The Artist, the Work of Art, and the Freedom of the Unfree Will
What is the relationship of the work of art to the artist? Is it simply the sum of the artist’s intentions—an aesthetic extension of the artist’s emotions, thoughts, worldview? Can the artist’s life (his beliefs or actions) invalidate or destroy the integrity of the work he makes? Or does the work of art bear no relation to the artist’s biography whatsoever? These are questions that have long occupied the attention of critics and scholars. An article published last summer in The New York Times, offered another, if shocking, perspective on this perplexing question of artistic intention.
In “Good Art, Bad People,” Charles McGrath focuses his attention on writers who have produced great art but have done so at the expense of their loved ones. He reflects on this disjunction and asks, how can we appreciate the great work of greatly flawed men and women? Hemingway is his primary focus but it could have been countless others. Do their lives, that is, their immoral or criminal behavior, bigoted beliefs, and horrible treatment of friends and family disqualify the greatness of their work? Are we obligated to experience a work of art through the biography of the artist and interpret it as an artifact of their broken lives (and ideas)? Most Christian worldviewish thinking presumes this inextricable cognitive connection—an artist who is a “nihilist” produces works of art that can only be aesthetic manifestations of nihilism.
Yet, the situation is much more complicated and problematic. When we Christians praise Hemingway for the austere beauty of his prose, how do we respond to what one of his children, quoted in McBride’s article, had to say about his work?
In November 1952, just after his 21st birthday, Gregory, the youngest (and arguably most talented) of Hemingway’s three children, wrote to his father: “When it’s all added up, papa, it will be: he wrote a few good stories, had a novel and fresh approach to reality and he destroyed five persons — Hadley, Pauline, Marty [Martha Gelhorn, Hemingway’s third wife], Patrick and possibly myself. Which do you think is the most important, your self-centered shit, the stories or the people?”
McBride then observes,
There is no possibly about it: Gregory, the most damaged of all the Hemingway offspring, died, an alcoholic transvestite, in the Miami-Dade Women’s Detention Center.
This chilling example takes the question of the relationship of the artist’s life to the work of art to its ultimate end: does the production of a great work of art demand human sacrifice? And, perhaps even more horrifying, a sacrifice taken from the artist’s own family and circle of friends?
Allowing this question to sit in the back of our minds, let’s explore in more depth the relationship of an artist’s intentions and its relationship to the works of art she produces. A common assumption, which Christian “worldview” thinking is but one expression, presumes that a work of art is a direct extension, or causal result of the artist’s thoughts, emotions, beliefs—his “worldview.” In fact, it is presumed to be so causally determined—the epistemological line so taught between the artist and work of art—that we are able to discern the artist’s “worldview” from her poem, novel, or painting. As the artist’s beliefs go, so goes the work of art.
We want artists to tell us, once for all, “what the painting means,” yet this is contrary to how artists understand their work (even as some go to great lengths to control the interpretation of their work). Art fights against this causality. Abstract Expressionist painter Willem de Kooning once said that he painted himself out of a picture and T.S. Eliot observed that the meaning of a poem occurred somewhere between the poem and the reader. The artist brings all she has to the production of a particular work—emotions, thoughts, ideas—both conscious and unconscious—but the work then faces the world and moves toward the viewer, reader, listener. W.A. Auden said somewhere that he thought that the artist’s biography wasn’t important in understanding a work of art because the artist pours “everything” he has and is into the work, and “biography” presupposes that only certain parts of an artist’s life impact it.
When we read a poem or look at a painting, it is not the artist but the work of art that is working on us, and what it offers to us is therefore much broader and deeper than the artist’s intentions and beliefs, many of which she is only barely aware, if at all.
Andres Serrano’s controversial and notorious photograph Piss Christ (1987) offers an interesting example. It came to public attention as Republicans led an agenda to de-fund the National Endowment for the Arts and became an icon for artists receiving federal funding in order to “undermine” the nation’s “values.” (Although the cultural politics involved in Serrano’s Piss Christ is too vast to summarize here, suffice it to say that the issue was not about the experience of a work of art. For more information about the work see my, “Piss Christ, Revisited”).
The photograph is part of a series of works Serrano produced by submerging mass manufactured kitsch artifacts, both religious (Mary, Jesus, Crucifixes) and classical (male and female Greco-Roman torsos), in large plexiglas containers filled with urine and blood. Piss Christ is distinctive because the sharpness of the title, which feels almost blasphemous, is contradicted by the beauty and elegance of the photograph itself produced by bodily waste. As an icon of the culture wars, both the Left and the Right presume Piss Christ to be a “statement” by Serrano on his views of Christianity. But the case is not that simple. Serrano’s own statements about the piece shifted and changed over time and in response to the shrill and uncivil discourse around it, from nuanced and ambivalent to polemical and categorical. But Piss Christ itself has generated diverse responses, negative and positive, from Christians and non-Christians, which testifies to the fact that the work speaks in ways that transcends and surpasses what Serrano has said about it, even when he declares, “what it really means.”
Readmore: Jesus Christ Artist