Bad people make good art: On separating the art from the artist
Imagine savoring the most delicious burger only to find out mid-way through that the very same hands creating it has molested children. How torn apart would you be reluctantly stuffing your face with the rest of it?
Food is one thing, consumable by nature, but art and its artist are generally much more tightly entwined — each one constantly emerging on the surface of the other. Great art inevitably invokes an affinity for its creators that often borders with worship, and when the objects of our admiration turn out to be villains rather than heroes, we’re faced with a dilemma without straightforward solutions.
“Creative expression is self-expression,” Barry Scot Kaufman says, a renowned psychologist invested strongly in the subject matter of creativity. “Creativity is nothing more than an individual expression of your needs, desires and uniqueness.”
Art doesn’t just come out of thin air. It appears as a close, if not completely accurate translation of an artist’s inner-world. That makes loving a piece of art while hating the person behind it highly paradoxical, if not impossible.
Real life then becomes a crucial context that shifts entirely our reception of art’s message. A lot of Woody Allan’s supposedly innocent and charmingly philosophical comedy now feels like chapters from the diary of a creepy, old man. He married a girl he adopted. That fact changes the experience with little room for repair.
However, the matter might not be completely black and white. Creatives are generally defined as highly complex and self-contradictory people whose nature is often next to impossible to pin down. While art may be a strong means of self-expression, it can hardly illuminate the entire maze that is an artist’s mind. It’s nice to think if it as a map of the paths that lead to beauty, leaving the rest of the labyrinth in the dark.
Even Michael Jackson’s biographer J. Randy Taraborelli, the person whose job was to get to the heart of the King of Pop, had difficulties capturing the popstar’s essence.
“I think that when you’re talking about Michael Jackson and you try to analyze him, it’s like analyzing electricity, you know?” Taraborelli once said. “It exists, but you don’t have a clue as to how it works.”
Taraborelli further describes that Jackson on-stage and Jackson off-stage were practically two separate entities, lying on the opposite ends of his persona’s spectrum — millions saw him for his flow state and bold moves while few knew of his highly inhibited, insecure and lonely real-life self.
The same interplay between binary opposites has been discovered in many other artists and creative personalities, such as stand-up comedians.
Creativity researcher Mihaly Csikszzentmihalyi has even devoted a whole article in Psychology Today on creatives’ paradoxical nature, called The Creative Personality, outlining 10 couples of personality traits that generally sound mutually exclusive, all residing within creative individuals. While none of those contrasts could ever justify certain deeds, nor do they reflect a person’s nature and character, their coexistence goes to show that works of art can only account for some of an artist’s countless and diametrically opposite sides.
Furthermore, various studies have established a strong correlation between creative talent and psychosis, showing the “mad genius” cliché for something much more than a romanticized notion, designed to surround artists with an enigmatic aura, and respectively more cash.
From Caravaggio, Wagner, Dickens, Polanski, Paul Walker — and many, many more — to the most recent case of shock and disgust that Weinstein’s perversions created, history is full of “mad geniuses” whose madness didn’t contain as much as a drop of romanticism.
Mel Gibson, whose fall from grace is perhaps one of the longest in Hollywood, said it himself in an interview with Deadline’s Allison Hope Weiner.
“Everyone goes through low and high and low and high and some people are blessed to be created on an even keel all the way though — but not me,” he opined.
And even though Gibson is just one of many, and by far shouldn’t fall in the same category as Weinstein, his words may represent a common pattern within the creative circles.
Art and artists might be a part of each other, but that doesn’t mean they are interchangeable entities. A piece of art is like a photograph — the solid form of an artist’s fluid and ever-changing frame of mind at a certain moment in time. It reveals a tiny portion of the whole picture.
It would be great to be able to independently enjoy all art that same way — even when artists’ actions in real life contradict their work. After all, artistic talent doesn’t seem to have any correlation with kindness and merit, or the lack thereof. However, that may be easier said than done.
When we are made aware of the ugliness that resides within the very same mind we have admired, relating to its artistic brainchildren, especially ones with clear autobiographical undertones, becomes a hard, and even nauseating endeavor.