In Every Work of Art and
Every Human Heart
by Leon Perniciaro
I once met someone at a bar with the deathly hallows tattooed on her arm. Even now I'm embarrassed because I'd been drinking and kept calling them horcruxes, but I wonder if, in 2021, she's embarrassed about them too. We mark ourselves with words and symbols from things we love, but what can we do when the meanings behind those things change?
I think about it every time J.K. Rowling goes on twitter to whinge about trans rights. What was once a story of adventure and friendship and the triumph of good over evil (though not without its problems) now feels like a vehicle for mainstreaming the views of someone who lives in a castle and uses their enormous platform to cause real harm in the world. And I have such positive memories of the franchise--seeing the first film as a teenager with my best friend and her little brother, and reading Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen when I was learning German--and now it's like someone has reached back and tainted each and every one. The words haven't changed. Only their context has.
So what do we do when something we love betrays us, something we’ve internalized and made a part of ourselves? Talking about her work as a curator, Thelma Golden says that “an exhibition is in many ways a series of conversations. Between the artist and viewer, curator and viewer, and between the works of art themselves,” and this is true of literature too. And if every text is a conversation, then we aren't simply empty vessels that the author pours their words into, but instead are active in the creation of their meaning, both together in our fandoms and individually.
There are plenty of examples of this, from the horrifying (like Russian far-right trolls inexplicably adopting the singer Tessa Violet as their mascot), to the intriguing (like counter-culturalists in China taking the cartoon Peppa Pig as a subversive symbol), to the personal (like my own love of The Lion King balanced against the exploitation of Disney workers).
I can guarantee I'll never watch a Roman Polanski movie because I know what the man has done, and I didn't grow up loving his work, internalizing it, making it a part of who I am, but can I say the same for the equally-awful Harvey Weinstein, when so many of the films he financed have been so meaningful to me? And will I never read Ender's Game again? What do we do when it's not a tattoo on our skin but on our hearts?
Art is dialogue and outrage (to crib from Wole Soyinka), but it's something else, something we bury in the fertile soil of our souls, and it doesn’t always grow true to seed. So it's right to reject art and artists whose values and actions are so counter to our own, but it's also okay to hang onto the pieces that have meaning to us, to those things we carry on our arms and in our hearts because they touched us and helped us and brought us comfort or joy.
Every work of art and every human heart is irreducibly complex.
Assistant Editor, Fiction
Leon Perniciaro (he/him) is a writer, editor, and translator originally from New Orleans, but now living in New England. He worries about the climate crisis and the Great Filter. He also produces audio fiction, and he seldom wears hats.
Non-fiction by Leon Perniciaro:
In Every Work of Art and Every Human Heart," February 2021