The other day my wife and I got to talking about artists we have personal misgivings about, and she mentioned that she can't listen to Led Zeppelin anymore because of Jimmy Page's creepy messings-around with underage girls. (For the record: yecch.)
When a living artist is surrounded in mystery, that allows people to project whatever qualities they want onto the person. Most of the time, though, they seem to be a kind of positive blank space: I don't know much about him, but his books are amazing, so whatevs. Then we find out something about that person that blights the whole of their name, and we take everything they've produced and dump it in a box for Goodwill.
I make a point of separating what I know about a person from what kind of work they do, but I also know not everyone can pull off such a stunt. I've got a certain amount of built-in privilege (white, male, straight, able-bodied, comfortable) that protects me in some cases. In the case of Page, though, while I was dismayed, it wasn't so much so that I would turn off the radio if "Kashmir" started playing. Led Zep was never important enough to me to merit that kind of turnabout.
It hurts all the more when you have someone who has, in some fashion, played a key role in providing you with what shaped your cultural outlook. Céline's Journey to the End of the Night was formative reading for me, made all the harder to return to when I found out about the man's antisemitism and generally nasty personality. But Céline is also long gone now, and so that makes it incrementally less difficult to come back to his work. I can focus on the work and not have to deal with the man.
That's another criterion, then: if we're dealing with a living person whom we feel uneasy about supporting through their work, or someone who amounts now to a historical figure. So that's another thing. (Also: Dazai Osamu. Great author, but I'd never want to hang out with him. More on that impulse in another essay.)
A third thing is something I'm going to apply only to myself. For a long time now — at least a decade or more — I've been trying to train myself to operate in what I call the "François Truffaut" mode, where you do work in both creative and critical fields, and in essence train yourself to see this whole business from both sides of the same fence. Critical work teaches you to focus on the work and not necessarily the person — or, rather, to not treat the worst in the person as an automatic contaminant of the work.
Here's the thing, though. If I know upfront someone is a jackass (that is, assuming they're still around to continue being one), that makes me less inclined to be interested in their work in the first place. And from what I can tell, the vast majority of the time, I'm not missing a thing.
The number of creators out there who are scorchingly brilliant creators but also horrible human beings is, from what I can tell, very small. In almost every case I can think of, when I've discovered that someone holds deeply questionable points of view on things or has behaved personally in a way that's abhorrent, I've found the work produced by such a person is almost never worth the bother. It may be competent, but it's almost never the sort of thing that provokes a tough choice between the art or the artist.
This whole formula of "bad person, but great art" seems more like an after-the-fact justification than anything else. If we admire someone's work, and then find out they're a jackass, it's easy to adopt the formula that — to use the old Perdue ad slogan — it takes a tough man to make a tender chicken. Maybe sometimes being a jerk is a requirement for great art; maybe sometimes it takes someone of that temperament to Do What Has To Be Done. Sorry, no sale. If someone is a great artist but also a jerk, that seems more like they're the former in spite of the latter and never because of it.
Now here's the point I've been working towards this whole time. If you're an audience member and you believe jerks make better artists, that's bad enough. If you're an artist yourself and you believe this, how does that not constitute giving yourself permission to be a terrible human being? And for a really pretentious reason, to boot? Besides, if you're cultivating jerkdom to some degree, aren't you shutting out a whole range of experiences that could be used to enrich your work in the first place? (Dock yourself ten points if the first thing that came to mind was, "I already had those experiences; what do I need to go have them again for?")
The other way people can lie to themselves in this vein is by some variation of this formula: "I'm writing for posterity, not just for the present moment. If I'm a jerk now, who in a hundred years time will care?" Well, if you're a jerk now, who's to say your name will even be remembered in a hundred years time to begin with? It's other people that you connect with to make your work known, and if you're a crummy person (albeit in the name of your work), people will remember the manifest crumminess more readily than the alleged greatness.
If I refuse to support someone's work because of what they are as a person, it's not just because I don't want to give them my money. It's because I don't like validating the idea that creativity is the domain of pompous asses.
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