I used to want to try to divorce an artist’s work from the artist as a person. Somehow I thought these should be separate things. I suppose I thought this for a number of reasons. Foremost was probably a childish (or understandable) need for the possibility of true perfection. I wanted there to be art which was perfect. I wanted to have an ideal to hold up above all others. Maybe this was a way of bringing order to a confusing world (hormones—which plagued me well into my twenties.) And I suppose I also feared if I knew more about the artist as a person, it might demystify the genius I wanted there to be—in the works I liked. The easiest way to believe in absolute perfection is to divorce it from its creator (or from what is knowable, as is the case with religion). The artist could possess a genius, but it could not be entirely his own. It had to transcend—existing long before and long after it was ever articulated. The perfect order of notes. One expresses such an outlook with clichés like “let the work speak for itself.” And by wanting nothing to do with “an artist’s statement” (although that might still be a good policy). I used to think the cover of a book didn’t matter. But at some point I began to think about it differently.
Now I see the relationship between a work of art and its audience as primarily a communion between an artist—who is a unique human being—and an audience. And so to create a work is to channel a part of that being into something sharable. When you see six films by one director, it’s as though you are having dinner with the same friend six times, presumably one whose company you enjoy. When you read a book by _________, you are getting to know something of him. Either you like it or you don’t. Or both. And of course this reaction is free to change. Perhaps one decade you like Eliot, another Frost, and yet another time you find comfort in the music of J.S. Bach, or maybe just Jack Daniels. These artists have been able to translate something core about their unique person into their works, and you respond to it—on a fundamental human level. Whether it can or cannot or should or should not be explained by art theory and vast gobbledygook is not the issue. To appreciate genuine, original art is simply to appreciate another human being. And my god there are A LOT of them.
Listen to the notes of Beethoven. You connect with something real within the man. How clearly or accurately depends on a lot of factors, such as the person playing the music and your perception, but that is not to say a connection isn’t always there. Perhaps what you hear is not at all what the artist thought he was trying to say. Or perhaps it is exactly what he was trying to say. Just as it is in real relationships with real people (especially when conducted over the internet). Whenever someone sees David Lynch interviewed on TV, they say, “How, but he seems so normal.” Note, “seems.”
To judge a work of art is to judge some aspect of a person at one point in time. To judge a body of work is to judge an accumulation of these things over time. It would be wrong to say a man is all bad because you happen to catch him committing an act of transgression just as it would be wrong to say a filmmaker is all good just because his last film pleased you.
To judge a work of art is often to contextualize it in its time and place. Likewise, artists are products of their own personal history, mutable, capable of influencing and being influenced by others. Understanding where they come from allows you to make certain predictions and take extra pleasures—to think as well as feel—just as you would with anyone you meet. You might be wrong in your thoughts. But you might be right.
I still believe in the sovereign act of creating art. I believe a work of art can speak for itself. And sometimes it does speak much more loudly and clearly or more noticeably than the person behind it could have using some other means—and not his art. But now I no longer want to deny there is a person behind it. And that the two, the art and the artist, should be taken not as separate, but as one.