*Sorry this is slightly more incoherent than normal. I’m being interrupted by packing and sorting stuff.*
I did not mean to write this post today, but I feel I need to to link it both to Cedar’s post yesterday and to a guest post by Jason Cordova tomorrow, a day that will be taken up with my travel to Liberty con, and so a day when I can’t write or think very clearly.
I will have access to the internet from the hotel, so I’ll try to write posts, but I might round some out with Blasts from the past or pictures from the con.
No chapters on Saturday and Sunday, instead of which I have guest posts to go up.
Anyway – sometimes things other people say become part of a discussion that takes place entirely in my head, and this is part of it.
All of you know, though I can’t find it now, I objected to their kicking a member (I’m not naming him because some trolls search out his name and descend en masse) from SFWA on trumped up charges but really because they thought he was an awful person and a racist. I objected to this because – and I used the most extreme example I could think of – a plumber’s union doesn’t kick out a guy for being a child molester. If SFWA were a professional organization, their kicking someone out for double ungood thought crime would be crazy. As would be kicking someone out for being a child molester, or a murderer, even.
Of course, SFWA is not a professional organization, but a sort of fluffer’s club for people who wish to kiss up to publishers. And that’s fine by me, of course.
I don’t have to belong.
But both Cedar’s post yesterday and Jason’s tomorrow (which I have of course read) got me to thinking of the relation between the artist and the art. The fluffer’s club is screaming it doesn’t matter when it comes to unsavory actions by people they admire – Marion Zimmer Bradley, Delaney – but it’s absolutely to be taken in account when it comes to people who do things they don’t like, like Larry Correia happening to admire the story by the disgraced SFWA member that shall henceforth be called “The Banished One.”
This is the sort of extremely coherent reasoning and moral honesty we’ve come to expect from people – particularly artists – on the left side of the isle. After all they couldn’t admire communists and socialists without being able to turn their beliefs off and on at will, could they? It’s not a big secret, in the age of the internet, that Che was a psychopath who enjoyed killing people with his own hands (and weapons) but they still wear Che t-shirts, because cool and hot. And if they ever tried to coherently examine their beliefs, the stuff would fall apart like the moth eaten cloth it is.
Which brings us to the relation between beauty and the creator thereof and the creator’s personal life.
You know, Heinlein somewhere has a comment where he says you could shred the universe and find not one atom of beauty or truth. Because those reside in the human heart.
This is true, and not. In Stranger in a Strange Land, Jubal Harshaw gives one of the more blistering critiques of art in general that I’ve ever heard.
That is the duality of Heinlein who even as a Fabian socialist wrote stunningly individual and self-responsible characters. You can’t pin the man down.
Just as you can’t pin beauty down. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
Back in the seventies it was normal to try to break the rules of storytelling. I’ve said before that I had to read – for school – a novel that bragged of having no plot. It’s just two people, talking in a car. (And it sucked.)
What we found through those experiments is that the human brain is wired to take in story in a certain format, that format being “the hero’s journey” which is at any rate rather fluid and lose. Pixar formalized that into a list of steps, which can be found in a book called The Writer’s Journey. Pixar was denounced for it, as having created a formulaic check list which impairs creativity. Bushwah.
The list is merely a constraint, and you can make completely different stories within it, particularly if you scramble it a bit, which the hero’s journey allows for, since some steps are optional and some can be re-ordered. (Though I have to tell you right now that if you leave the acceptance of the call till mid-book you’re going to cry in your soup. It doesn’t work.)
There might be no objective beauty outside the human brain, but the human brain is built along certain lines, which means that most of us tend to react to certain things in a certain way.
For instance, while working in the yard yesterday I came across (okay, tripped on) a piece of rotted root that I thought was beautiful. But I thought it was beautiful because its shape looked like it had been fashioned by little people as an entrance to their home.
If I drew that piece of wood, would it evoke the same image in people who are not steeped in fantasy? I doubt it. So, if I drew it for the commercial market, I’d have to call it “fairy’s doorway” and even then, chances were half the people wouldn’t see it. Now, if I drew it for the fantasy circuit, and put in the inner hole just a glimpse of a winged form, it would evoke the right emotions – for a limited market.
