Reconciling art and the artist

10 mins read

When I was in elementary school I read “Ender’s Game.” Even without context, that’s a common enough occurrence, and a perfectly acceptable one. With context, it’s a bit more significant. During the first few years of my education I had to go to something called Speech Class.

I was self-conscious about it. The teacher, whom I still talk to occasionally, was nice. The classroom was small and stuffy (I often wondered if it was a storage closet at some point in its existence), but it was bright and full of stuffed animals. It was a pleasant enough class, but, to put it bluntly, it was a class for dumb kids. At least that’s how I and every other eight-year-old in my school saw it at the time.

It was for the kids who, whenever the grown-ups referred to them, the comments were punctuated with “bless their heart.” Speech was a thing that took you out of the main room when the rest of the kids learned English, put you in a broom closet, and taught you how to use your words even though you weren’t in kindergarten anymore and should have known how to do that by now.

I didn’t need Speech. I could talk just fine when I felt the need to, I just didn’t very often. Not talking very much and not being able to talk very much are clearly two different things, but my teachers were worried regardless and that was the end of that. Alas, the struggle of an introverted child is a harsh one.

How does that rambling anecdote from my childhood relate to a science fiction book from the 1980s, you ask? The simple answer is I believe that said rambling anecdote accurately conveys why “Ender’s Game” resonated with me as a child. Ender Wiggin was an outcast, someone other people viewed as strange, as an oddity to be made fun of or exploited.

Ender’s status as an outcast and an underdog who grows to be something more than that changed how I viewed a lot of things back when I was a child. I eventually grew critical reading skills and noticed that it, like most things, was not perfect, but it still has significant nostalgic value. And apparently the book had that same resonating effect on plenty of other people as well, seeing as how “Ender’s Game” is often cited as one of the best books of all time. That being said, though, I don’t think I’ll surprise anyone when I say that the author of “Ender’s Game” is a dick.

Ah, Orson Scott Card, what to say about him? I don’t know what’s worse: him threatening to provoke violent revolution if gay people were ever given equal rights, or him backpedalling on the whole “violent revolution” idea as soon as he realized poor PR would lose him money. If you’re going to be a bigot, at least be a consistent one with personal integrity who doesn’t denounce his views as soon as they’re inconvenient. That’s the right way to do it.

Trying to wrap your mind around it requires some serious cognitive dissonance. People don’t want to believe that someone who could create a piece of art that means a lot to them could also be such an unpleasant person in real life.

With the way the human brain works, it’s difficult to reconcile the two traits and attribute them to the same individual. It would be like suddenly finding out that J.K. Rowling’s been a skinhead this entire time or that Tom Waits is really a happy, optimistic human being. It just doesn’t compute too terribly well.

Where does that leave the audience, then? I think one fundamental question has to be answered before you can even begin to ponder what you as an audience member should think about any particular piece of art with a particularly unscrupulous creator: Is it an artist’s job to represent their work, or does their work speak for itself?

It’s a difficult question and a totally subjective one, but I’m under the impression that the latter is correct. There’s a difference between being a bad person and creating bad things. I’m sure if you went at it with determination and applied some not-at-all-biased research efforts to “Ender’s Game” you could find some homophobic themes, but they wouldn’t be immediately apparent. If the author’s negative views actually seeped into the work that would be one thing, but no one’s going to put down “Ender’s Game” and decide that they don’t like circles and rainbows anymore.

The idea of not liking a piece of art you would otherwise enjoy and find nothing especially objectionable in simply because the moral fiber of the creator doesn’t sit well with you doesn’t make that much sense to me upon thinking about it. To invert the situation, I’m fairly sure it’s not a common thing to enjoy a terrible book solely because the author is a good person.

The art exists by itself and will continue to exist long after the creator is dead. Not acknowledging genuinely good, sometimes beautiful things because they came from someone you don’t like seems to me to be a profoundly cynical way of viewing art. If anything, the fact that a “bad” person could create a piece of art that doesn’t reflect that is a positive, hopeful thing. It shows that they actually have something good and enjoyable to offer the world despite everything else.

If we base our enjoyment of art solely on the perceived moral character of the artist, we’d be missing out on so much. To put it bluntly, artists are oftentimes not the most well-adjusted, role model-esque people out there. Plenty of them are, and I commend those people. But lots of them aren’t.

That doesn’t mean that they don’t have anything worthwhile to say, and that doesn’t mean that everything they create should be kept away from children with their impressionable young minds. We don’t want little Johnny reading Poe and succumbing to crippling alcoholism, because Edgar made that look fun and worthy of imitation.

To bring it back around, Orson Scott Card is a man I wouldn’t want to be in the same state as at any given time, but “Ender’s Game” has and will continue to be a book that gives me happy feelings, and I can at least credit Mr. Card with that much.

I quoted a comedian in my first column, so I figured I might as well make that a thing. Comedians have relevant things to say about most topics. I’ll send us off with a quote from Bill Hicks on good music: “When did mediocrity and banality become a good image for your children? I don’t care if they died in pools of their own vomit! I want someone who plays from his fucking heart!”


The Phoenix