Should Artists' Lives Or Opinions Affect How People Perceive Their Art?
The problem is that artist commentary is so often tempting—even when we get something different out of a work than what directors or writers or actors say they put into it, it’s generally compelling to hear them out as they explain their vision. (If it wasn’t, half this website wouldn’t exist.) Inception wouldn’t be sparking nearly so much avid online debate if Christopher Nolan released a dry statement explaining what he believes it all means and exactly how we should interpret the final act—but even so, I’m betting if he did issue such a statement, everyone who saw the movie would want to read it anyway.
And by the same token, even people who would like for work to stand entirely on its own have trouble turning their heads during major media blowouts like the current business over Mel Gibson’s profanity-laden meltdown tapes, or Roman Polanski’s arrest and release. Often after being exposed to artists’ work, we feel like we know them on some level—especially if that work speaks to us in personal ways. It can be a shock when terrible behavior (or even just normal human behavior that happens to be at odds with a carefully crafted media image, or with the art itself) reminds us that we really don’t. And our own personal judgments about a creator’s actions can be even harder to separate from the work than the direct, overt statements they make about that work.
Even so, art can’t exist in a vacuum. Interpretation is a personal act, but so is creation, and some part of the artist goes into the work, whether it’s a specific intended message, or just the inevitable imprint of a creator’s personality and experiences. Work still has to stand on its own, but it’s increasingly hard to let it, given our media-driven, privacy-lite era, where we tend to know a lot more about high-profile writers, actors, and directors than they’d like us to know. Yet at least from an idealistic perspective, the ultimate determinant of whether a work speaks to someone should be whether the work actually does speak to someone, and not whether the creator said it should, or the creator is funny or interesting or smart or plays well on Late Night With Conan O’Brien. Or for that matter, whether he’s a drunken, abusive, ranting psychopath.