When I go to conventions and wear a sport coat I often include a pin featuring H.P. Lovecraft’s cadaverous, Moai-ish mug on the lapel; it was a sort of mini-version of the Gahan Wilson World Fantasy Award sculpture and was given to me years ago for being nominated. I never thought too much about it and always presumed that their using Lovecraft for the award was a symbol of genre rather than any attempt to directly honor Lovecraft-the-man. The bust was given out from 1975 to 2015; it was changed in 2016 into a statue of a gnarled tree and moon sculpted by Vincent Villafranca. Why? Well, a controversy surrounding the bust began in the 2010s when several authors objected to using a visage of Lovecraft [1896-1937] as the symbol of the awards, given his racist writings about various non-Anglo-Saxons; Irish Catholics, German immigrants and African-Americans were consistently disparaged in his letters to fans and fellow writers. Lovecraft scholars and biographers claimed that the writer’s attitudes were not considered extreme at the time, were influenced by the late 19th and early 20th century New England society he grew up in, and had “softened” with his age, but winners Nnedi Okorafor and China Miéville noted that they disliked being honored with a bust of a man who would have found many of the winners and nominees distasteful because of their race or national origin. Other writers and editors joined into the debate and in 2015 the award administrators announced the decision to change the award. As Lenika Cruz, associate editor of The Atlantic, notes, “Lovecraft’s removal is about more than just the writer himself; it’s not an indictment of his entire oeuvre.”
Though I personally never considered the award bust as a celebration of Lovecraft exactly (it’s not even a remotely flattering sculpture, after all) or as tacit validation of his racist or xenophobic purview, I respected the objections and supported the decision to change the physical award to be more reflective of the genre’s diversity and welcoming to all.
I still wear the pin, though—and am often asked what it is—but in recent years have started to wonder if I should. I mean, I don’t go around wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with “F*ck Off!” on the front (though admittedly might have when I was a teenager) so is wearing a Lovecraft pin insensitive and somehow sending messages I don’t intend or want to send? Honestly, I don’t know…but it gives me pause.
Last year in my remembrance of Harlan Ellison I had mentioned that, all though he really disliked Walt Disney, Harlan’s house was filled with Disney memorabilia. Toys, teapots, books, plates, and beyond: he had them all. When I asked about the seeming contradiction Harlan had responded simply, “I can separate the man from the work.” Now, of course, I think most would agree that Harlan—who was no stranger to controversy—was an intrinsic ingredient of his writings and extracting one from the other would seem almost an impossible task (as many, whether admireres and detractors, have found).
But separating the Art from the Artist has been a recurring and problematic question in recent years, especially in the wake of the #metoo and #timesup movements. The anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death this past June prompted commentators to wrestle with the question of if it was “ok” to still enjoy listening to “Billy Jean” or “Thriller” in light of past accusations and the recent Leaving Neverland documentary. Similar questions have been asked regarding other singers, actors, writers, and artists that have been accused of (and in some cases admitted to and even indicted for) abusive behavior or sexual misconduct or criminal or offensive or otherwise shitty acts. Often there’s a desire (if not purposeful attempts) to erase the incriminated and their works from society and to ignore past accomplishments whether guilt is ever proven or not. Don’t watch any of Weinstein’s or Spacey’s or Hoffman’s or Polanski’s or Flynn’s or Chaplin’s movies again! Take down Close’s paintings! Don’t laugh at Cosby’s or C.K.’s stand-up routines! Stop listening to Bowie’s (and let’s be honest practically any musician’s, country, rock, or hip-hop) songs! The implication being that by continuing to like their work you’re in some way condoning their behavior.
But does it? The Court of Public Opinion—amplified by social media—can be very black and white and stridently unforgiving. Comparatively minor acts can be conflated to equal criminal ones with the ease of a Tweet.
What’s proper? What’s the right reaction?
Above: Hopper’s “Nighthawks”
It’s a fact that art is routinely seen as a deliberate extension of the person that produces it, and as such it is hardly a surprise that creator and creation are essentially considered one and the the same. But should it? Michelangelo Marisa da Caravaggio, when not painting his Biblical scenes, reportedly murdered two people; it’s been written that Paul Gauguin battered his wife, abandoned she and their children in France, and had three teenage brides and infected dozens of other underage girls with syphilis in Tahiti; Renoir and Edgar Degas were openly and unapologetically anti-Semitic; in N.C. Wyeth: A Biography author David Michaelis describes an affair the beloved illustrator allegedly had with his daughter-in-law; a nude Georgia O’Keefe used to routinely chase her then-husband Arthur Stieglitz’s nieces and nephews away from her studio, using a paintbrush as a blackjack; Edward Hopper would mock his wife Jo’s artwork (along with that of virtually all women artists, calling them “incompetent”) and engaged in public fist fights with her—who gave as good or better as she got and only complained to others about Hopper’s superior reach when throwing punches. Looking closely at the lives of any creative (of any person, honestly) will almost certainly find a closeted skeleton or three: no one, including our heroes, leads a squeaky clean life in which they don’t make mistakes or cause someone else pain. I’ve always thought our human failings are as important to understanding accomplishment as are our virtues. People don’t always like to read or hear “bad things” that tarnish their image of an artist that they admire and subsequently may judge the art differently, perhaps negatively. The art, in whatever form it is, hasn’t changed…but the viewer in some way has.
Above: Caravaggio’s “St, Jerome in Thought”
Art, Artists, and Controversy have always been companions. It is both understandable and inevitable that they were and are. Art is a human expression and it goes without saying that being human is complicated and messy—as is history. The problem is that we want everything to be neat and tidy and it never is. It stands to reason that if “good people” can do bad things then “bad people” can do good things—and that includes creating worthwhile art. Saying that shouldn’t confuse anyone into believing that good art somehow excuses the egregious behavior of its creator: it clearly does not. Writing “Imagine” doesn’t give John Lennon a pass for abusing his first wife, Cynthia—but at the same time I also don’t believe that “Imagine” is somehow tainted and should never be heard or performed again. “Imagine” certainly exists because of the artist…but it also exists in spite of him as well.
I’m reminded of the quote from Inherit the Wind when Sarah, the wife of Matthew Harrison Brady, is confronted by a young woman, Rachel, who was hurt by trusting in him: “You see my husband as a saint,” Sarah tells her, “and so he must be right in everything he says and does. And then you see him as a devil, and everything he says and does must be wrong. Well my husband’s neither a saint nor a devil. He’s just a human being, and he makes mistakes.”
But because we like things “neat” there’s often a desire to sanitize the past (and the present, too), and change or hide or even destroy works that no longer fit with one contemporary line of thought or another. I think that’s a mistake. The truth is not partisan, it’s not “politically correct”: the only agenda of truth is…truth. As such, I’m all for showing, reading (and reading about), and talking honestly about all manner of art (and artists) whether it’s a painting, a film, a song, or a novel; I’m all for holding people responsible for their crimes and misdemeanors even as I’m all for acknowledging and applauding exceptional work. I want to know the real stories because ultimately that helps me to better understand the artist, their times, struggles, failings, accomplishments, and constraints—and, as a result, perhaps have a greater appreciation for their art. I am 100% for providing context for virtually everything—in museums and in books and online—just as I’m 100% for not hiding anything away, even if it’s sometimes painful. Confronting the unpleasant face-on sometimes is the only way we learn; that’s the only way we progress and, hopefully, avoid repeating the same mistakes.