Separating Creators From Their Work

What a person creates can tell you a lot about that person; how that person thinks and believes, for example, how that person thinks about art and expression, how well that person works with others. It can provide you with glimpses into who that person is, even, as long as you operate in the awareness that creators selectively and consciously display themselves in their work, and thus have ample opportunities to decide how they want to present themselves through their media. Yet, in the end, something a person makes is distinct from that person as an individual, and it’s important to be aware of that.

Creators are not their work; their work is not them.

Clearly their work is an inextricable part of them, because anything that requires hours of invested energy, labour, time, love, focus, and attention is going to require giving a part of yourself. And you, in turn, will fold up a little bit of what you created into who you are. And likewise, a creator’s work carries a tiny bit of the creator with it. But the two are not seamlessly interchangeable, and that’s important to remember when viewing works critically, as well as talking about their creators.

Asked about his hatred for Ayn Rand by a reader back in December, John Green gently pointed out that he doesn’t hate Rand, he hates her books. He noted that ‘It’s really important to separate authors from their work. Lovely people write terrible books; terrible people write lovely books.’ My view is slightly different from John’s; I do think that creators need to be evaluated within the context of their work and vice versa, making it impossible to create a total separation, but his fundamental point here is sound. You cannot neatly map over hatred of media onto its creator, or vice versa, because the world is a complex place.

Roman Polanski, for example, is a terrible person. He also happened to make some beautiful films. Are the films terrible because of who Polanski is? Well, no, I don’t think they are. I do think that you can make a conscious choice as a viewer not to watch them or support them because you have oppositions to their creator, but to say ‘Chinatown is a horrible movie because Polanski is a bad person’ just doesn’t quite work. Conversely, of course, I’m deeply uncomfortable with saying ‘Roger Christian is a terrible human being because Battlefield Earth is one of the worst movies ever made.’

We have to be able to separate creators from their work when evaluating both because this makes our criticisms stronger. For example, if we’re going to look at Joss Whedon and feminism, we need to look both at how his feminism expresses in his work, and what he has said as a standalone individual in speeches, commentaries, and other settings. Likewise, when looking at someone like Ayn Rand, if we want to say that Rand herself was a bad person, we need to be able to articulate why with more evidence than the contents of her books; what did she say outside fictional settings that provided information about how she viewed the world? Who was Ayn Rand to the people around her as a human being, not just as a creator of content?

I respect the decision to avoid work produced by some creators, like Polanski, who committed terrible acts. That’s a conscious decision, and it’s possible to do that while still acknowledging that bad people can make great things; just that you as a consumer don’t need to watch or praise those great things, because you don’t want to support the creator. But I don’t buy the argument that creators (or their work) can be automatically condemned by the way in which one or the other expressed; a great person can produce a really terrible thing, an awesome thing can be made by someone who is deeply evil. The way that we interact with these things on an individual level is our choice, but if we can’t distinguish the line between creators and their work, we’re going to wind up in trouble.

And there’s an important distinction between ‘I hate Creator X’ and ‘I hate Creator X’s work.’ These phrases mean two very different things (and one would hope both are backed by arguments to defend the point being made), and they should be used in very different way. I can profoundly dislike work someone has produced on aesthetic, cultural, or other grounds without necessarily disliking the person who made it; until I see evidence that the person has qualities beyond ‘wrote a terrible book’ that would actually be grounds for valid dislike. And in a hot and heavy world of ferocious reviews and criticism, people sometimes seem to forget that creators are real people with actual faces and lives and feelings; they throw some very harsh language around in the criticism of creative work and don’t often stop to consider who and what they are criticising.

Because some creative work is shite and should be singled out and discussed as such. But that doesn’t mean the creator is inherently shite, and it would be a mistake to make that assumption.