The Art or the Artist?

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i want to believe

Comments sections are rarely a place to go for insightful discourse. Even so, there’s one recurring comment that rankles me more than most in any conversation about a particular creative property, and it’s this: suggesting an artist be forcibly removed from his or her own creation.

The latest call for revolution has been directed at Chris Carter, the creator and showrunner for The X-Files. Some folks claim that he doesn’t “get” the X-Files, and someone else should be brought in who understands the concept better than the guy who created and ran it for nine seasons going on ten (and two movies).

That kind of sentiment deeply aggravates me; it demonstrates a really ugly side of modern criticism and fandom: a profound lack of respect for the creator of a beloved property, impatience with anything that doesn’t recapture one’s original passion for the material, and arrogance that the critic or fan somehow knows better than the progenitor.

I’m not saying that Chris Carter is perfect, but I would rather suffer through the occasional dud of a mediocre episode than see anyone else at the helm.

In other words, I’m for the artist. How about you?

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Before you answer, let me explain my position and also my struggle. When I look at an episode of The X-Files like the recent mini-season premiere (aptly named “My Struggle”), I’m perplexed. This is the guy who gave us “The Post Modern Prometheus,” “Paper Clip” and “Duane Barry,” to name just a few stellar episodes with his name attached. But “My Struggle” is not only a victim of wonky pacing and cardboard one-dimensional characterization; its greatest sin may be its misguided aim to clumsily dispose of the entire alien colonization conspiracy developed and fostered over the course of nine seasons.

It’s almost enough to make me question my faith in the man.

For the record, it wouldn’t be my first crisis of faith with a beloved creator. Comic book writers Frank Miller and Alan Moore could do no wrong for at least a decade, with works like Miller’s The Dark Knight ReturnsDaredevil: Born Again, Batman: Year One and Sin City and Moore’s V for Vendetta, Watchmen, and From Hell still ranking among my favorite series I’ve ever read. But now I’m hard-pressed to say something positive about any of their more recent works.

Even George Lucas, whose prequel trilogy I would argue is nothing short of a masterpiece (your mileage may vary, though you should at least hazard a look at my argument in favor of The Phantom Menace), is equally culpable with Steven Spielberg for a disappointing entry in the Indiana Jones series with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

crystal skull

But so what? Nobody’s perfect, and rather than treat our favorite creators like incompetent Imperial officers who have failed Darth Vader for the last time, let’s step back and embrace the things we love rather than dwell on those that didn’t work for us.

And let’s also consider that maybe, just maybe these geniuses that invented The X-Files or Star Wars or Watchmen might still have some brilliance left in the tank. At the end of the day, I wouldn’t feel confident with anyone at the reins of Indiana Jones except for Lucas and Spielberg. Ditto with Watchmen and Alan Moore (although props to Darwyn Cooke for a noble go of it with his Before Watchmen: Minutemen miniseries). And The Dark Knight Returns IV without Frank Miller–? Well, you get the point.

But you might also see a contradiction. Frank Miller may have created the world of The Dark Knight Returns, but he was using a character who had already been created by someone else: Batman. Isn’t the success and brilliance of a piece of art like Returns proof positive that the original creator should get out of the way at some point (either voluntarily or by force)? I’d say it all depends on where your sympathies lie.

Let’s take a quick detour into the origin of Batman’s creator, Bill Finger. I’d say it’s entirely possible (and even likely) that you could be a fan of the character and never have heard of Bill Finger or never have read a Finger-penned story. That isn’t because Bill didn’t write plenty of them or create the characters you know and love, because he most certainly did. He contributed to the Batman mythos for over two decades. And The Joker, Two-Face, The Penguin, Catwoman, The Riddler, Robin, Commissioner Gordon, Alfred, etc. etc? It was all Bill (with a little help from Jerry Robinson).

batman v joker

And the stories still hold up. If you want original, unfiltered Batman direct from the source, you can’t go wrong with “Robin Dies at Dawn” (Batman #156) “The Origin of Batman” (Batman #47) or “The Joker” (Batman #1). Finger built the foundation upon which all other Batman stories have grown and thrived, and yet his name is completely absent from the art he created. Part of that is due to his shady partner Bob Kane taking credit and financial compensation for Bill’s creations. But part of it is also due to the fact that Batman has now been around for over 75 years and prospered in film and television with hundreds of different creators lending their considerable talents to his ongoing myth. It’s easy to be introduced to a Finger-less Batman.

On the one hand, Bill got screwed. He ended up unknown, penniless and ignored, even as Bob Kane and DC profited handsomely from his creation. On the other hand, would Batman be the cultural touchstone he is today if DC had given sole creative control of the character to Finger? If they had stopped publishing Batman stories after he died or given creative control of the films to his estate?

