Good Art by Bad People

It can be a real shock to learn that people you admire have done terrible things. Recently the news has been filled with stories of Bill Cosby’s sexual assaults. Just a few years ago, the speculative fiction world was shaken by allegations of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s child sexual abuse. It hurts and even feels like these people we’ve allowed into our hearts and homes through their work have betrayed us. This in turn raises a challenge. What do we do with the art created by such people?

Thee’s a good and thoughtful article at the Paris Review by Claire Dederer on this subject, with a special focus on the films of Woody Allen. You can read the article here:

I believe Ms. Dederer makes an important point in her article. None of us are perfect. We’ve all done stupid, mean, or hurtful things at one time or another. Hopefully most of us haven’t committed acts as terrible as those committed by Bill Cosby or Marion Zimmer Bradley, but all of us get caught up in our own selfish or thoughtless needs and desires at times. What’s more, this struggle against our worst natures is at the very root of what makes good art.

As an editor, I’ve read and published numerous submissions from prisoners. I’ve never been good about keeping detailed statistics on things like this, but my impression is that the acceptance rate among prisoners is about the same as the general population. Now, it’s rare for a prisoner to tell me why they’re serving time, but clearly they were convicted of a sufficiently serious crime to be incarcerated. Despite that, I have found in these works something worth sharing with a wider audience. I also feel like these people are paying their debt to society by serving time. Many of them are honestly trying to improve themselves by expressing their feelings through art. I feel the effort deserves reward.

Thinking about this subject has also helped me to understand my inherent problem with America’s celebrity worship. As a culture, we seem all too ready to give people power simply because they’re famous. People become afraid to speak up when a famous person does terrible things. Admittedly many famous people do hold real power. They’re heads of companies or manage staffs, but the fact that they’re famous makes people more afraid to speak up. People know they’ll be judged in the court of public opinion when they say a famous person did terrible things. In fact, certain celebrities are quite adept at turning their fans against accusers.

I think there is a real danger when society attempts to dictate what art is available for people to consume. Imagine the government telling you to throw out your video tapes of I Spy and burn your copies of The Mists of Avalon. Now imagine what else they’ll decide is not moral enough for you to consume. Another possible and more subtle consequence is that you could create a situation where the only artists available are the famous ones, which would only exacerbate the celebrity problem. Turning that around does offer something to consider when you feel betrayed by an artist. Always remember, there are many other artists out there eager to tell you stories, show you their movies, and paint amazing canvases.

Just remember, those artists are human and subject to temptation. Just like you.

6 comments on “Good Art by Bad People

  1. And where do you draw the line? Woody Allen has never been convicted of anything. Hitler’s paintings? Just for the sake of argument, say a famous author like H. G. Wells was found out to be Jack the Ripper? What then? Pull his books off the library? You’ve raised an ethical question I certainly don’t have answers for. I recommended you to a few of those prisoners when you were editing Talisman. They weren’t what I needed for Science Fiction Trails, and I wanted to encourage them to keep at it. I don’t know if I would publish a major serial killer but some guy who robed a liquor store–I probably would.

    And then content–a pedophile writing about children?
    I never asked what these guys were in prison for. An interesting topic, but not an easy one.

    This is a great topic for cons [no pun intended]. Maybe we could have a debate at one in the future.

    • Your first question really goes to the conclusion I keep coming back to. It’s not my place to draw the line for other people. It’s not your place to draw the line for me — except perhaps in the sense that as an editor, you do choose what to present in your books and magazines, but then I choose whether or not to read and buy those books and magazines.

      As you say, this could be a good panel topic at a con. Do editors have a responsibility to reveal what they know about authors? That said, I can’t say I’ve known most of the authors I’ve published all that well and I see this as a potentially slippery slope fraught with danger.

      It’s easy to make an informed choice about purchasing the comedy albums and videos of someone like Bill Cosby who had his day in court. What about Marion Zimmer Bradley, who most of us didn’t learn about until after she died? As you say, what about Woody Allen who hasn’t been convicted of anything? These aren’t easy answers, but they do bear further discussion.

  2. utena42 says:

    Thanks for this. I agree: it’s probably a good topic for many convention panels.

  3. Such a deep and timely topic! I would certainly dump any product of theirs that I owned, stop receiving their blog, etc. Even that can be problematic, however.

    Not long ago, there was an outcry over a certain editor who… um… couldn’t keep his hands to himself. How should a reader respond to this? Not buy books he edits? We usually don’t know which books those are. Not buy anything from that publisher? After all, it’s unlikely that management didn’t have some inkling of the bad behavior going on. Still, that would punish many authors and other staff who had nothing to do with the situation.

    A thorny thicket, indeed!

    It just so happens, I run programming for a convention! Which is in 3 weeks and I could never get this panel into my schedule, which is packed. But I have a list for next year… 🙂

    • You raise some interesting additional points. The editor you mention raises a situation not unlike that of Harvey Weinstein — who as I understand has been charged, but not convicted of a crime as of this writing. You can choose not to buy works he’s produced, but that not only hurts him, it hurts the actors who’ve worked for him, the directors, and the production staffs of the films he’s produced. In the case of not buying works by the problematic editor, you’re also harming the writers that editor worked with — who may already have suffered harm at his hands. It is tricky and not easy. Even when one wants to take the moral high ground, it’s hard to know exactly how to do that. Hope you can fit this discussion into a panel next year. If we manage to get a few of these going, perhaps we should compare notes of interesting points people raise.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.