Monday, November 4, 2013

On the Art vs. the Artist

This weekend I went to see ENDER'S GAME, the long-awaited film interpretation of Orson Scott Card's classic science fiction novel. 

I've made it no secret how much I've been looking forward to this movie, and how much I enjoyed reading the novel. The story relates how the boy genius Ender is psychologically manipulated by the war machine of his time to become a weapon of mass destruction. 

The movie is very well done, though like all screen adaptations it falls short of the subtlety and depth of the novel itself.  Still, Asa Butterfield is perfectly cast as Ender, and while I had doubts about seeing Harrison Ford in this movie, he did a good job too. The special effects are phenomenal, and it was especially interesting to see the three-dimensional weightless battle games come to life on screen.

When we got home after the show, I wanted to share some thoughts about the movie via Facebook.  Upon logging in, I came across a posted comment by a person who had decided they would never read ENDER'S GAME or see the movie because of Orson Scott Card's personal beliefs. 

Not really sure what the post was referring to, I did a Google search and discovered that Orson Scott Card is a fairly controversial figure because, among other issues, he disapproves of same-sex relationships and has campaigned against same-sex marriage.  This has cost him in his following, and has led to a movement to boycott the book and the movie. 

As much as I agree with those who criticize Orson Scott Card's attitudes toward homosexuality, I was a little taken aback by the boycott movement.  The situation reminded me at once of THE GOLDEN COMPASS by Philip Pullman. 

One of the best YA fantasy stories I've ever read, THE GOLDEN COMPASS features a wonderful, complex, intelligent, and feisty heroine in the person of Lyra Silvertongue. It was adapted to the screen and released in 2007. Though extremely well done, the movie got nowhere in the market place.

Why?  In part because Pullman is an atheist. Because of this campaigns were run to boycott his books and his movie.  When returns on the movie were less than ideal, the option of filming the sequels was quietly dropped. 

Now, many would argue that homophobia is much more objectionable than atheism. Personally, I would have to agree, but that is not the debate I am interested in having today.

What I really want to ask is this:

When we reject an author's work because of his or her personal beliefs, does that put us on a higher moral ground than them?  Or does it merely bring us down to the same level of intolerance? 

Have at it, friends and followers of Heroines of Fantasy.  I'm very curious to hear your thoughts. 

-Posted by Karin Rita Gastreich


David Hunter said...

I'm very much of the opinion that while on a personal level one may choose for any reason whatsoever to avoid a book or film (or restaurant or pub or house come to that) whether because of the writer (or director's or owner's) views or not, what's unsettling is the association of authorial views with the content of the book (or film) and much more so when that moves from being a personal thing to a public movement (organised or not).

Card writing a book that is a polemic against gay rights? Then it's fair game to lambast it and him for that. Card attending a public meeting and espousing his homophobic views? Picket by all means and howl him down.

But where he's presenting something that has no such agenda (Ender's Game, say), then I can't see the work in question is somehow immoral by association.

And of course immorality is subjective. Pullman is an excellent example. Liberals seethe with indignation when his books come under fire, yet (some) liberals are more than happy to launch McCarthy-style witch hunts against books written by anyone that they do not approve of regardless of the content.

And what's insane is that this liberal witch-hunting is sometimes almost without perspective. I have seen author's who have merely rehashed old material (a long and very honorable tradition in fiction) excoriated in exactly the same terms as paedophiles who have written children's books. And while the latter is certainly dubious, do we not believe in rehabilitation, or at least in the law to ensure that the author will not meet children and the content of their books to be without malice? And if we do not are we then advocating vigilantism?

To be clear, if an author breaches copyright or in publication commits some other crime or offence, then that's worthy of comment. If the author publishes a book that one disagrees with the tone or content of, then that is worth of comment.

But of the author merely espouses objectionable beliefs or indulges in objectionable practices (like, say, tax avoidance or preaching armed resistance to a democratic government) then when they are not so doing is it right to campaign against whatever else it is they do?

Oliver Reed was a violent alcoholic. Sean Connery once made a statement that it was okay in some circumstances to indulge in domestic violence. At an extreme, Ghandi at one time gave enthusiastic support to Hitler.

