Talkin' About: Is Art Separate from the Artist? (and Junot Diaz)

Just a few weeks ago, I began reading This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz, one of the most famous American writers alive today. I wasn't thinking of much other than the excitement at finally reading a book by a name I'd heard everywhere. But my choice happened to be eerily timely. 

Looking up Diaz's name, I found this New Yorker article published last month where Diaz discussed the effects of trauma and distress of childhood sexual assault on his life. It was a powerful, emotional article that showed how the trauma had repercussions all throughout his life. He mentioned that he continued to cheat on his partners, despite knowing how bad it was. Reading the article, it was crazy how much his personal experiences spoke to the fiction I was reading.

But while reading this book, author Zinzi Clemmons accused Diaz of sexual misconduct against her in graduate school. A few other women began to speak up, and now his behavior continues to be debated and talked about, in the context of his own sexual assault experience, and also in terms of his work. 

Having only read This is How You Lose Her, I can't make generalizations on all his writing, but from what I know, one thing is true: Diaz's fictional worlds are founded on misogyny. The entire book is a short story collection with each short story revolving around a woman that Yunior, the protagonist, has loved but can't hold onto because he continues to cheat. It's clear how Yunior regards these women: as bodies, as trophies, as oversimplified beings. 

So what do we make of this? How do we approach works that not only depict and branch from misogyny and bigotry, but come from artists who seem to embody those prejudices? 

We continue to read them. In answering the question that started this post, art can never be completely separate from the artist. A book is like a child of the mind of an author. It's impossible to say that the work of a sexist, racist, etc. will be completely free of their perspective. 

But just as it's dangerous to characterize people just as harassers, criminals, and bigots, it's incredibly dangerous to not interact with the art of flawed, even horrible, people. Great art is great in that it gives something to the world, that it helps uncover something, that it touches an aspect of humanity that isn't always pretty or pure or right, but true.

Diaz's art is still brilliant. His characters' misogyny is not painted in a way of righteousness or blindness, but rather with the kind of honesty that doesn't justify the prejudice, but just depicts it straight on. Despite everything he has done, his art still can impact and speak to many lives - and we should seek to find some truth in his work. In humanity, after all, there are ugly patches, and books are how we come to understand and fix them.

There is one additional complicated part I'd like to address too though. As long as an artist is living, we have the power to impact their lives and speak against their actions with something very simple: our wallets. When you don't support a creator's actions, you can choose not to support them financially. It's a deliberate choice you can make - the library will still house all their books :)

Just to end, art is art. It is meant to be messy and flawed and truthful. The most we can do is choose the art we encounter, and learn to choose not comfortably, but honestly. 


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