Separate the Art From the Artist

Photo by Igor Miske on Unsplash

Reading “Art Matters” by Neil Gaiman (illustrated by Chris Ridell) recently made me realize something. Something about why I loved it as much as I did even though it was nothing I hadn’t already read before.

Some much-required background here.

I’ve seen Neil Gaiman’s famously titled “make good art” commencement address enough times to be able to regularly quote it in conversation. I’ve also read many of his books including Norse Mythology, American Gods, and Ocean at the end of the Lane. I’ve heard some of the audiobooks voiced by Neil Gaiman himself.

Each successive book I read by Neil Gaiman, I liked it more and more. Ironically, that says much less about the objective “goodness” of Neil Gaiman’s writing and much more about my experience of a Neil Gaiman product. I did not read his books in the order that they were released. It is natural for an author to evolve his style and improve the nuances of his writing with every next undertaking, but it was clearly not a factor here. The consumption of every book or speech or interview enhanced the experience of the next. In fact, reading “Art Matters” was somewhat of a crescendo to this said experience. It was moving, enthralling, and inspiring. It inspired me to write this blog, after all.

Love for the artist means love for the art

Another example of such an enhanced experience of art includes one of my most favorite communities of the Internet. The Nerdfighteria. For those who don’t know, nerdfighteria is the community of people that follow Vlogbrothers, a YouTube channel jointly owned by John and Hank Green.

I’m not sure how many people realize that besides the massive amount of luck, being in the right place, and at the right time, the unnoticed component that made The Fault in our Stars a smashing hit it was, was Nerdfighteria.

People are invested in Vlogbrothers enough to love the next thing John (nerdfighteria and John and Hank are on first name basis) is ready to bring into the world. The same reason I knew beyond a shred of a doubt that “An Absolutely Remarking Thing” written by Hank Green would be a New York Times Bestseller before it was even released. None of this is to undermine the quality of the work they do. There is no celebration of the product if the product isn’t celebration worthy, but this is more like the next layer of enjoyment of it.

Vlogbrothers have 3+ million followers. They receive hundreds of thousands of views on their videos every week. There are many of us who watch Crash Course and Sci Show regularly (proud notification squad), listen to Dear Hank and John, take part in Project for Awesome, and solemnly use “Don’t forget to be awesome” as an actual greeting in life.

The point of this elaborate fan confession is this —

Beyond value creation, beyond showing up over and over, beyond the metrics of success like video views, followers, number of copies of books sold at Barnes and Noble, what enhances my experience of a Neil Gaiman book is the person of Neil Gaiman himself. I wasn’t a big fan of “Turtles All the way Down”, but I was never going to not buy it. “Art Matters” is nothing I can’t find elsewhere on the internet. Those essays are up on the web for free for anyone to bask in their profundity. Hell, I read parts of “make good art” out loud, mimicking Neil Gaiman’s cadence from the commencement speech where it was originally taken from. That’s how familiar I am with the text. I did not want to read well-articulated essays about art, I wanted to read something written by Neil Gaiman.

As Hannah Gadsby eloquently points out in her comedy special on Netflix,

Nobody owns a circular Lego nude, they own a Picasso.

The fact that the experience of art is deeply entangled with its artist is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can be beatific and resonant and on the other, destructive, dissonant. One does not pay $5,000 for the material a Coco Chanel bag is made out of, you pay for the name. You’d be happy to pay a lot more for your shoes if they were Nike’s.

This is not made up, this is not a lie, this is not a loophole in critical thinking.

We collectively make iPhone mean something more than its parts made in China. Yuval Noah Harari would agree, the superfluous worth of a Picasso is but a myth. It’s a story of an artist’s grace, of unprecedented change, and of a revolution. A story repeated enough times throughout history that its echoes still ricochet in art galleries. The story of a man who single-handedly in his lifetime gave birth to seven different art movements. What a resume! His humanity is but a small sacrifice to pay for his genius, his contribution, and his legacy, right?

Genius is a thing that happens and not a kind of person . — Jordan Ellenberg

If Tfios hadn’t been number one at the box office in its opening week, some other movie would have made it to the top. Some other movie whose creation involved a different kind of luck, a different kind of value created from different metrics. It happens week by week. Year by year. If Einstein had not proposed the general theory of relativity, someone else would have. Luck, the right time, and the right place, none of these are a kind of person. The genius of the general theory of relativity would not have been lost on the world had it not been for Einstein. If it hadn’t been for Picasso and cubism, the art world would have been painted gold by a different movement of a different time by a different artist and the experience of it would have been just as emphatic, brilliant, and significant, perhaps even more. Perhaps, Picasso killed another genius in its infancy by his distracting success.

The art and the artist are inseparable

What you can create does not exempt you from who you are and what you can create is only as valuable as who you are. So aspire to be better. Aspire to be exemplary because you will not create change in isolation. Change comes and your part in it is a myth humanity may share for years to come. So aspire to be better.

As a species, we’re getting better at recognizing that change can come from anyone and anywhere and that there’s a lot of luck and privilege involved in the process. Don’t underestimate the importance of the right time, the right place, and luck. Picasso could have been born a cripple or a woman and his genius would have been stifled by patriarchy before its genesis. We would have revered one less man who thought taking advantage of his position is okay.

I refuse to separate the art from the artist for the same reason I’ll continue to read anything Neil Gaiman writes. It’s because reading a Neil Gaiman book is an experience beyond the words on its pages. The experience has everything to do with who Neil Gaiman is. Just like Picasso’s art has everything to do with who Picasso was.

So, no. Don’t separate the human being from the art. Ask for better human beings.

Stories. Sometimes of words, sometimes of people.

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