What If an Artist Is a Horrible Person?

Reader el asks me to write about my approach to artists who do horrible things in RL. As we have all probably noticed, I’m very self- righteous, moralizing, and judgmental. This is why I don’t find it hard to stop consuming an artist’s work if I discover that s/he did things I consider horrible. It isn’t really something I do on purpose. I simply lose all interest in any artistic production coming from somebody who does things I find disgusting.

Mind you, I’m talking specifically about things one does, not what one says. To give an example, one of my favorite writers, Juan Goytisolo, writes very violent texts where he performs acts of verbal aggression against women and children. But as long as it’s part of his art and not of his life, I don’t have a problem with it. I even sought out a famous literary critic who knows Goytisolo well in person and questioned him about the artist’s life.

“Don’t be fooled by his texts,” the scholar told me. “In real life, he is as inoffensive as a butterfly.”

I don’t practice moral relativism, so I apply the same criteria to artists who lived centuries ago. I don’t find the belief that “society was different and we can’t apply today’s moral criteria to what happened in the past” acceptable. Take Cervantes, for example. In the midst of an anti-Muslim frenzy, he wrote about the plight of the Spanish Muslims with so much compassion that you can’t fail to admire him. We also have to keep in mind that, among all of the contemporary writers and thinkers who foamed at the mouth insulting the Muslims, Cervantes was one person who’d actually suffered at the hands of Muslims. He lost an arm in battle, was enslaved. Yet he managed to preserve the lucidity and the compassion that allowed him to see that the Muslims who were being expelled from Spain were not to blame for his personal suffering.

This just goes to show that, in any epoch, you have jerks and you have good, normal people. So if you rape, abuse, torture, then you can stick your art deep into your anal cavity. I have no use for it. There is more beautiful art in the world that one can admire in 100 lifetimes, so why should I waste my time on the work of somebody I find disgusting?

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57 comments on “What If an Artist Is a Horrible Person?

      • art vs. morality — Can somebody write a wonderful book serving a horrible ideology (like Nazism) or is it an oxymoron? If yes, any examples and your reactions to them? If not, why? Is great art inherently moral?

  1. Don’t we view some art exactly because it challenges us in some way? Can’t knowledge of the artist be the thing that challenges us?

    I think some art is worth viewing in part because it was made by bad people for bad reasons.

    I am thinking particularly of the films made by Leni Riefenstahl. Brilliant cinematography (even George Lucas cribbed a scene from Triumph of the Will) yet viewed from this point in time very ominous. The fact the cinematography is so good is part of what makes it so scary.

    • Oh, interesting. The 2nd question I asked was:

      art vs. morality — Can somebody write a wonderful book serving a horrible ideology (like Nazism) or is it an oxymoron? If yes, any examples and your reactions to them? If not, why? Is great art inherently moral?

      So, your answer seems to be that such great book can be written and may be worth reading to understand the roots of attraction. Now I am surprised I haven’t thought of it before. After all, while I loved “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” lyrics (see below), I’ve never believed them.

      You’ve got to be taught
      To hate and fear
      You’ve got to be taught
      From year to Year
      It’s got to be drummed
      in your dear little ear
      You’ve got to be carefully taught

      You’ve got to be taught
      To be Afraid
      Of people whose eyes
      are oddly made
      And people whose skin
      Is a different shade
      You’ve got to be carefully taught

      You’ve got to be taught
      Before it’s too late
      Before you are 6 or 7 or 8
      To hate all the people
      your relatives hate
      You’ve got to be carefully taught

      • Yes, totally. Eisenstein filmed Ivan the Terrible. It was Stalin’s favorite movie, he participated heavily in editing the screenplay. However, the film is a great condemnation of Stalisn’s regime. The artist was so talented that he totally sneaked the heavy criticism of the regime past the dictator!

        What happens is that a great artist – when we are talking about a really great artist – often sets out to create a work of art that will carry some political agenda. But the art often ends up overpowering the artist and escaping from the original intentions. I LOVE doing literary criticism of such works of art.

  2. A lot of people feel exactly the way you do. My approach is somewhat different: the art work is independent of its creator. The creator is just the medium through which the work came into being. The composer Kyle Gann expressed this in the phrase: “I am not my music’s fault.”

    So I care more about what Goytisolo expresses directly in his work, than about some private behavior of his that I may never hear about. My position is exactly opposite from yours. Of course, your approach is not wrong (for you). There is no reason to try to force yourself into liking something you associate with the repugnant behavior of its creator.

    http://www.artsjournal.com/postclassic/2005/06/i_am_not_my_musics_fault.html

  3. How far should you take this?

    Should it stop at art?

    Should you cross a bridge built by a wife beating engineer?

    If Tim Berners-Lee turns out to have some horrible past would you have to stop blogging?

    • Art is fundamentally different from building a bridge or programming. Into a book a person puts a part of his soul / inner life in a unique way.

