A Line Separator, or; Where To Find Everything Of Value
I struggle to say that, sometimes, even the smallest of conversations makes me think deeply about the consequences of how we separate physical persons and abstract persons.[CW: discussion of abuse and assault]
I open with the feeblest of caveats: I can only speak with my own confidence. I can’t tell anyone what they must think, or how they must feel, and I definitely cannot open my palms and present to you the content’s of anyone’s soul, even my own, no matter how hard I try. The ‘art versus artist’ debate will be raged until, as they say, the heat death of the universe (except technically it won’t, because any clairvoyants in the audience will know that this debate is what will trigger the heat death of the universe). Part of that discourse is always the typical assumptions: that I’m telling you who or what to like (I am not); that I am telling you that you are a bad person, or at least thoughtless about your enjoyment of things (I am not, and you are most likely fine); or some manner of tighter and more specious debate about whether good art is, as a rule, made by a certain kind of person (which I don’t think I have room for).
I talk as someone trying to make room for the intensely frustrating feeling of knowing someone is very good at telling stories that, with depth and beauty, empower the prejudice or dismissal of others.
I can’t talk about anyone in particular, although I have people in particular. Again, I don’t know who they are. I can only speak to the things that have been revealed about many of them. Hell, whoever you think triggered me to think this aloud probably didn’t. Some of the potential people have been dead for a long time, and some of them still breathe. Some of them are terribly public in their spheres, and some of them are relatively popular only in very niche communities of creation. But many of them have had at least one public moment where their non-creative action was hurtful, even deliberately hostile, to real living people.
A creator that I know and trust, one that I know to be thoughtful and considerate and critical in all of his dealings, once asked me an earnest question that I have always struggled with the answer to. To this day, if you ask me again, I’ll worry that any answer I give you is stupid.
He asked, “would you ever want to be famous?” and, like the starving artist that I was, I said yes. I wanted to be well-read, for people to appreciate my work, to be popular in my creative lane.
And then he asked (and I’m paraphrasing heavily here), “would you ever want to be so famous that if you did something terrible, and people knew about it, they would still excuse you for it?”
I instinctively answered no. That is still my answer. Of course, I’m still human–I still want to make, I still want to be successful, I still want to eat–but if I wouldn’t want to let someone else slide for hurting someone, I wouldn’t feel comfortable sliding on my own, even if it theoretically meant living in the frustrating obscurity of being a mason or some shit and never being able to write again. I speak as someone who not only has very strong feelings about a lot of creators, but as someone who has had to deal with the drama of that hurt itself, personally and professionally, and knows that other people are not as scrupulous. Some people want to win. Some people want to do whatever it takes to keep having power and prestige, and will leverage that prestige to gain influence over others or escape critique for reasonable wrongdoings. And those people are generally not good for communities.
But the ‘art versus artist’ debate rages on. And essentially, it comes down to: “if someone makes something radical, something life-changing, why does it matter who they are?”
Of all of the many quotes that I think are pertinent when you consider this debate, one from Naipaul rises above the water: “Everything of value about me is in my books.” I am challenged by the weight of that statement. Again, no telepathy; I know very little about Naipaul himself. But one should consider, I think, this potential theoretical: if the first time someone met you, a creator, in person was before they ever read a single page of your work, would they ever still want to read you?
I am inclined to say two things: the answer to this question is far more pressing and poignant to your career than a single word of your work; and that any potential dismissal of that answer gives people’s creation the power to take advantage of people. There are creators, after all, whose work, for whatever reason, we are perfectly willing to scrub from our ideals, however painful and difficult. While it is still fair and responsible for us to admit that the line separator is drawn differently for each individual, we should also be willing to ask why, and whether it’s because we’re permitting or excusing certain people or things because of how we feel about them, or superficial feelings about their work we haven’t deeply interrogated.
I especially also question the intention to speak fondly about the work that’s been made by those who have behaved badly. We don’t ask often enough how their misbehaviour have affected the stories and storytellers who we won’t read – the woman who refuses to write because now writing is trauma, the young student whose work is silently being blacklisted in certain spaces because they don’t want to deal with the drama of their misbehaviour in public, the outlets who inadvertently become censorious because they still publish the voices who have made life harder for marginalized creators. It turns out that when there are enough missing stairs, people are too injured to make, or worse, they just take their ankles elsewhere.
Do we want to continue creating and enjoying in that space? Do we feel comfortable knowing that every so often there will be a creaking on the flight upward that may swallow someone whole? When the cruelties of well-lettered persons persists, so we excuse them for their letters, or do we wonder whether some manner of their actual person is more important?
I’m invested in this question for multiple reasons. Many of them are personal of a sort that is still political for the culture. Of just an issue nine years old, regarding a venerated creator long since left us, an English professor of one of the world’s most eminent colleges would imply that the capacity of a man’s poetry is worth more than their character. I fundamentally disagree. Making sure that the industry is safe for its creators not only is practically more important than any one person’s words, but it ensures that the industry grows and remains inspiring for all persons, so we can have the words of the kinds of people who typically have to work four or more times as hard to get even a strand of recognition. Just being thoughtful about whose names we call and whose works we lionise may have an effect on that growth that we may not be able to observe, but can still predict. Everything of value about so many marginalized people tend to get lost in the business of bearing what many men consider not of value at all. Instead, if the words matter, then when those who have been taken advantage of or spoken down to share their own words, and the wealth of them, they should be worth a fortune.
