Distinguishing the work from the author

As cited in a Times article by Nicolette Jones, Archbishop Williams advocates making a distinction between the work and the author of the work. Jones writes:

Philip Pullman, objecting to compulsory inspection by the Independent Safeguarding Authority of authors making school visits, fears that the database to be put into place will “corrupt a child’s view of the world” and make them think “the basic mode is not of trust but suspicion”.

One of the motives for introducing such regulations as this is, no doubt, not the case of Ian Huntley, which has been mentioned everywhere in this context, but the more pertinent case of William Mayne, which no one seems to have referred to.

Mayne went to prison in 2004 for indecent assault of young girls aged between 8 and 16, crimes committed between 1960 and 1975. The author of about 100 books, he had won the Carnegie Medal in 1957 for A Grass Rope and the Guardian Award for Low Tide in 1993. His A Swarm in May and Earthfasts were adapted, in the 1980s and 1990s, for children’s television. The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature described him as “one of the outstanding children’s authors of this century”. In the 1960s and 1970s he already had the seductive aura of fame.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said in a platform conversation with me at the Oxford Literary Festival that he would still recommend Mayne’s books. “The work is not the man,” he said wisely, if controversially. But there lies the problem. However great the work, it does not guarantee the character of the author.

Read it all.

What of the argument that the fame of stars like Michael Jackson sends the wrong message? If we celebrate Jackson’s music does that imply we accept his behavior?

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  1. David Allen |dah • veed|

    If we celebrate Jackson’s music does that imply we accept his behavior?

    Or Roman Polanski, or Woody Allen, etc.

    I think that it does. Folks seem to be very forgiving of eccentric artists, as long as it is reputed that they were messing with someone else’s family, someone else’s children.

    Some fans point to Jackson’s last criminal case because he was found innocent. They do not really want to hear about the time before when the accuser basically disappeared after Jackson paid him US$20+ million. Never mind that he preyed upon the weakest of the weak – children stricken with horrible childhood diseases and their close siblings, and their financially distressed families.

    The few snatches of his funeral that invaded television for so many weeks, struck me how even at his funeral, his family and friends were still trying to cover for him and blame everyone but Michael Jackson for Michael Jackson’s problems. If/when the LA coroner’s office says Jackson died of accidental prescription drug overdose, his family will likely go after the doctors and/or nurses who supplied the access to the drugs, because they were preying on Jackson. This could never be his fault or of his own doing!

    (And BTW, I hope the authorities do follow up and prosecute all health practitioners involved, but that is a separate issue.)

    I have an anchor in my mind of Jackson the “accused” pedophile. Whenever Jackson music comes on TV or radio, even if it is a brief moment as a car drives by in the street, this anchor rattles me and I am reminded and disgusted and turn away from his art, the product of his personality.

  2. Priscilla Cardinale

    If we are to apply this very high moral standard throughout our lives then perhaps we should begin with the bible, excising the psalms since David (whom they are attributed to, whether he wrote them or not) was a murderer and a serial adulterer and then we can move on to Paul in the new testament and excise all of his purported writings since he was actively responsible for the persecution, jailing, and probably execution of many Christians.

    And of course the church as a whole has much blood on its hands and has committed unnumbered atrocities throughout its 2000+ year history. Many people today point to this history as a reason to doubt the existence of God at all and as an excuse to ignore faith entirely.

    People make mistakes. Some of those mistakes are horrendous and have unspeakable consequences. Aren’t we the followers of the Christ who urged us to forgive 70 times 7 times? A book or a song or a painting indeed has a separate life from its creator. I don’t see the need to avoid them because the creators have failed and sinned at life.

    I am deeply troubled by this trend we have in the west to demand perfection in all those who are part of the public discourse, whether politicians or artists. We are creating an impossible standard for participation in the human community where all have indeed fallen short of the glory of God yet we have no capacity for grace, forgiveness, or tolerance anymore.

  3. David Allen |dah • veed|

    No Priscilla, it is not an easy call.

    Roman Polanski is a fugitive from justice in the USA where he pleaded guilty to sexual activity with a 13 year old girl. He resides in two countries, France and Poland, where he is secure from extradition to the US to serve his punishment in prison.

    Shall we buy his films and provide him a livelihood to continue flaunting his freedom in having escaped? His films are not him, correct? And besides, he is old. And also he survived the holocaust.

    It is much more a difficult ethical/moral situation when the monster still lives. US law insure that prisoners cannot profit from their crime. The passing of time, as the art endures, but the actual person becomes distant, provides a certain cover for forgetting.

  4. William Gilders

    Since Roman Polanski has been mentioned, this article might be of interest: http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/03/02/1046540066443.html (“Rape Victim Backs Polanski”). In short, the victim of Mr. Polanski’s crime herself makes the case that his art should be distinguished from his person.

  5. David Allen |dah • veed|

    Oh well, stupid me! By all means this changes everything.

  6. William Gilders


    I didn’t suggest that it changes everything. But it certainly is relevant to the issue under discussion. It struck me as notable that, in the Roman Polanski case, the person with the most immediate experience of the crime was able to see a difference between the person and the art.

    If I may… you seem to feel that no one, in good conscience, can disagree with you on this issue. Not much productive can come from that. Perhaps we just shouldn’t bother.

  7. David Allen |dah • veed|

    I apologize for feeling strongly about this and coming on too strong.

    The point that I think that you both miss is that neither of these two people have approached what I would view as the process of meriting forgiveness; confessing their sin, asking forgiveness, making an amends and sinning no more.

    Polanski said that he was guilty when he thought that he was going to get away with the short amount of time that he was incarcerated. When he thought that he might really be punished he escaped.

    And the first thing that comes to my mind is that his victim has been victimized again! Did she come out of the blue and grab everyones attention to give her opinion about his award nomination? I have my doubts. I bet she was hunted down and hounded. Then the whole world knew where she lived, things about her husband and children, and began to feel the weight that she could bear the blame for his not getting the award.

    All Jackson has ever done is cry poor me, I have been so wronged all my life, and try to buy his way to freedom after his victim told.

  8. tgflux

    I don’t think it’s a simple question, Dahveed.

    I *do* think that answering it is a highly personal.

    For myself, plenty of times have I enjoyed the work of artists (in all mediums) who I thought were reprehensible in their actions. At the same time, there have also been artists to whom I did not want to support w/ my money.

    No hard and fast rule (IMO). Case by case, person by person…

    JC Fisher

    [Case in point: I never had the *slightest* temptation to see Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” in the theater, or by purchasing/renting a DVD. (My $ to a creepy, anti-semitic, homophobic paleo-Popoid? Not so much!) If and when I get an opportunity to see it on “free TV”, I’ll make another decision then. There’s still a good chance I’ll skip polluting my brainpan w/ the “Jesus Chainsaw Massacre” though! ;-p]

  9. David Allen |dah • veed|

    I don’t think it’s a simple question, Dahveed.

    No Priscilla, it is not an easy call.

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