A couple of recent eruptions over literary works have caused me to contemplate a curious aspect of the cultural situation. The move by Roald Dahl’s publisher to “bowdlerize” his children’s books, to render them more palatable to contemporary audiences, and the to-do over the creator of Dilbert’s public expressions of problematic attitudes. These are the most recent after a long string of reactions to artists who turn out to have opinions, beliefs, and political positions seemingly at odds with their work. Or not. Some of the review of said work has all the makings of a minor industry of reassessments based on the failings of the creators.*
There is a legitimate question of what then to do about the work itself once the creator is revealed to be some degree of objectionable. How does the revelation of an odious aspect of the writer/artist affect the work itself? If one once loved the work, what does one do now that one has been soured on the author?
Because the work is what is it is. It hasn’t changed. We enjoyed it once (presumably) and now, because of factors not in evidence in the work itself, it becomes problematic to admit to once liking it. Why should this happen?
I suspect what we’re seeing is a consequence of the way an artist is marketed now. We live in an age of Brands. To a certain extent, this has always been the case. The Auteur becomes the reason to not only buy the work in question but forms part of the pleasure we derive from it. We seek out that artist’s work because it is that artist. We’re buying the brand. The so-called Madison Avenue Effect is in full play. Marketing has centered not on a given work but on the artist.
In a way, this is smart, because no artist is consistently brilliant, and there has to be a way to sell through lesser works. You make it important that the work is by a brand you value. When successful, this branding can transcend an individual work and guarantee sales it might not otherwise garner. This is most evident when the Brand is sublet, so to speak. Authors become a name on a cover of a book written by someone else. Franchise work. We don’t buy those books because of the (considerably) lesser known writer who actually did the work, but because the Brand above the title promises something we value.
The successful branding has the shortfall that the value of the work becomes secondary. The question of how to regard the work in the event of a catastrophe loss of face is rendered awkward, because while a perfectly reasonable disclaimer that the artist is not the work may be valid on one level, if the value of the work has been displaced by recentering that value on the Brand and the Brand is inextricably bound up in the artist, then effectively we have accepted that the artist is the work. They are of a piece and public disgrace, for better or worse, does accrue to the entire package.
Because we have long lived in the age of the Cult of Personality, is should come as no surprise that the money behind the personality have refined their models to achieve the profits of successful Branding. But once done, then the separation of artist and work, at least in terms of popular acceptance, becomes impossible. We each individually must do the moral maths to determine where the value actually resides. If the artist willingly goes along with the marketing process and embraces the idea of Branding, then it should also come as no surprise when with scandal the work is debased in the same breath.
Is there a way out of this for the artist? I don’t know. If successful enough, other forces will come into play to make him/her/they a Brand. Control slips away. But. One can always just keep one’s mouth shut. Or try. The humility to realize that while you may be very good at this one thing such skill and talent does not translate across disciplines. You are not necessarily guru material. And maybe your feelings about certain things really are not elevated above the simply odious because your popularity has handed you a megaphone.
This requires some sorting out. By all of us, really, but very much so by artists with aspirations to Brandhood.
- Yes, we already have something like this, but perhaps not to the level of seeing actual university courses wholly focused on the subject and a burgeoning tell-all industry actively rewarding revelations of personal badness confined to personal opinion. It’s a massive seismic movement now that is largely opportunistic, but is well on its way to becoming a full-blown anti-PR industry.