Is everyone to be held accountable for their words and beliefs at all times and in all spheres? Is it liberal to do so?

One of my very favourite authors was a reactionary old bigot who was in favour of public hangings, birchings of young offenders, was a notorious tax avoider, selectively rascist (anti-Japanese, and in fairness he had some excuse based on his wartime experiences) and generally not the sort of person who I'd agree with at all. But his books are generally superb and, interestingly, completely free from his own biases, except when they are espoused by characters who are invariably not being written as anything other than reprobates at best.

As I say, as individuals it's fine to make any decision we like for any reason we like. What's not fine is when it drags us down to the level of a censorious mob.

Gemma Seymour said...

Card's beliefs about human sexuality and identity are a direct affront to me, personally, as well as to rational thought, much less compassion, decency, humanity, or the teachings attributed to Jesus—with which I, as an atheist practitioner of Ordinary Magick, find no fault (my issues with Christianity stem from the teachings of Paul and the Church).

That said, I am less concerned with his beliefs about my life than I am with the moral underpinnings with which he imbues 'Ender's Game' and other novels. I agree entirely with the criticisms published by Elaine Radford ('Sympathy for the Superman') and John Kessel ('Creating the Innocent Killer').

I found 'Ender's Game', the book, well-crafted when I first read it many years ago, but there was something in it that never sat easily with me, and I don't just mean the obviously inappropriate incestuous relationship between Ender and Valentine. However it wasn't until I read these two excellent essays that I truly understood why I found Card's writings so disturbing.

As a further criticism, speaking as a person of color, I find the parallels with cultural appropriation and the White Savior Complex are striking; the fact that the movie opened with the entirely offensive trailer for '47 Rōnin' was profoundly apropos of this.

Yes, I did see the movie, out of morbid curiosity, when a roommate offered me a free night out with the girls. Being with my friends (all of whom are impacted by Card's beliefs), was more fun that sitting in an empty apartment for the night. It was originally my intent to boycott the movie and pirate it, because these criticisms have been well-known for 9 years (Kessel) and 26 (Radford), so I have no sympathy for the production staff, either. Why should they profit at my expense, much less from me?

But, this is not the first time I have caused money to be spent on a writer I abhor for academic purposes, and it probably won't be the last.

The irony of the quote which opens Kessel's essay could not be more delicious:

'There's always moral instruction whether the writer inserts it deliberately or not. The least effective moral instruction in fiction is that which is consciously inserted. Partly because it won't reflect the storyteller's true beliefs, it will only reflect what he believes he believes, or what he thinks he should believe or what he's been persuaded of.

But when you write without deliberately expressing moral teachings, the morals that show up are the ones you actually live by. The beliefs that you don't even think to question, that you don't even notice—those will show up. And that tells much more truth about what you believe than your deliberate moral machinations.'

—Orson Scott Card

Terri-Lynne said...

Everyone has a line that cannot be crossed. Where your line is is your choice. You have to live with that line.

I'm glad Karin cited The Golden Compass as a foil to the Ender's Game conundrum. I thought it was ridiculous to boycott the film/books--which have quite a blantant anti-Christian message--and I think it's equally (and in some ways, more) wrong to boycot Ender's Game*. IMO, we must separate the artist and the art. I know the argument is that one cannot, and that supporting that art monetarily supports an artist whose views I might abhor. There's where that line goes, and my leaning is to appreciate the art regardless of the artist. Like David says, I'd never support a work that within itself countered my own, hard-held views. But Ender's Game did not. And thus I won't boycott it.

*There were those, when His Dark Materials was being banned and boycotted and otherwise malighned, who thought they were fighting the righteous fight. As an agnostic with definite leanings into atheism, I not only agreed with the message (as I said--blatant! Pullman--by way of one of his characters--calls Christianity the worst and most harmful mistake humanity ever made) but cheered it whole heartedly.

I might abhor Card's standing on homosexulaity, but how can I boycott his work when I thought it was idiotic to boycot TGC or Harry Potter? Is that not a double standard? Does that not say when I do it it's right, when you do it it's wrong?

