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When a Bad Person Makes Good Art

Good artist. Bad human.I like to think I’m a man of conviction. The kind of man who acts swiftly to right a wrong, who won’t tolerate an injustice, nor support or enable morally questionable behavior. For example, a couple of weeks ago a friend of mine alerted me that somebody had posted a racist sentiment on my Facebook wall. My justice was swift and decisive: I deleted the post and unfriended the person who posted it, despite the fact that we were former coworkers who had been friends for 20 years. My buddy who had alerted me was surprised by the speed and severity of my response. “Damn,” he observed, “KC doesn’t mess around.” I’ll admit, seeing his reaction made me feel kind of good – and maybe a little smug. Nope, I thought, KC does NOT mess around.

But here’s the thing.

Actually, the first sentence in my opening paragraph was carefully worded. And the key phrase in it is “like to think.” Because as much as I may want to pat myself on the back, the truth is that quashing a racist sentiment on social media is not a very hard thing to justify, nor is it particularly praiseworthy. I suspect most decent people wouldn’t tolerate racist language on their Facebook walls. But what about something a little less directly impactful?

I mean, this was a racist statement, and it was posted on MY wall. Clearly that was not to be tolerated. But what do I do when I find out – after the fact – that the person who wrote a song I like is a racist? Or that an actor I admire has a history of spousal abuse? Or that a novelist I enjoy actually murdered somebody? Where do I draw the line?

It’s a question that’s coming up more and more these days. In the past year, we’ve begun to see a flood of bad behavior by popular artists – particularly male artists – being exposed. The #MeToo movement is shedding some much-needed light on a long history of indefensibly bad behavior by powerful males in the arts, who have been using sex, gender and power to dominate and/or manipulate – and in some cases, flat-out ruin – careers and lives.

One by one we’re seeing artistic icons being toppled. Louis CK. Bill Cosby. Harvey Turdstein (okay, I might have gotten the spelling wrong on that one). Many of us are relishing the experience of witnessing this sea change. It’s high time, we think, as we watch Roman Polanksi ousted from the Oscars academy. Good riddance, we think, as Kevin Spacey is dropped from his TV series. Yes, it feels kind of good, a rare glimpse of karma in action.

But it also leaves each of us with a challenge. Specifically, once we’ve identified an artist as being a not-so-good person, what do we do about that artist’s body of work? Speaking only for myself, that’s why I worded my first sentence so carefully. Because as much as I may like to think I’m a man of conviction, I’m finding that sometimes… well, it’s complicated.

I mean, do I quit watching the movies Weinstein produced? Say goodbye to Shakespeare in Love, Chocolat, The King’s Speech? Wait – we’re also talking about the Lord of the Freaking RINGS trilogy? Pulp Fiction?!? Hang on – I need to think about this.

Okay, I rationalize to myself, he didn’t write those movies. He didn’t direct them, or act in them. He just produced them.

Which means… without his involvement, it’s likely that many of them would never have been made. Crap. Yeah, I’m definitely going to need to think about this.

The fine art of winging it

As I’m raising all these uncomfortable questions, it’s only fair to share with you how I’ve been answering them for myself. To put it succinctly, I’m winging it. I’m responding to some gut-level reactions, but I’ll be the first to admit, the results are uneven, and far from being codified into anything cohesive enough – or defensible enough – to advocate to others.

In some cases, the choices have been easy. For example, Louis CK and Woody Allen are now dead to me, because I feel like they flaunted their sick behavior in their own often autobiographical work. Ditto for Bill Cosby, whose TV tenure as “America’s dad” is now forever tainted for me. And it’s become hard for me to divorce Mel Gibson’s movie roles from his personal behavior (although I have to admit, I thought he kicked ass in the first Lethal Weapon movie, and he wasn’t half bad in Hamlet). So while I don’t go out of my way to watch his films, I haven’t completely banned him.

Okay, so predators, perverts and bigots (oh my!) are pretty easy for me to judge. What about misogynists? Some are easier for me to write off. Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul lost me when he dismissed female writers as being inferior to male writers. But what about Hemingway? His treatment of women – both the fictional characters in his work and the real ones he loved, married and/or grandparented – has been the subject of much criticism. Yet I still find his work compelling, inspiring and utterly original – and something I’m not willing to stop reading.

And that raises some important questions: should I stop reading (or watching, or otherwise ingesting) the work of artists whose personal behavior is objectionable? Does it accomplish anything? Conversely, does ingesting their work implicitly mean that I support them?

Opinions on these issues vary. Author Roxane Gay believes in shutting the door on artists whose personal behavior falls short of her moral minimums. In this Marie Claire article, she does not mince words as she states, “I no longer struggle with artistic legacies. It is not difficult to dismiss the work of predators and angry men because agonizing over a predator’s legacy would mean there is some price I am willing to let victims pay for the sake of good art, when the truth is no half hour of television is so excellent that anyone’s suffering is recompense.” Gay advocates that we turn away from the work of artists who have harmed others, with this well-considered rationale:

“There are all kinds of creative people who are brilliant and original and enigmatic and capable of treating others with respect. There is no scarcity of creative genius, and that is the artistic work we can and should turn to instead.”

She makes an excellent case, I’ll admit.

To my surprise, one of the best-articulated views I encountered when researching this piece came not from the literary world, but from a former professional basketball player. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a friend of Bill Cosby, and this excellent article explores the ambivalence he’s now experiencing. While he admits that he can no longer watch Cosby’s TV shows “without anger, guilt and shame,” he questions the wisdom – and the morality – of enforcing the kind of all-out ban on these disgraced artists’ bodies of work that people like Ms. Gay advocate. “It is scary and tricky,” he writes, “because shunning art for the actions of the artist opens a door to the kind of malevolent censorship that undermines democracy.”

