Is It OK To Enjoy Good Art By Bad People?

The perils of the Woody Allen and Bill Cosby fan

8 May 2018

It’s a little-known fact that before he wanted to take land for Germany and eradicate the Jewish population, Adolf Hitler was an aspiring artist. In fact, when a modern art critic was asked to evaluate his paintings, they were described as ‘quite good,’ and indeed, on their own, Hitler’s artwork is nowhere near as ugly as the man himself. But that doesn’t matter.

With the added context, the paintings will be forever tainted. The artist may have been competent, but the person was pure evil. So why do I bring this up?

Well, I think there’s something worth examining here, especially in this post-Weinstein world, where the outing of powerful men in the entertainment industry has potentially left hundreds of films and performances tainted.

The guilty men deserve to be punished and forgotten—but should the same go for their art? Is it OK to enjoy an artist’s work despite finding the artist reprehensible on a personal level?

When considering whether or not we should abandon a work of art, the gravity of the artist’s crime(s) should play into our decision. In conjunction with this should also be our appraisal of the art, looking at whether its value outweighs the indiscretions of its creator.

J.D Salinger was an accused pedophile with a penchant for young women, yet Catcher In The Rye is on almost everyone’s high school reading list.

Clearly, we have decided that what Catcher In The Rye offers is far greater than what the author’s sexual tendencies detract. Some things are simply worth overlooking. Of course, there are many cases that push this idea to its bursting limits.

In death, Michael Jackson is loved more than ever. His music has become an indomitable part of our culture, continuing to influence and delight millions. As we all know, Jackson was a credible sex offender and child molester.

Despite this, a quick google search of his name leads to articles and opinions with far more respect than condemnation, and his legacy remains more intact than it perhaps should.

This isn’t just the media’s fault. Even knowing that he used gore porn to groom children for sex, you can still listen to a track from Bad or Thriller without feeling queasy. Why is that? Jackson’s allegations and crimes are certainly above what I would consider to be the threshold of acceptability, beating out the value of his music even, but I think the most crucial point lies in the type of art of Jackson made.

Music can be an immersive yet disconnecting medium. You can listen to a song without thinking about its production, creators, or even lyrics. The same can’t be said, however, for comedians, whose personalities are intrinsically linked to their art.

It is for that reason why I believe Louis C.K’s outing has so far been the most shocking of all these Hollywood revelations. As strange as it sounds, you don’t expect sexual misconduct from a man who regularly jokes about sexual misconduct.

In comedy, performers imbue a routine with their personality and traits. The delivery of a punchline can be more important than the punchline itself. That’s down to a comedian’s physical skills and exuberance. When you laugh along, you’re not only supporting the jokes but the character attached to them.

Kevin Spacey movies aren’t ruined because of Kevin Spacey. You can watch American Beauty and enjoy many of its other aspects, from the cinematography to the dialogue, other performances, and so on. Stand-up is a different beast. It is one person on a stage, one person whose image is tied to their art.

You can listen to a song and not think about whose voice is singing; you can read a book without thinking about its author, but it is impossible to watch and listen to a stand-up comic while being both blind and deaf to their personal lives.

This is a problem even actors can suffer from. While a performance is able to be admired on its own, sometimes we cannot escape the allure of an actor’s face and name. Just think about all the times you referred to a movie character by their actor.

The morality of enjoying good art by bad people is dependent on our ability to separate the art from the artists. This itself is underpinned by the value of the art as well as the severity of the artist’s crimes or misconduct.

If you’re worried about buying a Quentin Tarantino movie because you’ll support Harvey Weinstein, you shouldn’t be. At that point, the alleged is so far removed from the product that their involvement in it is unlikely to tarnish the overall piece.

The issue increases in complexity as the offender contributes more to the art in question, making it more likely that their damaged worldview will seep into it. This is what I feel damns Louis C.K and Woody Allen’s more ‘personal’ films. They are evocative of their actual indiscretions.

I’m not here to force anyone into guilt about the things they like. Good things can certainly come from bad souls. The expression, ‘never meet your heroes,’ is predicated on the idea that people are ultimately fallible and disappointing. It’s because of this we should strive to admire ideas, products, and art, over people, as the former group will more likely stand the test of time.

10 comments

  1. “Hitler’s artwork is nowhere near as ugly as the man himself. But that doesn’t matter. ”

    Methinks you may benefit from some true history. Adolf Hitler must forever be demonized in the public mind because he nearly smashed the New World Order (paraphrasing Mike King in The Bad War).

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    • I think he must forever be demonised because he killed millions of innocent people. Adolf Hitler is not a man to see in any light other than a negative one.

      Like

  2. I think this is an issue which holds two evils that one must choose between. Overall, it’s a situation that sucks. For a person that can weigh arguments from ever angle there’s no right answer and it’ll just hurt the brain and conscience with way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It sucks to ponder the moral quandaries of enjoying art and entertainment, especially when those things are usually supposed to take our minds off of politics and the real world.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I am of the opinion that art itself has no obligation to be moral. That being said, I’m reading The Last Closet by Moira Greyland right now, and I would find it very difficult to read anything by Marion Zimmer Bradley without thinking of the horrible things that Greyland describes in the book.

    It’s a very tough question, and I’m glad that you asked it, because there’s no simple answer.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I too think that art itself has no obligation to be moral. Things like the Hays Code and Comics Code Authority only limited artistic freedom in order to satisfy someone else’s idea of morality.

      Liked by 1 person

      • As far as the artist goes, my logic says that an artist absolutely should be separated from the work that he or she produces. My emotions tend to disagree.

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