I also can’t help but gravitate to another quote, this time by Orrin Grey. It was a simple but resounding statement, for me. I’ve wrestling with its meaning for some time, struggling with that performer’s first question of fame, and so much more besides. In the question of how to keep our communities safe for the vulnerable people who operate within it the only answer that shines in the dark is this. Is it a perfectly fair one? Definitely not. I trust that many uncouth people would rather do anything to maintain the power they have in the creative atmosphere, or gain more; I’m even more sure that some others never even think about themselves that way, but simply balk at having to sacrifice their work over thoughtlessnesses they’d want to remain thoughtless about. Besides, just wanting to be good does nothing, say, for how easy it is to keep one’s head down and not say anything about those who take advantage of others, lest you ruin a professional relationship, or worse, draw the ire of someone willing to use his clout to tarnish you.
All of these are part of my struggle. I’ve followed very good, very productive communities in lose-lose situations trying to figure out how to respond to the misbehaviour of powerful creators in their spaces because the conflict between the words and the writer raged around them. I’ve been the victim of special kinds of malice, gaslighting, and dismissal of my own experiences of abuse from people who claim to care about justice but only speak the language of righteousness to gain power and prestige over other creative outlets, leveraging the debate as their access. I’ve heard story after story, some from creators I admire who have been at the forefront of expanding the voice of my favourite forms and genres, others from new voices many of whom were lucky not to be pushed out as a result of their experience, as they detail how one person or another did unforgivable things with their power and access. And I’ve seen good people who don’t want to make enemies of other good people who don’t want to make waves as they spin on the question of how to comment on this conflict. I’ve even frustrated by some of those challenges.
For me, there is very little in the way of a line separator between who a person is and what they make as a result. If one causes pain, then pain is somewhere in the things they make. If the person that they are alienates someone, then it is hard to imagine that there is no conflict between that someone and the work made that pushes them away. If someone has power from the stories they tell, then it is only natural that at any moment when they tell another one, it’s giving them power whether they wanted it or not, and they’re going to use it in one way or another. That kind of abrasion is worthy of some observation at least. Maybe the creator is indeed trying to become a better person. Maybe they don’t even truly understand what they’ve done, and need the grace of willing loved ones and compatriots to get the help that they need. I believe that all of that is possible. But I believe that for it to be, we need to have more honest conversations about how the work of creators are not simply the power of telling radical stories. It is access, it is influence, it is power. For good or for ill, this is how it stands. What does that mean for us, as creators, as consumers, as stewards of the industry and its consequences for culture?
The truth of the matter is that the flesh is cruel, and does wicked things to the spirit that makes powerful, beautiful art. Even the people who can find it in them to make critical, thoughtful, incisive art are still mortal. And instead of saying that their mortality is so mere that it cannot or should not get in the way of the art, we should be willing instead to admit that bad behaviour is such a nuisance that it is foolishly easy for us to not let it get in the way, and foolishly naive for us to continue hesitating. That means admitting that if we want to become good people, we should be willing to lose the power of our art if we’ve done wrong. It also means that if we should be similarly willing to sacrifice that art, to leverage that position in these spaces, if it gets in the way of integrity. Which is hard, because again, art is power – the power to provide peace, to speak truth to power, to be a force for positive change in the lives of people who will never meet you to the face.
All of this wordmess still bubbles at the core of me. But there, it comes to plateau: some truly terrible things get in the way of letting vulnerable people make things of value. Failings of ordinary mortal men not only complicate our relationship to the things they make, but cut us off from the makings of others who have suffered tremendously. And refusals to acknowledge those failings very often make it harder to keep spaces safe, help living causes of harm seek healthy forms of rehabilitation, and help surviving victims of harm seek recompense, community, and a safe place to continue to make art that has the value we insist upon it. I want to say that I feel confident that I am in a community that appreciates at least the notion of this, and doesn’t balk at what it implies. I think it requires a lot of effort, most of all emotional, to build and maintain that kind of community. It, after all, takes a lot just to write a damn essay, apparently.
But in the end, that is the crescendo. It can be built. I have seen it built, and however shaky it may often be, I have seen folks make effort to keep such a process steady, and at the least defend others from twisting their ankles or worse while navigating it. The discourse will keep popping up, and I will keep having emotional conflicts that pour out like this. But the process can be built, and we can live there if we like. That is what I want. To not hesitate to talk about myself, or watch others hesitate to talk about themselves, in a space because they dread what the consequences of it may be. To know that our heads turn in healthy spaces where the work and the body, mind, heart which houses it are equally important, or at least skewed in the direction that isn’t immediately obvious to people who talk about art. To know that we do not excuse the mere body and its weaknesses as a distraction from the art – or better, to know that we excoriate the mere body and its weaknesses as a burden upon those who deserve to enjoy making and experiencing transcendent creative value rather than dreading it.