I think what I’m trying to get to is this: there are some innate things that make us perceive things as beautiful. Certain parameters within which the human brain functions.
Ojectively, that means that some people will find the horrible beautiful, but those people are also – usually – objectively brain damaged. Not insane, just… peculiar.
There is a theory that the push for what is objectively ugly or meaningless to most normal people in all fields is an attempt to corrupt the culture and a grand conspiracy. Maybe. Normally I laugh at such things, but since Journolist, not so much. OTOH if it is a conspiracy, it has to be the sort of loose one that can survive generations. PERHAPS it is (also objectively) or was at one point directed by communist propaganda against the west and its art. I know that various artists and writers organizations were hard left, and I’ve heard that sf magazines were subsidized by CPUSA to publish anti-US stuff. Who knows?
But mostly I think what happened to art after WWI was an effect of WWI and of people being disillusioned with western institutions in general. My colleague at PJM, Ed Driscoll has done some stunning work in that theory. I don’t have links to hand, but I’m sure some of you will in the comments.
In that sense it would be more accurate to say that a traumatized civilization can’t express itself coherently in art, or in the appreciation of beauty.
Which brings us back around to the artist and the art.
Can someone who is a murderer, a pedophile or – ah, poor Banished One – capable of bad-think make good art?
First of all let’s establish what is and isn’t a … “corrupting effect.”
If you have bad thoughts according to current PC, you might still be a decent human being who pays your bills, feeds the dog, takes in stray cats, is kind to friends and children, etc. So we’ll establish that bad thoughts by themselves ned not have a corrupting effect on your life, and perhaps not in your fiction, unless they obsess you to such a degree that you can’t help but put it in your fiction. Let’s point out right here that I know people who do have that issue, usually with kinky sex, which starts leaking into their novels. In the cases I know, a little bit is okay, but if you let it BECOME the only thing you write it’s a problem. Of course, by the time you get THERE, you usually have lost control of other things.
Which brings us again to who the artist is, and what the art is.
For years I tried to write books that were utterly divorced from myself and had nothing to do with me. This is because, partly, I didn’t want to write about politics. Partly it was because it was part of my distancing myself from books that were being killed.
You’ve heard that for a book to be good, the writer must put himself in it to some degree. I confess I became successful when I started doing just that.
The reaction we get to art is not from a perfect execution or detail polishing. It’s an emotional gut reaction, which is best achieved by having the artist pour out a bit of his own emotional gut reaction. (This is perhaps the reason I prefer some artists in what is objectively their decaying mode. The later Heinleins, the last few Leonard Cohen albums. They’re less controlled, but speak more directly to the emotions.)
Now a good artist knows how to take those bits and shape them so they appeal to a larger majority. Or at least a good artist tries to. I have analyzed both my peculiarities and those of the “general public” or the greater majority of reading people, and try to shape my strange stuff to fit with other people.
Would this be possible for people who live such disordered personal lives that it falls into “criminal”? I don’t know.
You guys know all of us, artists, are to an extent outside the social order. It’s what allows us to do what we do. Tomorrow we’re supposed to meet my husband’s best friend from college, and I have some trepidation, as he seems to have become absolutely conventional, which means we’ll stand sideways and upside down to him. And we are, mind, one of the most boring “middle class” couples in science fiction. But we have a taste for low dive diners, which apparently caused him to react with horror to the suggestion we meet in one. And at the same time when we have money (alas not now) we will know the best restaurants in town, because sometimes what you need is a very good dinner and jazz-dancing afterwards. (Okay, birthdays and important anniversaries, but still.)
More than that, we’ve all read biographies of artists and writers, starting with DaVinci who was tried for what sounds uncommonly like child abuse but was, probably, just a spot of sodomy between studio apprentices. (Hey, it was cold in those big stucco buildings.)
And you come back to “How can people create this and yet be such horrible human beings?”
I don’t know.
First the concept of awful human being is different depending on the person. For instance, I think thought crime counts for nothing. And I think even “child abuse” has soft edges. For instance, I sympathized with MZB saying that of course some people were mature at different ages. HOWEVER no one is mature enough at 10 or 11, and there are uh… other shadings of influence and coercion that are harder when there is a great disparity in age. But if it comes to a seventeen year old girl… well… My brother was born when mom was just on eighteen and dad was 21. I know, the age difference wouldn’t make him a child abuser, but at 15 she’d dated a much older man. At 15 with the life she’d led, she was objectively an adult, and had been earning her own living for three years.
