Warning: This article deals with adult subjects such as incest, sexual abuse of minors, and bestiality. If these subjects upset you, maybe you should give this one a miss.
No one is a saint, not even the saints. Everyone is imperfect, but everyone is distributed along the flawed spectrum, from slightly flawed to pure evil. The first time I was confronted with the age-old debate about the dynamic of the artist in their art was in the nineties when Woody Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi Previn—the adopted daughter of his then-girlfriend, Mia Farrow—became public. Apparently, the two had little contact during her childhood, and neither felt they were father-daughter. Throw in the accusations that Dylan Farrow, one of his and Mrs. Farrow’s adopted daughters, made against him that Allen had molested her—allegations that Allen denies and NY state found no evidence for—and it all makes for a messy situation for fans of his movies.
At the time, I was an idealist. I wasn’t much of a fan, but I supported Allen. I felt, “the heart wants what it wants.” Only later did I learn about his charisma, and how he used it to great success with women. Did Allen turn that charisma on to seduce Soon-Yi? Frankly, only Allen knows for sure, and maybe not even him. His problematic private life led to the discussion many had about the role of the artist in their art.
Can art be separated from the artist? I believe the complex debate can be simplified into three questions:
- Does the art promote the artist’s antisocial behavior as a positive?
- Does the artist monetarily gain from the art?
- Does consuming the work of art give the artist a platform for their antisocial views?
Let’s take the extreme example of Eric Gill. Gill was a highly influential sculptor, typesetter, and printmaker that helped to define Art Deco as a movement. He also indulged in extreme sexual deviance including incestuous relationships with his sisters, sexual abuse of his two oldest teen-aged daughters, and bestiality with his dog. He made erotic prints, and one of them, Girl in a Bath II (Petra), featured his own daughter. It is clear Gill’s pedophiliac abuse of his daughters colors how we see his erotic works. The presence of the admittedly beautiful art is the product of a diseased sexual drive. However, Gill died in 1940 and can no longer gain monetarily nor express his perversion any more than he has. While his other work can be appreciated, he is still deeply tied to his erotic work.
Another example unshaped by the distance of time is J.K. Rowling. Most know her as the author of the Harry Potter series, but she has also penned a few other lesser-known novels. She has expressed her transphobic views multiple times in multiple mediums. While she doesn’t seem to have any anti-trans portrayals in Harry Potter, it is a different case when it comes to another one of her novels, The Silkworm. In it, Pippa Midley is a negative portrayal of a transgendered woman. Her features are described in the most grotesque ways possible, and her views are ignored and dismissed by the other characters. While it is possible to still enjoy the Harry Potter novels, it is a question if the fans want to continue giving money to a bigot, and if they should help her spread her bigoted views.
And that brings us to Cixin Liu, the author of the Three-body Problem trilogy. Its production as a Netflix series has recently been thrown into the spotlight. Concerning the concentration camps, Liu said, “Would you rather that [the Uighurs] be hacking away at bodies at train stations and schools in terrorist attacks? If anything, the government is helping their economy and trying to lift them out of poverty.” In response, five Republican senators asked that Netflix reconsider its decision to produce the series, citing Liu’s “parroting [of] dangerous CCP propaganda.” The trilogy itself shows no anti-muslim views. There is one section where all of humanity is put into a gigantic concentration camp, and this isn’t portrayed as a positive thing. Far from it. However, the sale of the film rights to the books has already been made, and Liu will have no further input into the series. However, the inevitable result of the airing of the series will be higher sales of his books.
The platform issue is the most contentious. Does Liu believe what he says? It’s entirely possible he is saying what he needs to in able to continue living under the rule of the CCP. Let’s assume he does believe it for argument’s sake. On the other end, the Republican senator’s calling out of a Chinese author seems to have more to do with distracting the US populous from a disastrously handled pandemic than it does with concern with the oppression of the Uighur people. The Republicans were perfectly happy to have concentration camps on their own southern border, to have children separated from their parents, and to have hysterectomies forced on the interned women. Though I don’t believe for a second these anti-muslim Republicans suddenly became fighters for the Uighur’s freedom, they are telling the truth with bad intent. Sadly, there is no separating Liu from The Three-body Problem. Perhaps, in the future, this won’t be true.