      One thing that makes truly implementing Clarissa’s approach impossible is – we often don’t know whether somebody living next door is a criminal, let alone long dead writers. If writer X used to abuse his wife, a good chance we’ll never know it.

      • Building a bridge or a building involves art. Bridges and buildings are frequently built to be both useful and beautiful.

        A bridge can have both utility and aesthetic value. Can you detach one from the other and ignore its artistic value yet still value its utility sufficiently to cross it?

        As an aside a piece of programming of any size requires a person to put their heart and soul into the work too and good coding is an art form.

      • For me, it isn’t what a creator of bridges and code invests , it’s what I invest into their work. Crossing a bridge or using a piece of software requires no investment from me. I get to use it while remaining completely disengaged intellectually and emotionally.

      • Of course, we often don’t know. But what if we do? I don’t go to any special lengths to discover anything about artists but if the information comes my way, I don’t disregard it.

        I’ve been avoiding the biography of V.S. Naipaul because he is one of my favorite writers. I want to read all his books before discovering the real degree of his jerkdom. :-)

      • I also want to say that I don’t boycott products or services. I find the boycott of Amazon to be a ridiculous thing, for example.

        When I go to Walmart (a very nasty company), I don’t invest anything of value to me into using their product. My time, my emotions and my intellect are in no way touched by going there. I don’t engage with the store on the level of feelings, I don’t invite it on a journey into my brain. A work of art is very different in this respect.

        I don’t want to let vile freaks into my brain, that’s all. I don’t think they deserve it.

      • //good coding is an art form

        OK, but a message coding carries isn’t like a message a book carries. Coding doesn’t attempt to present a way in which a programmer sees the world like a book or teach any moral lessons. By the latter, I don’t mean pamphlet-style, but in the widest way.

        Building does involve art and totalitarian regimes had it reflected in their architecture. But it was on the level of a country, of a regime. An individual architect won’t usually be as free in his plans, if he wants to get a project approved, as a writer can be. It’s closer to a book, but still different.

        //Can you detach one from the other and ignore its artistic value yet still value its utility sufficiently to cross it?

        Yes.

    • Crossing a bridge is not a significant time investment on my part. But, of course, if I knew of such an engineer, I would denounce him in no uncertain words on my blog. I believe such people should be excoriated and vilified publicly. In my dream world, whenever Lloyd Blankfein, for example, and every member of his family walks into a room, people spit and leave. That would teach him a lesson faster than any SEC investigation. In my completely ideal world, the same would happen to any villain such as an administrator who destroys departments. Closed down a Classics department? Prepare to become a pariah who people don’t even look at and never direct a word to. For non-autistics, this would be a horrible punishment.

      But this never happens, for some reason. I’m the only person I know who tells villains that they are villains to their face. Everybody else is too polite and too afraid of hurting the jerks’ feelings.

      • // For non-autistics, this would be a horrible punishment.

        I once read Robert Silverberg’s short story “To See the Invisible Man”, which used exactly this idea. And found full text here:

        http://shorttext.com/PXkthTN

        You once asked what sf genre can give. See, it used your dream idea!

  4. //However, the film is a great condemnation of Stalisn’s regime. … the art often ends up overpowering the artist and escaping from the original intentions.

    So your answer is that a great book attempting to serve Nazism would either end up condemning it OR wouldn’t be great. And that great art is inherently moral. Right?

    • For me, the jury is still out. :-) I’m waiting to see if a work of art would be simultaneously a work of pure political propaganda and a great work of art. I haven’t seen one yet.

      Can anybody give any examples?

      I wouldn’t speak of “inherently moral”, though. I think this is more about art of necessity being complex and multi-dimensional, conflictive. If it isn’t, then how is it even art?

  5. I feel the exact same way, and I extend it not only to my artistic tastes, but my purchasing habits as well, by not buying from companies/people who have objectionable practices, to the best of my ability.
    I tend to be a bit more strident about it if the artist is alive and can still profit off my money, IE, I will never ever see a Roman Polanski film in theatres or buy it on DVD, but I’d still go to a museum which was having an exhibit of say, a long-dead artist who said objectionable things about women, so that I could criticize his attitudes more comprehensively.

      • Probably not. Hands which also beat people and pen horrible things should burn too terribly to produce any art worthwhile of my attention.

      • I don’t know who is worse, the people who say “Well yeah, raping a 13 year old girl is horrible, buuuut he’s brilliant and I like his films!” or the people who say “Bah, who cares, she was probably asking for it, and he’s a genius!”
        Both of them however, deserve to be told to go lick a dirty asshole, and told they have plenty of experience at it from kissing Polanski’s arse and shouldn’t mind it too terribly.

  6. For artistic purposes, I can understand your position. But even if Proudhon was an anti-semitic bigot fucktard, his anarchist thinking (especially his writings about property) is a gem of genius.