Who do you side with? The artist or the art? The human being affected or the fiction that inspires so many (and makes so many others wealthy)?

I’m not saying it’s easy to choose. We love the art. We want it to be around forever and we want what we feel is best for it. But we must also understand that the reason we love the art is because someone created it. They had something to say, and we listened, and it touched us and improved our lives in some way.

billfinger

Speaking for myself, I’ll say this: I prefer my art straight from the source, from the original creator. And yet, while I genuinely believe that some of these franchises shouldn’t survive beyond their creators, I don’t know if I’m strong enough to ignore whatever comes after. I can’t deny that I will probably at least take a glance. Whether that’s merely satisfying curiosity or indicative of a deeper addiction I can’t kick, I don’t know. Maybe a little of both.

Regardless, I would question any critic or “fan” who would posit that the solution to the problem of a television show (or film, or series of novels, or comic book) that they no longer enjoy is finding someone else besides the creator to run it. The far more reasonable solution to that problem is simply walking away from it.

If you’ve reached the point with a beloved franchise where you simply can’t stand it, you’ve probably gotten everything you’re going to get out of that universe, those characters, and the scenarios and themes it presents. Insisting that it can be fixed by “someone else” is playing armchair executive. You’ve ceased to engage with it as a piece of creative art and storytelling; instead you’re seeing it as a product that can be exploited and transformed to favor your tastes and predilections.

Speaking personally, I always expect that an artist I admire knows what they’re doing. I operate from that optimistic–perhaps even naive–viewpoint. When I’m confronted with something that challenges my expectations or even upsets me, I’m intrigued to explore further rather than denounce outright. I’m not saying it’s easy, but if you truly love something (or someone), you don’t waste your time and passion demanding for it to be better; you try to understand it and appreciate it for what it is.

Which is why I’m eagerly anticipating Monday’s finale of The X-Files mini-season written and directed by Mr. Carter despite the premiere’s shaky start. Ultimately, my faith can be challenged, but when it comes to art and its artist, and especially where it concerns The X-Files, I still want to believe.

 

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9 thoughts on “The Art or the Artist?

  1. I enjoyed reading this and have many thoughts on it. I’ve been thinking a lot about franchises over the past few years, especially with relation to a body of work that’s near and dear to my heart: Tolkien’s legendarium. It’s in a strange sort of halfway state because part of it is available for “franchising” and part of it is not. It’s kind of a franchise already, but a lot of people would like it to be more so; it almost certainly has the traction to support a yearly spinoff novel and/or movie if they had the rights to do that, and it already has video games come out practically every year. And while I am happy to see it being appreciated, I have very mixed feelings about the thought of it turning into a modern-style franchise created by committee. Even if it was a good committee.

    It is probably a measure of how expectations have shifted that I recently heard a podcast describe Christopher Tolkien and the Tolkien estate as selfish for not releasing the Silmarillion material for other people to work with. “He just doesn’t want anyone else to play with his toys” was how they put it. I wondered when it became assumed that franchising was the “right” thing to do or that it was somehow owed to the fans.

    Which brings me to a thought about your title. If you ask people whether they’re “for” the art or the artist, I think it’s very hard for most people not to say they’re for the art. They only value the artist to the degree that (s)he produces the art they like, and if they get art they like, then they don’t care who made it. It ties in with the “death of the artist” philosophy and also with the rise of fan culture and fanfiction. (Other factors as well, but those two leap out.) And it sometimes has the sad effect of making people abandon the artist when (s)he goes in an unexpected direction, even if that direction isn’t a truly bad one.

    Anyway, thanks for a very thought-provoking article!

    • Great thoughts! I’m actually working on another piece that delves into the fan psyche a little more and how we tend to react when we don’t get what we want from a piece of art.

      I think in the age of the Internet, creative ownership and personal self-expression are becoming difficult things to nail down. There is an entitlement complex happening and instant gratification is valued over the consequences it causes to the people involved.

      • I’ll be very interested to see that essay when it’s ready. I have a bunch of other thoughts on the subject that I can’t quite get to crystallize, and maybe that will help me to firm them up. Something about the way we expect to interact with art, how we (or many of us) don’t seem to want to just listen to what an artist has to say, and the divorcing of creators from creations summed up in a statement like “I really want Joss Whedon to make a Star Wars movie!”

        I’m also wondering whether George Lucas simply had the bad luck to be on the frontlines of this shift in attitude.

        But enough of my rambling. I’ll be sure to watch for that piece!

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