Good Art by Bad People

It can be a real shock to learn that people you admire have done terrible things. Recently the news has been filled with stories of Bill Cosby’s sexual assaults. Just a few years ago, the speculative fiction world was shaken by allegations of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s child sexual abuse. It hurts and even feels like these people we’ve allowed into our hearts and homes through their work have betrayed us. This in turn raises a challenge. What do we do with the art created by such people?

Thee’s a good and thoughtful article at the Paris Review by Claire Dederer on this subject, with a special focus on the films of Woody Allen. You can read the article here: https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2017/11/20/art-monstrous-men/

I believe Ms. Dederer makes an important point in her article. None of us are perfect. We’ve all done stupid, mean, or hurtful things at one time or another. Hopefully most of us haven’t committed acts as terrible as those committed by Bill Cosby or Marion Zimmer Bradley, but all of us get caught up in our own selfish or thoughtless needs and desires at times. What’s more, this struggle against our worst natures is at the very root of what makes good art.

As an editor, I’ve read and published numerous submissions from prisoners. I’ve never been good about keeping detailed statistics on things like this, but my impression is that the acceptance rate among prisoners is about the same as the general population. Now, it’s rare for a prisoner to tell me why they’re serving time, but clearly they were convicted of a sufficiently serious crime to be incarcerated. Despite that, I have found in these works something worth sharing with a wider audience. I also feel like these people are paying their debt to society by serving time. Many of them are honestly trying to improve themselves by expressing their feelings through art. I feel the effort deserves reward.

Thinking about this subject has also helped me to understand my inherent problem with America’s celebrity worship. As a culture, we seem all too ready to give people power simply because they’re famous. People become afraid to speak up when a famous person does terrible things. Admittedly many famous people do hold real power. They’re heads of companies or manage staffs, but the fact that they’re famous makes people more afraid to speak up. People know they’ll be judged in the court of public opinion when they say a famous person did terrible things. In fact, certain celebrities are quite adept at turning their fans against accusers.

I think there is a real danger when society attempts to dictate what art is available for people to consume. Imagine the government telling you to throw out your video tapes of I Spy and burn your copies of The Mists of Avalon. Now imagine what else they’ll decide is not moral enough for you to consume. Another possible and more subtle consequence is that you could create a situation where the only artists available are the famous ones, which would only exacerbate the celebrity problem. Turning that around does offer something to consider when you feel betrayed by an artist. Always remember, there are many other artists out there eager to tell you stories, show you their movies, and paint amazing canvases.

Just remember, those artists are human and subject to temptation. Just like you.

Art on Your Own Terms

In addition to Dexter Dogwood’s Fables from Elsewhere, which I wrote about on Saturday, Paul McComas sent me the fifteenth anniversary edition of his novel Unplugged. I have to admit, I looked at it with some skepticism. It’s the tale of a rock star named Dayna Clay who survived childhood sexual abuse and suffers from depression. On the last night of a big tour, she disappears off stage to go home and attempt suicide by asphyxiating herself with carbon monoxide fumes in her garage. Fortunately, a squirrel falls from the rafters and she feels she can’t take another life with her, even a small one, so she moves herself and the squirrel to safety.

After the suicide attempt, she gets in the car and retreats out west to the Badlands of South Dakota. Once there, she goes on a personal quest to discover who she is and whether or not she can continue with her music career. On the surface, it seems a lot more introspective and possibly even sad book than I would go in for. I will admit that I’ve had low points in my life and have even heard that frightening siren call from the back of my brain that made me think about suicide. Fortunately, between my amazing family and my own stubborn self-preservation instinct, I never got all that close to the brink, but I’ve glimpsed enough to know how scary it is and hesitated getting closer, even in fictional form. Despite that, I found myself captivated with Dayna’s story and how she becomes enchanted by the Badlands and the people she meets along her journey. Even though the novel opens with Dayna in a dark place, the novel proves hopeful and even fun at times as Dayna finds help for her depression and rebuilds her life.