      • Not personally, but he said this:

        “Write an article against this race that poisons everything by sticking its nose into everything without ever mixing with any other people. Demand its expulsion from France with the exception of those individuals married to French women. Abolish synagogues and not admit them to any employment. Finally, pursue the abolition of this religion. It’s not without cause that the Christians called them deicide. The Jew is the enemy of humankind. They must be sent back to Asia or be exterminated. By steel or by fire or by expulsion the Jew must disappear. ”

        http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/economics/proudhon/1847/jews.htm

  7. I’ve been very keen to read the weird stuff by the weird people. To me there is only truthful art or untruthful. If it’s untruthful and moral, that doesn’t interest me at all. If it’s truthful and amoral, that interests me substantially. Fiction that is bizarre or immoral doesn’t intrigue me very much, but factual writing detailing strange ways of thinking can be very artistic, in my view. This book, for instance, details the psychology of violence during a war:

    http://www.amazon.com/Pamwe-Chete-Ron-Reid-Daly/dp/191987433X

    One could say one shouldn’t read that kind of material as it is immoral, but this is the typical attitude of liberals who continue to retract into tinier bubbles of consciousness, whilst condemning the realities of the outside world.

    • I want to point out that I never told anybody what they shouldn’t read. I simply described one of the ways I make my own reading choices. I read all the time as it is, and it’s hard to make a selection because my time is limited.

      • Ok. Also, I was just talking about a trend that almost became a philosophy with Richard Rorty — the idea that literature ought to teach us moral lessons, since that is what it’s there for. I find that idea really bizarre. I mean if you hold incorrect ideas, you are supposed to repent of them within the narrative, or the literature itself is “no good”.

      • I had a near miss with Rorty, since I was supposed to use his text (as follows) to write my honors dissertation.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contingency,_Irony,_and_Solidarity

        Looking back, it was a good thing I withdrew at the time, since I would not have understood the argument he was making, nor the cultural context of the argument. Also, it would have been extremely *ironic* if I had to be in a position to give USA liberals “hope”, when my right-wing society had been demolished and I had no hope of my own.

        Rorty is not a very good philosopher in my opinion, making the typical move of Postmodernists in combining Nietzsche with Christianity. Nietzsche was inimical to Christianity. The USA philosopher that makes the most sense to me is Quine.

        Clearly, though, Rorty understood his USA liberal community’s desire for “hope”. You’ve got to keep hope alive by not making devastating critiques of authoritarianism like those made by Orwell. Barack Obama sought election on that ticket. Hope.

        The whole things is very American, self-indulgent and Christian (in its idealization of “community” and “hope”).

  8. // I don’t find the belief that “society was different and we can’t apply today’s moral criteria to what happened in the past” acceptable.

    Reminded me of (from Granin’s book I told of in “Ask Clarissa”):

    Прогресс человечества происходит не в нравственной области. Тут достижений нет, есть спады и подъемы. Лжецов не стало меньше, и развратников, процент порядочных людей не прибывает. В искусстве прогресса не бывает, и, наверное, быть не может.
    Бюсты, сделанные античными скульпторами, не хуже нынешних, а может, и лучше. За четыре тысячи лет ни умения, ни таланта не прибыло.
    Но вот где действительно прибыло, так это в науке. Медицина увеличила средний срок нашей жизни. Техника и наука непрерывно поднимаются со ступеньки на ступеньку. Это результат развития мысли. Человек осуществляет свое назначение как мыслящая часть природы. Природа мыслит человеческим разумом, и здесь происходит ее прогресс.

    • Science has also created the means of destroying the entire planet within minutes. Science allowed to destroy millions of people in Nazi concentration camps. I have heard a lot about the scientists conducting experiments on the people in Nazi camps. Yet I haven’t heard of any major artist coming to the camps to get inspired by seeing horrible human suffering. The scientists created the nuclear bomb and tortured people out of their scientific curiosity. Yet every artist of value has condemned the Holocaust.

      I also believe that the human nature has definitely improved over the centuries. Look at the lives of women and all kinds of minorities in developed countries. Look at how children were treated historically compared to how we treat our children. If that isn’t an improvement, I don’t know what is.

      • //I also believe that the human nature has definitely improved over the centuries.

        If so, how doesn’t it contradict judging people’s behavior centuries ago exactly as that of people today? They lived in completely different times, seen diff. society norms since birth.

        I agree about science, but it’s only 1 part. The other part is science letting this wonderful progress in society’s norms to happen. Didn’t slavery in US end, when (after or close to time) it became unprofitable economically? Wasn’t children’s position changed after technological progress demanded them getting more education than starting to help at a family farm at 13 max? And women wouldn’t be where they’re today without modern contraception either.

  9. What other people may find in poetry, I find in the flight of a good drive. — Arnold Palmer

    Now, I know many people may not see the artistic nature of golf but it definately has components of it. So with that said, even though much of what Tiger did or does may be repugnant I have no issue seperating that from the beautiful artistry of his golf game. Afterall I am not watching him play to develop better morality. ;)

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