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: https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2017/11/20/art-monstrous-men/

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.

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