I’m NOT defending what MZB did, particularly considering she was herself apparently doing a spot of child abuse on the side starting when the child was at a very young age indeed; I’m just saying that these things change with time and place. No one in Portugal in the fifties would condemn my mom’s boyfriend before my dad just because there was six years difference between them and he was 20. BUT if my 20 year old brought home a 14 year old girlfriend, we’d have to talk. And there better not being anything happening between them.
This is because the law has changed, but also because people have changed. There’s a great difference between mom at 14 and an American middle school girl now.
However, let’s establish that an artist or writer is objectively depraved. Let’s say he’s a mass murderer.
Can he still produce breathtaking beauty?
I don’t know. Most of the cases – as with MZB – that have come out, have turned out to be people whose work doesn’t touch me. In fact most of them are “vanguard” and people who change the work to make the awful beautiful. People who turn against not the established order (which these days is mostly left) but the traditional order of art and beauty.
Of course innovators turn against that too, which is why our art doesn’t look like it did in Summeria.
However there is a difference between art that takes the principles and uses them in new ways, and art that subverts the principles in service of ugly. Ugly visuals, ugly thoughts, ugly deeds.
As someone who writes, I don’t think you can separate the art from the artist. Not intrinsically.
A lot of what we do is subconscious and will come through.
Now, that doesn’t mean some Marxist might not find great solace in my work, if he or she puts a mind to it. I’m just saying that what they’re reacting to is NOT nor can it be the central point of what I put in it.
I love Pratchett, even though I disagree with most of his political views. I love Heinlein, but most of what he believed for most of his life is alien to me.
So, you can’t separate the art from the artist, but what the artist puts in the art, if true art, is not always what he is. As I said, early Heinlein had plenty of individualism, despite his earnest lectures on how bad it was. And Pratchett hits on the truth more often than he allows himself to think about.
The same applies to a lot of writers and artists.
The question comes down to – pardon me – the sin and the sinner. If the artist has some… uh… moral warts, they will slowly (if he fights) corrupt his art. But that doesn’t mean at least his early art won’t be fine.
What I mean is, what destroys the art is not the crime or the evil acts commited by the artist. It’s the way those, in turn, change the artist. If you killed someone and then consciously try to justify it, the justifications will leak into your art and corrupt it.
Does that mean I won’t read Marxist authors? Well, not after I start seeing the corruption seeping into the art. But I will read their early works.
And as for judging people… Well, I never read much Bradley – couldn’t get into it – so I’m not purging her books from my library. Ditto with Delaney.
But if it came out tomorrow that Heinlein had a liaison with a 15 year old girl? Would I stop reading him?
Well, no. I didn’t see the issue in his books before, so they’re still fine by me. But in the same way, I will not refuse to read the Banished One or even vote for him for awards just because he’s alleged to have double plus ungood thoughts.
Some people I’ve met before reading I can’t read (a good argument for writers to NEVER meet people, btw) because they were so abrasive, awful people in person.
But the rest? I don’t judge people positively or negatively because or despite of their books. Unless the books themselves are repulsive or show the stain of what they did.
That way lies witchhunts and censorship, because I guarantee if you go out three degrees of separation all of us are linked to awful people.
On the other hand I think the evil that men do (and women), the evil they’re aware of having done, leaks into their art. If you create, be aware of it.
And let’s be done with art that celebrates evil or horrible things. Yes, the shock it causes can pass for strong emotion for a while, but look, the only reason Titus Andronicus survives is because of Shakespeare’s other work.
No, I’m not calling for censorship. I’m calling, though, for Western art to return to certain ideals of loyalty to and celebration of that unique and odd creature, the human.
Let’s be done with showing only his ugly and brutal side. We’re not creating art for the sentient lobsters of alpha centauri but for humans, and what humans read influences them.
Let’s be done with “all humanity is evil.” Let’s put an end to “everyone is awful” as a view of the world. Humans are flawed, yes, but they often have the qualities of their failings.
Write Human Wave. Read Human Wave. Celebrate being human. And try to be the best you can.