Do the moral failings of artists mean we have to reject their art?

A newly published op-ed by Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty is well worth reading for its nuanced response to the current crisis of falling idols in the world of arts and entertainment. Given my personal literary leanings, I find McNulty’s points to be nicely applicable to the case of someone he doesn’t name: H. P. Lovecraft, the moral excoriation of whom has by this point become de rigeur in some wings of the speculative fiction community. Here are some high points of McNulty’s argument, decontextualized from the rich field of specific examples, both classic and contemporary, that he uses to illustrate his point:

I know that an artist is not identical with his or her masterpieces and that few human beings can live up to their greatest achievements. . . .

If a book or play speaks, it does so in a way that transcends the limitations, and imperfections of the author, a more elusive figure than the publishing industry (and identity politics hard-liners) would have us believe. I’m not so much of the school of literary critic Roland Barthes, who famously declared the death of the author, as of the school of Proust, who saw that a writer crystallizes the notion of a multiplicity of identities, the way each of us contains numerous selves, not all of them readily categorizable.

Anyone whose occupation is imagining the lives of others necessarily has a thronging inner world. The artist who creates beauty can contain a fair amount of ugliness. . . .

History is the ultimate arbiter of what endures. Moral verdicts on the author, the raison d’être of many biographies, is a secondary layer that can color the reception of an artist’s oeuvre but cannot nullify work that retains its expressive power. . . .

Some of the shock we’re experiencing right now about all these fallen idols stems from our mythologizing natures. We expect our heroes to be exemplary, yet (as Proust points out) human fallibility may be a necessary ingredient in creativity. Heinous crimes are another matter entirely, but as any reader of biography can attest, genius and pathology aren’t exactly strangers.

FULL TEXT: As Artists Fall into Disgrace, Must Their Art Be Consigned to Oblivion?“”

About Matt Cardin

Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He is also the editor of BORN TO FEAR: INTERVIEWS WITH THOMAS LIGOTTI and the academic encyclopedias MUMMIES AROUND THE WORLD; GHOSTS, SPIRITS, AND PSYCHICS: THE PARANORMAL FROM ALCHEMY TO ZOMBIES; and HORROR LITERATURE THROUGH HISTORY.

Posted on January 15, 2018, in Arts & Entertainment and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. If Hitler had been a successful rather than a failed artist, his art would be worth studying for many reasons. Art does, to an extent, stand alone. But there is no reason to entirely separate art by pretending the artist doesn’t matter.

    Bad people can produce good art, just as good people can produce bad art. The reason no one cares about Hitler’s art isn’t because he is a bad person but because the art is presumably bad, not that I’ve ever seen any of it. Anyway, even bad art can have value for what it says not just about an individual but also about a particular art school, historical period, or local culture.

    If we had to eliminate all of the art created by anyone who did something morally wrong, that would lead to a mass destruction of art. And if we don’t throw it in the garbage or burn it, are we supposed to shamefully hide it away in a museum storage closet never to be seen by the public again, never to be written about by scholars again, never to be studied by other artists again?

    It’s a bit different in some cases. Some of the celebrities caught up in sex scandals aren’t necessarily either good or bad artists, some not even artists at all. Even among the actors and comedians, not all of them have produced anything of grand value. It doesn’t necessarily matter all that much.

    Besides, it remains a personal choice how each person wants to relate to the work of a fallen idol. As we don’t yet live in a fully authoritarian state, banishment of art, movies, etc isn’t how we operate as a society. So, I’m not sure what is the point of the discussion? If as individuals we choose to continue to appreciate what these bad people produced, are we supposed to do it secretly in private and not talk about for fear of the taint getting on us?

  2. About Lovecraft, below is one way to appreciate the art of an artist who was a ‘bad’ person. There is no reason to always take ourselves so seriously.

    That humans are imperfect, sometimes to greater degrees, is no grand new insight. And after all, artists are human.

    http://birthmoviesdeath.com/2018/01/18/hp-lovecraft-billy-joel-piano-man

    • Says the person who bans folks from commenting on his blog due to slightest disagreements, and then proceeds to boast about it and to accuse them of being “reactionary scum” without giving them any space to defend themselves. Go you, Ben…

  3. @ pernath’s hat – I’ve never banned anyone for a slight dsagreement. I admit that I don’t tolerate reactionary ideology. I’ve made that plenty clear. I won’t host any views that express, support, or promote prejudice, bigotry, hatred, mean-spiritedness, or cruel dismissiveness.

    I’ve only banned a few people among hundreds of commenters over a decade of blogging. When I ban someone, I always explain my reasons. I want people to know what is and is not allowed on my blog because it is my responsibility for what I allow to on my personal forum.

    You are free to say and allow to be said on your own blog. That is your free speech. I support free speech. But my blog represents what I value and what I hope to amplify in the world. If you don’t share my values, that is fine.

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