I recently watched Channel 4’s Russell Brand: In Plain Sight: Dispatches, which investigated Brand’s alleged mistreatment, abuse and sexual assault of women. The evidence was pretty clear; he is yet another narcissistic man whose power and celebrity arose from the same place as his abuse. I was reminded, while watching it, of Louis CK’s sexual misconduct allegations in 2017. Again, here is a comedian/writer/celebrity type whose art was carved out as a self-effacing and self-aware perspective on what a disgusting human being they were. We laughed with them, identified with them, and loved them. Yet, when it was alleged that they were abusive men, a part of us all thought, ‘I mean, of course, they were; they told us repeatedly.’ We were not surprised, but we were shocked all the same because, for some reason, we had agreed that the artist was not the art.
Yet, as Kathryn Van Arendonk so brilliantly pointed out in her article ‘Why Some Artists Are Never Separated from Their Work (and Why Louis C.K. Was)’ for Vulture in 2017, this artistic license is a luxury that only a few have. Van Arendonk gives the example of Lena Dunham, the writer and lead character in HBO’s Girls. Girls was always understood to be a show about Dunham. She was irrevocably tied to that character; whatever self-obsessed, cruel or selfish thing Hannah did, we attributed it to Dunham and cringed at how ‘awful’ she was. Yet, Louis CK’s similarly autobiographical show Louie – which made countless references to masturbation, masculinity, and perversion – was heralded as “a brilliant artistic transformation of himself. It promised us he was clearly seeing himself and making a joke about who he was”.
In other words, like Russell Brand, we believed that Louis CK’s self-awareness made him impervious to acting out on these thoughts or desires. Their self-referral personas were signs of intelligence, reason, argumentation and ideas, all indicative of ‘a good man’. It seems we are all stuck in an Enlightenment-era-esque fantasy that intelligence is antithetical to aggression or abuse because the latter is a ‘primitive’ mode of existence. Yet, paradoxically, when the artist is a woman, queer or a person of colour, that self-awareness seems to function as nothing more than a way of revealing that ‘primitive’ side of themselves.
The author never died, he just became more powerful
‘The author is dead’ is a famous decree from prominent French literary theorist Roland Barthes. Specifically, in his influential essay titled ‘The Death of the Author’ (1967), Barthes argued against the traditional notion of the author as the ultimate authority and interpreter of a text’s meaning. Barthes proposes that meaning is not fixed or determined by the author’s intentions but rather constructed through reading. He argues that this shift in perspective allows for a more democratic and open-ended approach to literary interpretation, freeing the text from the constraints of the author’s personal history and intentions.
His pursuit was an academic one, and it opened the way for an entirely new – and far more investigative and deeper – reading of meaning and art. The idea was brilliant, but the 60s was a time when art was becoming a powerful political tool, and so too would the theories that shape it. As a result, that wall between artist and art was never universal. Instead, it seemed to be an authority given to male writers, thinkers and creators. Everyone else’s art remained still shackled to its mere mortal form.
Okay… and now what?
I do not think that we now must read all art as purely autobiographical. However, I do think, in line with Van Arendonk, that we need to start considering the extent to which separating the art from the artist is a tool of hierarchical power structures offered to a few, not the many.
And with that, if nothing else, it might be time to re-examine the link we seemed to have formed between self-awareness, intelligence and – well, masculinity, as indicative of ‘good’ moral and ethical standings. In so doing, we might well have to resurrect the author. But then again, did he actually die, or did we all just agree to fake his death?
Written by Molly Fitz