A while back I read Pascal Mercier’s ‘Night Train to Lisbon’ and, since I’m in Porto, Portugal and headed to Lisbon by train, I’ve been thinking about that intriguing and mysterious novel about philosophy and philosophical people. In it, a professor feels compelled to drop everything and go on a quest to learn about the author of a book that is fundamental to his life. It’s an odd story, but I remember feeling “compelled” to go along with the journey. This is funny because I’m often happier to keep the author (the actor, the painter, the sculptor) out of my appreciation for a work of art.
Backstory is often a big part of a sales pitch for a novel—written by a war hero, a victim of abuse, the prosecutor who put away the mad man, an insider’s viewpoint on politics, etc. and artists often become the subject of the story as much as their creations. The story of the creator becomes the story that supports the work of art.
I know I’m holding a minority opinion when I say I prefer that the biography of the artist take a back seat to the work of art. Most of the time I avoid the in-depth audio guides at museums, pick up the hand-out with the artist’s bio at a gallery AFTER I’ve admired the artworks, and I skip over the paragraphs in book reviews that are focused on the author’s non-writing credentials.
What do you think of the importance artist’s backstory?