I know the title of this post sounds pretentious, but watch out, because in a few seconds, it’s going to sound presumptuous and offensive too. Here’s why: Although it’s not a new phenomenon, there’s been an outbreak in recent years of this disease I like to call “public figure ownership delusion syndrome.” Not the catchiest name, mind you, but it’s a fairly accurate description. Let me explain.
Public figure ownership delusion syndrome (PFOD) is this odd idea that some members of our society — namely people who consider themselves fans, but also the general public as well — have where they decide that if you’re an artist or entertainer in any respect, and any members of the public enjoy what you do, those people now get a say in how you express your art.
What I’m referring to isn’t a simple case of fans (or non-fans) offering up criticisms of an artist’s work, gauging its merits and flaws, and delivering a constructive analysis based on a personal perspective. No. I’m referring to fans (or non-fans) deciding that every artist or entertainer should create, direct, cast, perform or build a work of art that caters to what the fans insist is the only way they’ll enjoy a work from that artist.
Somewhere along the way, the public — and again, it’s not a new concept, but one that’s grown more than a little out of hand in recent years — decided that if an artist, musician, actor, writer or comedian ever made a decision regarding their work that the fans or general public didn’t artistically approve of, the public has the right to demand that the creator change, alter or cease the creation of that work. A frightening assumption that I believe is both sad and disconcerting.
Now I know what you’re thinking: “But Candace? The fans are just telling the artist what they want. Isn’t that a good thing?”
I would argue that no, that’s not what’s happening at all. It’s one thing to tell a Blues/Folk musician that you like specific songs on their last album. It’s another to tell them that you only enjoy their Blues songs, and since you’re not a fan of Folk music, you’d wish the artist just stick to Blues.
It’s one thing to tell a comedian that you thought they were funnier 10 years ago, when you (erroneously) decided that their comedy was only about one thing. It’s another thing to tell them now that you’ve decided their comedy doesn’t seem to be about that one thing anymore, so the comedian should change their act to suit your previous point of view.
The reality is artists and entertainers are public figures, but they’re not politicians. They’re not elected officials here to do the bidding of their constituents. They often create works that enrich our lives, but they’re not beholden to us for our permission to create what suits our personal preferences. As a matter of fact, I think most would say that their pursuit of art is for the exact opposite reason.
To give a recent example of this phenomenon, in the year leading up to the release of J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, so-called fans had been trying to pressure the world-renown author and world-builder extraordinaire that she should recast the role of Grindelwald to suit the preferences and whims of some of the film’s audience. Never mind that one of the best-selling writers of genre fiction who has had a direct hand in casting her nine previous novel adaptations for the screen might actually know who’s best to play the original character that she envisioned. Never mind that those “fans” hope that the studio producing the films will arrest control of that creator’s work to force their will upon this artist if she doesn’t agree to recast the role. Never mind that the creator has only recast a major character in her past film adaptations once, and that was due to the fact that the original actor died.
Nope. At some point, fans of the franchise — and some of the general public — decided that what they want from the artist matters more than what the artist wants to properly execute with her work.
To move from writing for the big screen to writing for the small screen, the public now seems to have no problem attempting to commandeer countless television shows so that the staff writers cater to their desires only. Numerous TV shows over the last decade have seen their plot, characterization, and general focus go askew thanks to voracious “fans” insisting that the writers serve their preferences alone. The audience genuinely seems to feel as if they have some sense of “ownership” when it comes to creative intellectual property. Instead of sending the general message that they wish the writing were better, more this, and less that, fans have demanded specifics that suit their perspective and what needs to serve them.
They could easily express their dissatisfaction by not listening to that singer’s next album, or not watching that TV show the following season, or not reading that author’s next book. But instead they decide to coerce, harass, or manipulate artists to produce only that which brings them joy or meets their vision. The idea to let artists be artists never occurs to them at all.
Yet, by constantly demanding that writers, singers, comedians, artists, and actors cater to our personal or collective whims, some people fail to realize that the outcome is no longer art. Whatever you decide to call what the outcome is now is up to you, but art, it is not. The creator has now been restricted by the voices of the few, molded by their hubris and misplaced assertion that they know what creative professionals should be producing in order win them over. The creators have been usurped to be only the mass producers of popular content — again, no longer art.
Also, what this idea fails to take into account is that some of the most creative, inspiring, iconoclastic or memorable works of art weren’t produced because the audience demanded it or guided the artist on how to create it to suit their sensibilities. Quite the opposite. If all art was produced to meet the whims of the public or fans who insisted it wants only what it wants, we wouldn’t have any of the following:
- Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa
- Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss
- Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring
- Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal
- Any self-portrait by Frida Kahlo
- Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird
- Anything by Jimi Hendrix
- Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”
- Grace Jones’ Nightclubbing
- Any great dramatic performance by Robin Williams or Bill Murray
- Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting
- Stephen King’s Shawshank Redemption
- Erykah Badu’s Baduizm
- George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones
- Jordan Peele’s Get Out
Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive, but I think you get the picture. Some of these works are incredibly popular today, but when they were released, they were considered socially scandalous (The Kiss), underwhelming (“Bohemian Rhapsody”), or even sparked riots (The Rite of Spring). Some were welcomed as game-changers (Trainspotting) while others were met with uncertainty (Nightclubbing). And still others have been received with nothing but praise since their first appearance (Get Out or dramatic performances by Williams or Murray).
That’s not to say that all art that deviates from the expectations of the public will be a success, or even popular. Just as not every creative endeavor will even be any good. But what matters is that artists are allowed to pursue their creative expressions to build a work that speaks to what they want to express. Not to only what the public thinks it wants to see and hear.
We need to let authors like Tim O’Brien, famous for writing about the conscious of a soldier and the mind of a conflicted man struggling to serve his country in Vietnam, to write books like Tomcat in Love and July, July. We need to let Lady Gaga sing with Tony Bennett and do albums that experiment with her Pop sound and brand. We need to let sculptors sculpt what they want to sculpt. Painters paint what they want to paint. Performers perform what they want to perform.
We need to let artists be artists.
It’s fine to be dissatisfied with what they create. It’s not fine to assume that they should create what you demand they create.