either related to, or knew very well, artists whose work they admired but who were/are loathsome human beings.
 Purportedly, Allen and his quasi-step-daughter (Allen and Farrow never married) had been having a long-term affair.
 And, perhaps, of black-and-white cinematography more generally.
 There are exceptions to this, of course. As much as I love the Father Brown stories by G.K. Chesterton, his blatant anti-Semitism has likely permanently soured me on his writing.
 Acknowledging that “monstrosity” is not binary, but a continuum. We have all had monstrous moments, and even the most monstrous people have had a moment or two of being above reproach.
 Using a somewhat stricter definition of “personal” made the difference even starker.
 Tentative title: Interrogating Memory: How a Love of Film Noir Led Me to Investigate My Own Identity.
11 thoughts on “Separating the art from the artist”
Wow what a great post! Really loved it! Make sure to take a look at my blog!
Thank you. Will do.
I am a simple machine so cannot discuss and refute or support all these thoughtful words. Today is for me David Bowie in memoriam day, and it struck me that his music was about him more than about me, even though as a younger person this or that song or work of art meant a lot to me because of what was going on in my life then. I personally always thought Woody Allen creepy, and a friend and I were actually in Manhattan when they were filming it, and they made us go across the street from something like a Baskin Robbins and we were allowed to watch them film but we were not alowed to shop there while they did so. I think folks are the lenses through which life energy expresses itself as art and as life, and as such there is certainly overlap in the energy, but I can choose to like some art while still reserving the right not to want to hang out with the artist. Your mileage may vary.
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