The art vs the artist. Which matters? When it comes to biographies, background stories, and research into identities of artists, do we sometimes go too far? There’s an understandable yearning to gain deeper understanding and elucidation of a piece of art that has been part of your life, but actually does it matter who wrote Twelfth Night as long as it is good, or what Dickens had for breakfast as long as it fuelled his day. Who cares what someone got up to if their work was decent? Why do we care so much about not just the narrative of the text we are reading, but the life narrative of its author?
When asked, at this year’s Battle of Ideas, as to why he decided to write a biography, John Bridcut, biographer of a new book on Benjamin Britten was very clear that he wanted to understand the music, its creation, its depths, and found that the process of writing altered his understanding of the music. To truly understand art, he believes that it is essential to get inside the mind of an artist. But does knowing more about an artist lead to a fresh understanding of their art, or does it undermine it? Is it even relevant?
There can be no doubt in my mind that art cannot sit separately from an artist – if it is true art in the way that I identify it: emotional, imaginative and vital. Otherwise it is just a product, part of a manufactured chain. The urge to create and be artistic should come from an experience or mindset, rather than just being a job. As both a conscious and unconscious process, art comes from the messes and vagaries of life and experiences. And if the art is purely a product or result of a job, then the life and background of its creator is unlikely to be of interest to the public anyway to warrant any kind of analysis or research like that of a biography. There is an exciting dialogue between art and the creator and their lives, just like there is with all individuals, and work contains things and themes that are inextricable to the creator. Artists therefore shouldn’t expect people to just take their work at face value. Whilst an author’s work transcends their biography and we shouldn’t reduce a work to the author’s sex and class and age, knowing how they lived can be incredibly illuminating and enrich the experience.
Learning about an artist is a sign of respect and appreciation for the art. It’s rare that an urge to want to know about an artist’s life happens first. As Gerry Feehily, author and writer, says, you fall in love with an artist and so want to know more about them. It’s essentially being a fan. The problem is when work ‘becomes a metatext for their life – it destroys the creative process.’ Understanding of an artist and their life can elucidate and radiate, but it can also destroy. Without wishing to go too far down the path of relativism, we start to smear art with its creation, judging in in a different way, depending on the context. It is important to preserve autonomy of text, as well as understand it and appreciate it.
Of course, the result is not always one of greater appreciation. It can undermine the work. One of the reasons that this idea of biography or art history has become more controversial in recent years is the way that it reveal things about our idols that make us uncomfortable. Whether it is the aforementioned Britten’s relationships with young boys or Wagner’s anti-Semitic sensibilities, we judge past eras with the morality and prejudices of our own time, and this colours the work. Sometimes we don’t want to know what someone has done, not because of what it says about them, but because of what our response may say about us. The question of whether we can enjoy work by a loathsome human being and continue to listen to or read it, whilst being debated eloquently and at length, has been best responded to on a forum, where one person said ‘If you feel that your continued appreciation of their work may beget harm to others, then you’re morally and ethically free to boycott any and all of their work. If you’re absolutely obsessed with their work, but cannot tolerate them as individuals, then you could write them a strongly-worded letter.’
The fact is that however uncomfortable the things we learn about a composer or an artist or a novelist are, they are an important part of their work. Life is gritty and grim, and so why should artists be pure. However, the work is created, and set free. It was once part of the creator, and reflective of them, but finished and in the public domain it is for all to use, appreciate, interpret and above all enjoy, and no longer being shaped by the artist, although our appreciation and response to it can be shaped by our appreciation and response to that artist. But if you are someone who likes to know who, where, what and why, there is no doubt that digging into the history and context will reveal hundreds of threads, strands and associations between the artist and art. Some will be striking, some insignificant, some scary, some enlightening, but all will have played a part in the creation of the art you love.