It seems to me, if you look at some quotes ranging back to the 90s and early aughts, Card has changed his tune a bit in 2013--and I suspect it has something to do with his DC comic gig, the movie coming out, and all the backlash that threatens the success of his work. In 1990, he wrote (gakked from wikipedia but verified)that the laws prohibiting homosexual behavior should "remain on the books, not to be indiscriminately enforced against anyone who happens to be caught violating them, but to be used when necessary to send a clear message that those who flagrantly violate society's regulation of sexual behavior cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within that society."
In 2013 he said that he no longer advocates this. The essay was written a long time ago, to address a Mormon audience. "[N]ow that the law has changed," Card states, "I have no interest in criminalizing homosexual acts and would never call for such a thing, any more than I wanted such laws enforced back when they were still on the books."

Hmm...kind of talking out of both sides of his mouth, as they say.

This is also a man who said of Barak Obama's presidential nomination,"...even though I don't want him to win, I'm so happy that a black candidate was nominated by a major party. It's about time."

Card is a man with views--strong views. Some, I can get behind. Others, I cannot. I loved Ender's Game (the novel--haven't seen the movie yet) and I won't NOT love it because his views on homosexuality don't jibe with mine. That's MY line.

David Hunter said...

To dislike Ender's game because one think's its message is that good or evil stem from intentions and not actions is fair enough. And more so if one thinks that Card is deliberately trying to manipulate the reader into coming to the view that intentions always trump acts. One can agree or disagree with that on the book's own merits and call for it to be avoided on those grounds.

But that is surely not what initiated the boycott of Ender's Game. What initiated was Card's outspoken views on homosexuality and the law which I don't think have anything to do with the book (unless one wishes to assume that 'buggers' is meant to refer to homosexuals in a kind of allegorical sense, which I suppose is possible but I've not seen any such reference yet).

Maybe Card is seen as just being so morally degenerate as to make the shunning of all his work an act of personal virtue.

But will then equally reprehensible public performers and writers be held equally to account and their works boycotted (Mel Gibson - anti-semitism, Martin Sheen - abortion, say)? And if so are liberals not merely mimicking the tactics of the conservative right?

Is Ender's Game so wicked that it must be abhorred?

Terri-Lynne said...

David--we are simpatico. :)

Should Braveheart now be boycotted because--after the success of it--Mr. Gibson showed his anti-Semitic side? Should Oscar Wilde's writing be banned because the man was gay?

Both are, I am certain, by those whose lines are drawn that way, but to me, shunning Braveheart because I don't like Gibson's views is akin a homophobe shunning Wilde's words.

(And, for the record, I was not a fan of Braveheart.)

C Lee Brown said...

I try to enjoy written works based on what the author provides as entertainment, rather than pick apart subtle influences based on the writers religious beliefs or political agenda. When it comes to a piece that puts forth a blantant hate agenda, say something like neo-Nazi white supremacy, then yes, I would discriminate against that writer. For I would choose not to read something that I know I would find offensive. The same holds true of erotica that goes into what I feel is disgusting, even though most sex scenes appeal to me.
In this instance we are discussing sci-fi and fantasy stories. Even the great Heinlein drifted into politics in several of his science fiction pieces, but did that make them any less of an adventure for the avid reader? I agree that Mel Gibson's anti-semetic rants are offensive and concur that child molesting writers should be kept away from our children, but we cannot shut ourselves off from the entire world. My first impulse was to boycott Gibson's works, but after more thought on the matter, I realized it was too late. I had already been a fan of his police dramas and did enjoy Braveheart. So I compromised with my inner feelings and decided that any of his future films, I will not pay to see at the cinema.
I must say I was distressed to learn that the Golden Compass series was cancelled. I was looking forward to the next segment.
Sadly we live in an information age where an artists personal life is open to scrutiny by the public and people judge based on their values, no matter how twisted their beliefs. Most of us are caught in the middle between right-wing conservatives, who want to ban anything they perceive as a threat to their beliefs, and left-wing liberals, who often want to allow just about anything to pass.
Each individual has to draw their own line in the sand and decide for themselves. But I do wish more folks would exercise better common sense and more tolerance.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Wow! You guys are amazing. So many interesting thoughts and perspectives here. Thank you Clint, David, Gemma, Terri, and Lee for all your insightful comments.

