Do I admit to a little bit of schadenfreude about the recent fate of “Dilbert” cartoonist Scott Adams? Oh yeah, you bet. His blatantly racist rantings (“White people should get the hell away from Black people.”) actually just underscore a pattern of Adams’ recent behaviors for which he is now being brought to account.
But do I also think most people are confused about the moral relationship between Scott Adams, the human being, and the product he creates, Dilbert? Also yes. Here’s what I mean.
We have become so used to identifying the creator with the creation in art (“Which Taylor Swift boyfriend is this song talking about?”) that proposing some alternate truths about how art actually operates may now be almost incomprehensible to most people.
There was a time—before the moralists, cultural critics and political deconstructionists took over literary criticism—when we better understood the relation between creator and created, the artist as opposed to the art. The school of thought was called the “New Criticism.”
Basically, it worked like this: A work of art, once created and made public, should no longer be restricted by the creator’s background or statements. The piece is free and stands alone, and must be judged solely on its inherent merits. It’s out of bounds to bring in anything about the creator’s political stances or racist rantings or any other stupid thing (or even good thing) they may have done.
Understanding the intention of any creative person (including Scott Adams) is not required or even desirable as a standard for judging the work itself. The artist is not the authoritative voice about the piece and its meaning cannot be found in the author’s private intent. The work itself belongs to the public.
What does this mean for an artist? For Adams it means that he, as a person, holds certain views, and is now suffering consequences for some of those views. But Dilbert comic strips themselves, which have been around since 1989, have nothing to do with what Scott Adams says or believes, once they are published.
They stand alone, separate. One can do an ethical evaluation of Adams, but any such evaluation of Dilbert has to be found in the cartoons themselves, not in Adams’ views. You can boycott him if you want, so you don’t provide financial support, but that’s still about Adams, not Dilbert.
The biggest implication of this critical perspective is that much of the “cancel culture” response to artists (politicians and political commentators are a different matter) is unjustified and misguided. One may well (and probably should) react with judgment at Woody Allen’s behaviors, but it’s still okay to like Annie Hall. And (this is a harder one), it is okay for my friend to say that Chinatown is one of the best movies ever made, in spite of Roman Polanski’s crimes. Go ahead and retain your judgmentalism about Adams if you want, but it’s okay to still like Dilbert.
Here is some good news about the theory that says we should be driven by close attention to the art and not the artist: As one critic within the tradition of the New Criticism wrote, the death of the author is also then the “birth of the reader.” It is invigorating to engage with any work of art unburdened by biography.
So if you don’t care about Taylor Swift’s boyfriends, you might understand and enjoy her music even more.