Love the Art, Hate the Artist?

A phenomenal piece from our friend, Abby Farson Pratt, who asks what we do when […]

Guest Contributor / 11.28.17

A phenomenal piece from our friend, Abby Farson Pratt, who asks what we do when we’re all monsters. 

We’re feeling pretty good about ourselves these days. We are doing a lot of smirking, a lot of finger-pointing, a lot of handing down of fatwas on Twitter.

When we cut someone off in traffic or lie to protect ourselves, we say, “Well, at least I’m not Harvey Weinstein. Or Louis C.K. Or Kevin Spacey. I’m not that bad.”

We enjoy this; we always have. It’s pleasant to publicly denounce others. Lately, we’ve been having a really good time. It seems like every other famous man has been exposed as a creep, or worse, a legitimate sexual predator. We look at our phones with anticipation every morning. What fresh hell we can heap on another dirty celebrity?

These days, it’s a common refrain: “I can’t read that book. Haven’t you heard what the author did?” or “Don’t watch that movie. Don’t you know the director believed X about Y?” It’s soothing, with art or pop culture, to draw lines around people and put ourselves on the other side. He is evil, and because I can say so, I must be good. I have the moral clarity to name and define his badness, and thus I am not counted in his number.


Sure, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but some have fallen more than others, am I right?

This is a nice worldview. I like it. It makes me feel comfortable and secure. Give me my self-approving weltanschaaung, and I will give you a scathing social media rebuke. It works for me, this philosophy that I’m not as bad as some, up to a point. That point, for me, is art and the artists who make it. What do we do with them? How do I reckon with the fact that most of my beloved artists were or are despicable human beings?

I’m a bookworm, so my personal angst is focused on authors. I have to deal with the knowledge that many of my favorite writers—Nabokov, Tolstoy, Cheever, Hemingway, Proust, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Flaubert, to name a few—were all rotten human beings, in one way or another. Liars and drunks and racists, oh my! I’ll never get tired of their books, but I’m glad I never had to sit next to them at Christmas dinner.

The fact that morally bankrupt people can make beautiful things troubles our sense of right and wrong.

When a politician misbehaves, it’s easy (in theory) to wave our hands and say, “Politicians! They’re all filthy.” But when our favorite novelist or comedian or musician misbehaves, we feel conflicted. We feel like we’ve been implicated ourselves. This is how I felt when I learned that Virginia Woolf, one of my all-time favorites, dressed in blackface to a party and was famously cruel and anti-Semitic. We want our artists to be as blameless as we think we are. Our beloved artists made something so good, so beautiful; shouldn’t the end product match the content of their souls?

This is the tricky thing about art: Great art can be created by terrible people.

We know this, instinctively, and yet we still don’t want to believe it, even now, when so many of our creative heroes are being exposed. This paradox has haunted me for years, but it seems to bear special weight in this cultural moment. When I found Claire Dederer’s recent essay in the Paris Review, I read it with intense interest.  

She writes about the tension of loving work by male artists who are known creeps—specifically, she balances her disgust for Woody Allen’s behavior with her love for his films. As she watches, however, she reflects that maybe Allen isn’t the only monster in the room:

I can sense there’s something entirely unacceptable lurking inside me. Even in the midst of my righteous indignation when I bitch about Woody and Soon-Yi [his partner’s child, whom he slept with], I know that, on some level, I’m not an entirely upstanding citizen myself. Sure, I’m attuned to my children and thoughtful with my friends; I keep a cozy house, listen to my husband, and am reasonably kind to my parents. In everyday deed and thought, I’m a decent-enough human. But I’m something else as well, something vaguely resembling a, well, monster. The Victorians understood this feeling; it’s why they gave us the stark bifurcations of Dorian Gray, of Jekyll and Hyde. I suppose this is the human condition, this sneaking suspicion of our own badness. It lies at the heart of our fascination with people who do awful things. Something in us—in me—chimes to that awfulness, recognizes it in myself, is horrified by that recognition, and then thrills to the drama of loudly denouncing the monster in question.

Maybe, just maybe, we’re also not great. Dederer expresses that flicker of recognition when we denounce a bad artist. We expertly suppress this feeling, this lurking sense that we may also resemble monsters, and then return to the joys of “loudly denouncing the monster in question.”

But Dederer is reluctant to make a stand at the conclusion of her article. In fact, she closes the piece with a list of questions:

What is to be done about monsters? Can and should we love their work? Are all ambitious artists monsters? Tiny voice: [Am I a monster?]

I loved her essay, but I felt a small wave of disappointment with this conclusion. I wanted more definition. But after a short pause, I realized that my theology compels me to take it a step further. I’m willing to say, in a large voice: [Yes, you’re a monster, and I’m a monster. We’re all monsters.]

As this charming pick-me-up from Romans asserts: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12, ESV).

We never want to be in the same boat with the dirtbag poets and directors and rock stars. But maybe we always have been. Maybe we’ve been rowing alongside them all this time. They just experienced the misfortune of having the searchlight expose them first.

This knowledge—that none of us do good, not even one—doesn’t erase that uncomfortable tension when we appreciate the artwork of a monster. Can we separate the beauty of the work from the ugliness of its creator?

We find ourselves becoming awkward apologists for the depraved artists in our midst: “Yeah, I know he beat his wife, but his short stories are so beautiful!”

It’s icky. I won’t look at Kevin Spacey the same way again, and I feel repulsed when I watch Woody Allen eating Chinese takeout in bed with Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan. The ickiness never totally goes away.

This, alas, is our human condition: The ickiness never totally goes away. Most of the time, we smash things up and burn down bridges. We make the wrong choice; we set fire to our relationships; we wallow; we wreck the lives of innocents.

But sometimes, with God’s grace, we can do or make something beautiful. We’re all monsters, but there are moments when the light of divine goodness passes through our creations. Something beautiful and lasting and transcendent occurs—even though it originated from sinful hands. The fact that bad people can make good art is evidence of our Creator, the one who is always working through us in spite of us.

I am willing to stand in this uncomfortable paradox. Yes, there is still a desperate need for justice. We need the law, the earthly law, to keep us responsible for our actions and to protect the innocent. I dream of a world in which sexual abusers are actually held accountable (instead of, oh, I don’t know, elected president). That day is not yet here. We have to scrape by and hold onto the little beauty there is in this world. This is all we have. If we can no longer appreciate the art of monsters, we won’t have any art left.