Here’s the thing: No matter how talented an artist/photographer/writer/musician/teacher (insert identifier here) you are, no amount of talent trumps being an indecent human being. Ever.
What kind of shallow and narcissistic culture (Indeed, a throwback to the middle of the 20th century and…
Nope. And nope. I respectfully disagree. Many of the people we think of artistic geniuses today were difficult jerks in Real Life—especially the men. Picasso, Hemingway, Oppenheimer, to name three examples, were all jerks to those around them. We can define jerks in many, many, ways, but highly creative folks tend to either lack social graces or intentionally ignore social mores in pursuit of their creative endeavors. Some this might be autism-spectrum disorders, some might be personal preference, but the fact remains that there are LOTS of reports of creative geniuses being difficult to get along with, starting with close family members and extending to employers, etc. Ultimately, for me, it comes down to this: I judge the work on the aesthetic merits of the work, not on some imposed moral judgement of the artist/creator’s life. The difficulty is the context of defining “aesthetic merit”. This means there has to be something recognizable in a work of art that is consistently discernible by an audience across time and place. This means I have to work harder as a reader or consumer of art. In fact, if you are a pathetic human being, I am MORE interested in what you create because it gives insight into who you are and where you come from and why you are so pathetic—because ultimately we are ALL pathetic human beings in some way or another.
I appreciate your POV; I’ve heard it many times before. We make the same point in that I agree that we are all flawed, but there is no moral judgment being imposed on an artist in question. Facts are, usually, facts. And they affect credibility. I, too, can recognize talent and skill separate from my understanding of the person, and be interested in, say, Dahmer’s watercolors because they grant access to a psychological or sociological understanding. The value judgment I make has to do with what is more important to me (and our culture). Hitler’s art or his acts? The photographer getting the picture of the starving girl being attacked by the vulture, or the fact that he waited around for that to happen without helping the girl? Even were the examples not so extreme, if you require the suffering of other people to create art, then the inherent value of that art (again, for me only) is lessened dramatically. And besides, being a difficult or sadistic artist seems a bit like the idea of being a starving writer or being mad. Okay, and a few likely are, but for so many, it’s become the cult of artistic personality, an excuse to not be accountable for one’s actions. I mean, at what point is someone accountable in/for his/her own life? Maybe being such an artist is a good gig after all! ;)
In any case, we just have different value systems. I think it’s more important to treat others with generosity than to cause (esp. consciously) suffering in the name of art. And that’s really all I was saying.
Which is good and okay. We multitudes make the world go…
You say “if you require the suffering of other people to create art, then the inherent value of that art (again, for me only) is lessened dramatically.” I would agree with this. But the extreme examples you provide before this statement don’t bear out this point. It’s not even worth trying to defend the artistic merit of Hilter or Dahmer because doing so means invoking the wrath of too many people. Invoking them makes a point, but sours debate because it forces the opposing view to seem unreasonable if they attempt to defend what we would all seem to agree is undefensible. So, I’m not going to touch either one. But, let’s say I was shown artwork without the context of the artist’s life attached to it and I judged it worthy of merit. Should my opinion change when you tell me the artist is serving consecutive life terms for murdering his wife and children? Should my opinion of the artwork change? Why? Because of my values? How do my values affect my opinion of the art? Why should they affect my opinion of the art? The artwork hasn’t changed—it’s still there, it exists, it hasn’t done anything. Only my knowledge base has changed. Why should I let this affect how I view the artwork? In other words, what shapes artistic merit? Is it the art, or our knowledge of the art’s creation?
I agree that the Hitler and Dahmer examples were extreme. To be sure, I hesitated before including them, but I think they do serve to prove that there absolutely IS a point at which most people believe that the artist’s behavior trumps artistic skill. That line, of course, would be different for each of us, but does it really take genocide or serial killing for us to draw that line? Not for me.
But we can go with something less blood and gore and death-ish. Let’s say that someone stole $50,000 from your child’s college education fund (let’s say you have a child and $50K to hang on to!). Later you find out that this person created critically acclaimed art funded by the money he/she stole from you and your family. Does it change the merit of the art itself? No. Does it change how much I value the art? Yes. Does it alter my engagement with the artist or desire to promote and fund such behavior? Yes - even at the loss of his/her artistic merit. It’s simply not worth it.
I think we are actually both saying the same thing, to a degree. Maybe I haven’t been very clear. I see artistic merit as different than value. So the knowledge may not change how I view the artwork itself but it does change how much I value it overall, and how much of my time, money, ideas, attention I want to invest in it.
ps: I also really value your engagement here, despite our lack of actual artistic merit herein. :)
But how is value different than merit? There is a difference, obviously, between economic value and artistic merit, but what do we value in art, about art, that changes? Should how we view and emotionally engage in art be tied to its funding matrix or market value?
And engagement with art is an entirely separate matter—there are artists who do work of great aesthetic merit that do not engage me on an emotional level at all. Chris Brown, for one. P. Diddy. Lady Gaga. Brahms. The Rolling Stones. Stanley Elkin. Sylvia Plath. T.S. Eliot. Ai. While their work has great aesthetic merit, cultural value, and in some cases great economic value, I find myself in a constant state of “meh” about much of it. That’s me. Their work isn’t for me; I’m not their audience, and that might be because of the work doesn’t speak to me, or it could be because I’m just an ignorant cuss. Engagement is so wrapped up in how we each invididually have come to perceive the world that I’ve come to believe that it works on a base, emotional, lizard-brain level.
In your most recent example about the thieving artist (there’s a tumblr-dot-com for you!), I could sue to recoup costs. I could file a criminal complaint. But that still wouldn’t change the merit of the artwork in question, but merely my perception of it. Others might think it’s the best thing ever. And if I was being honest about my perception of the artwork, I’d have to look past my own biases to judge the work, however hard that might be. And it is mighty, mighty hard.
Also: 4 kids, no college fund here. I wish I had $50k put aside! But alas, community college professors barely make that per year.