The artist is not the art

A comment from Arthur reminds me of one of my pet hates – the fallacy of confusing the life events of an artist, scholar, etc. with the art, scholarship, etc. which they produce.

I know this parlour-psychoanalysis is fun, but it cannot be serious. It doesn’t work; it’s not even wrong. Freud (who resorted to it now and then himself) called this psychological reductionism ‘wild analysis’.

Speaking of Freud, he’s been the object of some real beauts. His death instinct idea came from his pessimism; the Oedipus complex is really just a description of his own upbringing, and so on.

Sometimes they do it the other way round – the work supposedly reveals the real person. In his biography Peter Gay cites a contemporary who called Freud – presumably because he wrote about sex – “the greatest pervert in history”. (Anything to avoid giving his work a serious think.)

On the authorial fallacy – as on so many things – Martin Amis is brilliant, particularly in ‘The war against cliche‘. Here he is on writing about and by Philip Larkin:

‘A life’ is one kind of biography, and the ‘Letters’ are another kind of Life; but the internal story, the true story, is in the ‘Collected Poems’. The recent attempts…to pass judgement on Larkin look awfully green and pale compared with the self-examination of the poetry.

The latest instance of the art/artist fallacy appears in The New Yorker where Hermione Lee interviews orgs.tamu-commerce.edu/rothsoc/index.htm. Here’s just one instance of Lee confusing Nathan Zuckerman (the character) with Roth (the author):

H.L Your sense of Bush and what he is doing to America has certainly weighed on your spirits and infiltrated your work during these last seven years, isn’t that so?

P.R. Yes, what Bush is doing to America disgusts me, just as it has scores of millions of others. But, no, this weight has not infiltrated my work as a writer. ‘The plot against America’ is neither an allegory, nor a metaphor nor a didactic tract; ‘The plot against America’ is about what it is about, which isn’t now but then. I should add that it was conceived and the writing begun in the months before Bush even came to office.

D’oh!

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2 thoughts on “The artist is not the art

  1. But the art is produced by the artist. And the art contains concerns and styles which speak of the author.

    This is more than a simple minded equation of the author with narrator. But I do think Roth is concerned with America – even though he probably has the opposite opinions to some of the characters he has created.

    If we look at the work as a whole I do think we see something (by no means all) of the artist reflected in it.

  2. Evan – Yes, you’re right – it’s important that I not swing too far and suggest that the art has nothing to do with the artist!
    Still, trying to identify which bits of the art are the true representatives of the artist is a bad idea in my view. (I mean, what enables the critic to read minds in this way?)

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