I share Abdul-Jabbar’s reluctance to dismiss out of hand the legacies of these less-than-noble artists. But again, I’m finding my criteria inconsistent, and not necessarily easy to defend. For example, I wouldn’t buy a book written by the late convicted murderer Charles Manson, nor – for similar reasons – would I buy a book by O.J. Simpson. The idea that they could capitalize on their notoriety – and their guilty knowledge – is not something I am willing to economically support, and I suspect a number of you might feel the same.

But do you feel as strongly about bestselling crime novelist Anne Perry? Thousands of readers apparently do not, despite the fact that she helped murder her best friend’s mother when she was 15, and served time in prison before changing her name and reinventing herself as a novelist who writes about – you guessed it – murder. (For the curious, her crime is documented both in print and on film.) Sooooo, I’m saying no to a novel by Manson, but I’d be okay with reading one of Perry’s books? How do I defend that? Like I said, it’s complicated.

Part of my gut-level rationalization comes from the fact that Perry’s crime took place before I was born, and that she did her time for it (admittedly, only five years). So maybe it’s a “time heals all wounds” thing. Modern society definitely applies that kind of rationale to many of our older artistic figures whose pasts are not without blemishes – particularly the male ones, and even more so if they’re dead. As Abdul-Jabbar observes:

“We’ve come to some sort of social consensus that for the most part accepts the transgressions of dead artists – maybe because of a lack of urgency or laziness or because if we banned every sexist male artist, we’d have few men in our artistic canon.”

I suspect he’s right, but I also think this speaks to a reluctance to let go of some cherished art that has shaped our lives. As an example, no visual artist’s work speaks to me as directly or consistently as Picasso’s, and from all accounts, the man was a monster. Dig deeper, and you’ll find depressing data that suggests Dickens was a lousy husband, while William Golding (Lord of the Flies) was an attempted rapist. The list goes on: T.S. Eliot was reputed to be an anti-Semite, H.P. Lovecraft was a confirmed racist, and Patricia Highsmith (who wrote The Talented Mr. Ripley) was both.

And then there’s Theodor Geisel, who in his early days drew advertisements and political cartoons that were undeniably racist.

Folks, we’re talking about Doctor. Freaking. Seuss.

To be fair, Geisel later repented, and his subsequent output included some anti-racist cartoons as well as some children’s books specifically aimed at identifying and fighting prejudice.

The Dr. Seuss example also points out something that I think is important to acknowledge: we all make mistakes.

To err is human. Right?

I’m all too aware of this fact. Sure, I support feminism and the #MeToo movement, and I strive to live in a reasonably enlightened manner, but I’d be kidding myself if I claimed I’d never said, done or thought something that could be construed as sexist (particularly given my tenure as a touring rock drummer in the ’80s, not exactly the most enlightened profession or era).

Abdul-Jabbar has clocked this fact as well:

“I’m confident that almost every male over the age of 20 can remember at least one incident from his past in which he made an inappropriate joke designed to embarrass a woman, an aggressive move meant to intimidate a woman or a physical insistence disguised as seduction. If you don’t think you have, you’re probably lying to yourself and have learned nothing from the society-altering #MeToo and Time’s Up movements.”

We all make mistakes. But ideally, we also learn and grow. So maybe what I’m doing is extending to other artists some of the slack that I cut myself.

But the truth is probably something simpler, and less noble. It probably comes down to being selfish. I like certain art, and I don’t want to give it up.

I’ll cop to that much, but there is still a bit more to it than that. In my case, it also comes down to having consciously adjusted my own expectations. I’ve had a long career as a professional musician, and have been fortunate enough to work with some very well-known artists. And something I realized while working my way up the musical ladder is that despite how “cool” many of them may seem, the reality is that there are plenty of professional musicians who are not the nicest people on earth.

The first couple of times I met a musical hero and was disappointed by their personality and/or behavior, I was crushed.

But I got over it.

I eventually made peace with the fact that sometimes great artists are not great people. Sometimes they’re downright crappy people. But that doesn’t mean they are not talented, nor that the art they create lacks value and resonance. That art just might not come from as noble or lofty a place as we’d like to imagine.

So I muddle through, admittedly using my lowered expectations and a resigned willingness to not know too much about certain artists as a protective barrier between me and the inconvenience of self-imposed censorship.

On one hand, that kind of works. But on the other hand, I am reminded that being willing NOT to know things about people – and thus, turning a blind eye to their wrongdoings – is what helped perpetuate the very activities the #MeToo movement is finally exposing. As Abdul-Jabbar points out: “We made Cosby and Weinstein possible by creating the environment in which they could thrive.” And that’s not something I want to do.

So the bottom line is, I don’t freaking know what to do.

Do you?

How do you react when you learn something troubling about an artist whose work you admire? Do you feel that good artists need to also be good people? Do you cut off your exposure to artists’ work if you learn they are not good people? Do you make exceptions? If so, when and why? Please chime in, and as always, thanks for reading!

 

About Keith Cronin

Author of the novels ME AGAIN, published by Five Star/Gale; and TONY PARTLY CLOUDY (published under his pen name Nick Rollins), Keith Cronin is a corporate speechwriter and professional rock drummer who has performed and recorded with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, and Pat Travers. Keith’s fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine, Amarillo Bay, The Scruffy Dog Review, Zinos, and a University of Phoenix management course. A native of South Florida, Keith spends his free time serenading local ducks and squirrels with his ukulele.


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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.