One aspect of the novel that I particularly enjoyed was Dayna’s early decision that if she was going to return to the music world, she would return on her own terms. Dayna has a demanding agent, a full public appearance schedule, and pressure to get into the studio to record more songs. Dayna’s story actually parallels a lot of writers I know, who have numerous publishing obligations and travel to science fiction and comic conventions every available weekend. There are intense pressures to move the books already published and produce more books at a steady rate. In fact, I know some writers, editors, and agents who will insist that this kind of intense schedule is the only viable career path available. Anyone not on this path is a failure as a writer and should quit wasting their time.

I’m sorry. I just don’t accept that. All it takes to be a musician is to make music. All it takes to be a writer is to write. All it takes to be a painter is to paint. All it takes for something to be a career is that money from the occupation must flow to the person doing the job in some sustainable way. How an artist makes that happen is between the artist and those paying for the art. For any occupation to be sustainable, the person occupied must feel satisfied with their life as a whole. For me, right now, satisfaction with life includes spending time contributing to astronomy through my work at Kitt Peak, spending time with family, in addition to writing. I choose writing jobs and projects that both give me satisfaction and allow me to do the other things that give me satisfaction.

I’m glad I joined Dayna on her journey to the South Dakota Badlands and visiting the real Badlands is now something I must do. You can find the novel at: https://www.amazon.com/Unplugged-Anniversary-Novel-Paul-McComas/dp/1564746046. As I’ve mentioned, this is a novel about a musician. It turns out that Paul McComas has collaborated with Maya Kuper to create an album of Dayna’s music and it’s a pretty amazing listen. It’s also a great example of what can happen when you do art on your own terms. It frees you to explore and I was delighted to hear Dayna’s songs come to life. “Jack-o’-Lantern” and “Karma Bomb” will likely get frequent play from me, but all of the songs are great. You can listen and buy at: https://daynaclay.bandcamp.com/

Proceeds from both the novel and album go to benefit two causes. One is the Kennedy Forum, which works to improve the way mental health and addiction issues are treated in this country. You can learn more at kennedyforum.org. The other cause is the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network which runs the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE. In addition to these two great causes, I want to share the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in case anyone reading this needs it: 1-800-273-8255

Artistic Inspiration

As a writer, I sometimes turn to artwork for inspiration. Danforth-painting A number of years ago, I bought the painting at the left from the wonderful artist Liz Danforth. As I recall, this was painted as an illustration for a collectable card game, but I liked the mysterious western story it implied. I asked myself who the lawman was and who was the mysterious figure lurking outside the window. Over time, as I worked with the characters and made them my own, the lawman became the owl-like, bespectacled sheriff, Ramon Morales. The figure outside the window seemed perhaps Arab or Persian, could be male or female. I imagined a witch, but as the character came to life in my mind, I realized she was really a healer who was misunderstood. If I were to describe Ramon and Fatemeh from Owl Dance and Lightning Wolves, I don’t think you’d see the characters in this painting, but the painting started the creative process rolling.

Speaking of the novel I’m writing, I managed to get stalled out over the holidays. It wasn’t really writer’s block or anything of that sort, just life getting in the way and being busy. I had to push past the inertia to get writing again. ornithopter While at Her Royal Majesty’s Steampunk Symposium in Long Beach last month, my artist’s table was next to the Nathaniel Johnstone Band. Nathaniel’s wife is the amazingly talented Laura Tempest Zakroff. I came to admire her artwork and asked if I could pay her to do a rendition of the owl ornithopters from my steampunk books. The illustration at right is the result. The feeling of adventure inspired by the mechanical owl in flight made me want to leap back into that world again and continue on.

For Valentine’s Day, my wife gave me a lovely knitted turquoise Jackalope. jackalope His contented expression and metallic antlers speak to me and suggest story ideas. I don’t know yet where a jackalope or something like one will appear, but I’m guessing it will happen sooner or later and it might well happen in the book I’m writing now.

If you’d like to meet Ramon and Fatemeh and see the owl ornithopters in action, try out a copy of Owl Dance or Lightning Wolves. Following the links will take you to pages where you can read sample chapters and find a variety of buying choices.

Has a piece of art inspired you? If so, I’d love to hear about it.