Can You Enjoy Good Art by Bad People?

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I cringed when I heard the news. During the 2003 investigation of Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch — following accusations of pedophilia — authorities confiscated a hoard of pornography that included “images of children, animal torture and gore.” Of course, I was upset to hear evidence further damning the musical talent. I was even angry at myself for still listening to his music. One thing I did not feel, though, was surprised.

I grew up in a period of falling idols. I was born the year President Bill Clinton began his affair with Monica Lewinsky, and I am certain the ensuing scandal impressed itself on my toddler psyche — hence my deep mistrust of authority and a distaste for the word “fellatio.” Since then, I have watched Lance Armstrong disgraced, Bill Cosby toppled, and countless other artists, politicians, and athletes fall into scorn. You may assume that such an unstable relationship with figures of authority would cause irreparable psychological harm. But that is an issue between me, my therapist, and my 65-year-old biker boyfriend, Thor.

So now that we know what we know, one question remains: What do we do with the scraps? In other words, can we still enjoy the works of bad people?

Some famous cases jump to mind. Veteran filmmaker Woody Allen stands accused of having molested his 7-year-old daughter, a claim corroborated by his former partner Mia Farrow and son, Ronan. Despite this, his career has steadily coasted for decades, and he remains as popular as ever.

On the other hand, there are figures like Cosby, whose iconic creation The Cosby Show had its syndication rescinded after some 60 women accused him of rape. With these two examples, it seems that America is prepared to give stars the benefit of the doubt, up until enough evidence has built up.

But this is not exactly the case. We can see this with Chris Brown, who was found guilty of felony assault of his girlfriend Rihanna in 2009. While he temporarily had his music removed from the radio, ultimately the charge “had little bearing on the progress of his music and acting careers,” as All Music put it. That's with numerous acts of violence, including an attack against out artist Frank Ocean that allegedly included antigay slurs.

It seems that the acceptance of artists with questionable moral standards is part of a much more complicated process than the judicial one. Public acceptance takes many things into consideration: the likelihood that the crime took place, its severity, the number of those affected, who was affected, and, I hate to say it, the quality of the art the accused produced.

An argument where "the end justifies the means" implies that there is a point at which the quality of the work (whether a presidency or a novel or a film) could somehow absolve the guilty party of their guilt. We are familiar with this calculus, having seen it for decades: from the oodles of university rapists whose crimes are weighed against their athletic potential to the blind eye we turn when it comes to Thomas Jefferson’s affair with Sally Hemings. Every day we micro-negotiate with our morality to decide what exactly we’re willing to forgive in exchange for a Super Bowl victory or a literary masterpiece.

I am no better. There is Hemingway on my shelf and Faulkner and Updike and Dickens, and wow, that is a lot of alcoholic and abusive male authors. To some degree, I have decided that the pros outweigh the cons when it comes to those men. No matter the amount of terror Hitchcock and Kubrick inflicted on their actors, no matter how convincing the evidence against R. Kelly and Chris Brown is, we still shell out for their art. As awful as it sounds, these examples are proof that we judge human life along the same value system as books and movies and songs. In other words, it shows that we can ignore the suffering of others so long as we derive enough enjoyment from the product.

That is not to say that Michael Jackson could never have produced great art without his nightmare-fueled hellscape of exploitation, Neverland Ranch. But the fact of the matter is that abuse was likely a part of him. I will not attempt to draw a distinction between bad people whose badness informs their art versus bad people whose badness exists in a discrete location from their creativity. Frankly. I’m not sure if such a clear distinction exists. But without such a cognitive barrier, how can we justify ever supporting someone who has done bad things? Are we remiss to even use the scales at all, when entertainment is on one side and actual human suffering on the other? Can you ever unstick the artist from their art?

To answer this, I go back in time to when my personal suffering was the most acute: high school. I sat up on my high horse and called down to my classmates. “You know Salinger diddled a 14-year-old, right? And William Burroughs shot his wife in the head?” I stayed stuck up there until I ran out of Virginia Woolf novels and was forced to come down and face the facts. Namely, that we have a lot to learn from bad people, and we have just as much to learn from their art.

There are the technical lessons, for one. While T.S. Eliot couldn’t imagine Jews living equally with Christians, he knew how to write a verse like no one else. The same can be said of Shakespeare and Pound. In literal and measurable terms, our human treasury of genius would be depleted if we excluded all the bad people from it. In other words, we do not have to apologize for enjoying the art of bad people. A lot of the times, it’s too good to ignore.

Aside from their technical merit, there’s also an incredible amount to learn from the lives of bad people. Want to understand the psychology of a man who used grief as an excuse for raping a 13-year-old? It’s all in Polanski’s art. Want to see how Cro-Magnon perspectives about gender, combined with an inflated ego, can destroy your whole family? Good thing there’s Hemingway at the local library. And if you want to know how unlimited fame and wealth can afford someone the opportunity to ruin children’s lives, then turn to Michael Jackson.

Good art by bad people, good art by good people — it’s all grist for the mill in the end, and every word and every note and every paint-stroke of it is valuable. But if it feels wrong, don’t engage with it. We are all entitled to our own system of calculation. In the end, listen to Michael Jackson, or don’t. I have no say in what you like. Topple those idols you feel you should. The decision is up to you.

DREW KISER is an editorial intern for The Advocate. Find out more about Drew here.

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