I think what resonates with me most in this discussion is that we all have to respect our own boundaries. I also continue to believe it is possible to disapprove of an author or artist and still respect his/her work.

I have to be honest and say that I didn't see any evidence of anti-homosexual sentiment in the movie. But if I had, I would have been obligated to act on my perceptions and beliefs, as others have.

Here's a detail that I did find offensive in the movie: The one character who was truly nasty was also very clearly Hispanic, and most specifically, Mexican. So while traces of homophobia were not apparent to me, traces of xenophobia most certainly were.

I'm not a fan of Mel Gibson, by the way. Not only because of his personal creed, but also because I think he's a poor actor and find most of his movies uninteresting.

Asa Butterfield, however, is someone I'm keeping an eye on. His performances in THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS and HUGO were brilliant, and his interpretation of Ender was no less impressive. I know nothing about his personal beliefs (and honestly: he's only 16, so even if I did, I wouldn't judge), but I'd go see a movie with him in it any day.

Chris Gerrib said...

I had a longer series of thoughts on OSC at my blog, but I'll summarize them here.

1) I don't care about the political views of my plumber, so why should I care about the views of an entertainer? I'm not paying either for politics.

2) OSC wrote the book in the mid-1980s. People do change over time, and it's entirely possible he's changed - alas not for the better.

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin--Asa is definitely a young acto to watch. He was brilliant in Hugo (a much under-appreciated movie, IMO.)


Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Chris - Good points, both of them.

Terri - Wouldn't it be fun, 10 years from now, to see Asa interpret the role of Mage Corey in an independent film production of Eolyn? ;) It costs nothing to dream...

Terri-Lynne said...

I think it would have to be more than ten years for him to play Corey. Hmmm...what about Ernan?? :) I could well see him that tragic figure.

Unknown said...

What an excellent topic, Rita. I'm happy to return to this forum by adding my 2 zolty:

The fear comes from the assumption that devious artists will put in messages into their work to sway people's thoughts.

How many of you remember when The Lion King came out and people complained that:

1. Mufasa encouraged polygamy
2. The hyena were urban blacks
3. Scar was gay (and as the villain, Disney was being anti-homosexual.)

And my favorite...

4. The romance scene between Simba and Nala encouraged bestiality.

(I feel dirty just repeating all that.)

And being a kid's film, Disney was drilling all this evil directly into the minds of children.

People have been doing this for ages. Remember Elton John's 80's hit "Nikita"? People said, "Wait, he's gay. How can he sing a romance song about a woman? Ohhhh, I see. 'Nikita' is a man's name in Russia. Now I understand."

I understand as well. Most people are morons. Some humans may have invented the Internet, but most are little more than paranoid monkeys throwing rocks at a full moon.

And art will always suffer as a result.

Heroines of Fantasy said...

AT, I might have a sudden crush on you.
"Some humans may have invented the Internet, but most are little more than paranoid monkeys throwing rocks at a full moon."

Fabulous! You cracked me up; and as we all know, a point is best and most memorably made when it's through humor. You're golden.

You forgot one about the lion king--Nala and Simba also promoted incest, since they had the same father.
(Terri, on the wonky computer)

Unknown said...

Thank you, Three With Eyes That See

In the interest of full disclosure, I didn't invent that wonderful analogy.

I got it either from the film "Poltergeist" or the book. The old psychic saying that seeing the supernatural was like " walking out of the forest primeval and seeing the moon for the first time and throwing rocks at it."

Good writers barrow, great writers steal.

I borrowed.

By the way, if any of you have kids you want to scar for life, have them watch "Poltergeist". You'll pay a fortune in child therapy, but their catatonic state will make your house quiet and peaceful.


Terri-Lynne said...

AT--At the mere mention of Poltergeist, a shiver goes up my back. I NEVER watched scary movies when I was a kid. Too chicken. When I was a teen, I got goaded into watching Poltergeist (and The Exorcist) with some friends.
Scarred. For. Life. Indeed.