When Great Artists Do Terrible Things

When Great Artists Do Terrible Things

Is it possible to condemn an artist for their actions while praising them for their work?

In the wake of the controversy surrounding quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest over race and the national anthem, there’s been some media attention given to the anthem’s obscure third verse, which celebrates the deaths of rebellious slaves during the War of 1812.

In entertainment news, there’s been an ongoing conversation about the upcoming film "The Birth of A Nation" (not to be confused with D.W. Griffith’s 1915 racist epic) regarding director Nate Parker’s 1999 rape case. The advance reviews have been extremely positive, but the director’s reputation hangs over the film regardless.

These two prominent stories have caused me to ask a question I’ve asked many times before: is it possible to separate a work of art from the artist that produced it? Francis Scott Key was quite the racist, but does that mean the national anthem is tainted? If "The Birth of A Nation" proves to be as good as the early reviews suggest, is it any less great due to the accusations against the director?

It’s helpful to start with the great works of the past, and the way they’re viewed today. People often like to view their own time period as the peak of history, with every other period barbaric, perverse, or insane in comparison. If any of us were to be judged by the standards of a future we cannot predict, our attitudes would probably look painfully outdated, or even bigoted. To what degree is it fair to judge the people of the past according to the standards of today? Should we judge them by the standards of their own time, or is that being too forgiving of the prejudice and oppression of the past?

The further an artist is removed from our time period and context, the easier it is to overlook potentially disturbing facts about them. We still celebrate the great works of the ancient Greeks, and give little thought to their acceptance of slavery and pederasty. We readily accept that these people are products of their time, and that their concept of ethics differed considerably from ours. As their culture and time period gets closer to ours, artists are judged more harshly. Take last year’s campaign to change the design of the World Fantasy award, which at the time was a bust of author H.P. Lovecraft. While Lovecraft is primarily known as one of the most influential writers in horror fiction, his intense racism and cultural prejudice made some people uncomfortable with the award. While some people protesting the award seemed to be motivated by total disgust towards Lovecraft, writer Sofia Samatar weighed in with a more nuanced opinion:

“I am not telling anybody not to read Lovecraft. I teach Lovecraft! I actually insist that people read him and write about him! For grades! This is not about reading an author but about using that person’s image to represent an international award honoring the work of the imagination.”

Perhaps this is how we should deal with these sorts of controversies. We can acknowledge that an artist’s image has become irreparably bogged down by controversy, but remain appreciative of their accomplishments. In this sense, we can separate our appreciation of a work of art from some unsavory aspects of the artist as a person, without fully demonizing them. The documentary "Wagner & Me," about actor Stephen Fry’s (who is Jewish) love of Richard Wagner’s (a notable anti-Semite) music provides a great exploration into this issue that I don’t have time to get into here, and is definitely worth watching.

Coming to terms with more recent artists and their work can be more difficult. One of the more difficult cases comes from Roman Polanski, the legendary film director who was arrested for drugging and raping a young girl in 1977. He fled the United States before he could be sentenced, and has lived free in Europe ever since. When Polanski was arrested by Swiss authorities in 2009, over a hundred filmmakers signed a petition demanding his release. I have quite a bit of respect for many of these people and I’m sure they had a variety of reasons for signing, but I can’t help but be bothered by the petition.

Polanski was treated very gently by the criminal justice system in the first place, has since been sheltered by several European countries, and still retains the respect of his peers. Polanski’s success as an artist has repeatedly protected him from facing any severe penalties for his crimes. I wish that such a person made atrocious films, so I could simply disregard them. The problem is, I can’t help but respect Polanski’s talent, even as I’m disgusted by his actions. If I were to boycott his films, I would miss out on classics like ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and ‘Chinatown,’ and my comfortable moral high ground would yield nothing.

There really isn’t a simple answer to this dilemma, but if there’s any kind of closure, perhaps we can look to John Lennon. There’s been a lot of talk on the internet about Lennon being a hypocrite, preaching love and peace despite being abusive to the people in his life. While few traits are more aggravating, hypocrisy does not invalidate a meaningful, well-told message. As much as the details of his abusive tendencies are treated as a shocking revelation today, Lennon was fairly open about his failings. In a 1981 interview with "Playboy," he opened up about his past:

I fought men and I hit women. That is why I am always on about peace, you see. It is the most violent people who go for love and peace. Everything's the opposite. But I sincerely believe in love and peace. I am a violent man who has learned not to be violent and regrets his violence. I will have to be a lot older before I can face in public how I treated women as a youngster.

Lennon didn’t bother with excuses, he simply admitted that what he had done was wrong, and that had grown as a person. We shouldn’t overlook the crimes and failings of artists, but judging someone purely based on their worst impulses isn’t entirely fair. Artists learn and change, just like anyone else, and even incredibly flawed people can accomplish great things.

Cover Image Credit: Paramount Pictures

Popular Right Now

A Letter To My Humans On Our Last Day Together

We never thought this day would come.

I didn't sleep much last night after I saw your tears. I would have gotten up to snuggle you, but I am just too weak. We both know my time with you is coming close to its end, and I just can't believe it how fast it has happened.

I remember the first time I saw you like it was yesterday.

You guys were squealing and jumping all around, because you were going home with a new dog. Dad, I can still feel your strong hands lifting me from the crate where the rest of my puppy brothers and sisters were snuggled around my warm, comforting puppy Momma. You held me up so that my chunky belly and floppy wrinkles squished my face together, and looked me right in the eyes, grinning, “She's the one."

I was so nervous on the way to my new home, I really didn't know what to expect.

But now, 12 years later as I sit in the sun on the front porch, trying to keep my wise, old eyes open, I am so grateful for you. We have been through it all together.

Twelve “First Days of School." Losing your first teeth. Watching Mom hang great tests on the refrigerator. Letting you guys use my fur as a tissue for your tears. Sneaking Halloween candy from your pillowcases.

Keeping quiet while Santa put your gifts under the tree each year. Never telling Mom and Dad when everyone started sneaking around. Being at the door to greet you no matter how long you were gone. Getting to be in senior pictures. Waking you up with big, sloppy kisses despite the sun not even being up.

Always going to the basement first, to make sure there wasn't anything scary. Catching your first fish. First dates. Every birthday. Prom pictures. Happily watching dad as he taught the boys how to throw every kind of ball. Chasing the sticks you threw, even though it got harder over the years.

Cuddling every time any of you weren't feeling well. Running in the sprinkler all summer long. Claiming the title “Shotgun Rider" when you guys finally learned how to drive. Watching you cry in mom and dads arms before your graduation. Feeling lost every time you went on vacation without me.

Witnessing the awkward years that you magically all overcame. Hearing my siblings learn to read. Comforting you when you lost grandma and grandpa. Listening to your phone conversations. Celebrating new jobs. Licking your scraped knees when you would fall.

Hearing your shower singing. Sidewalk chalk and bubbles in the sun. New pets. Family reunions. Sleepovers. Watching you wave goodbye to me as the jam-packed car sped up the driveway to drop you off at college. So many memories in what feels like so little time.

When the time comes today, we will all be crying. We won't want to say goodbye. My eyes might look glossy, but just know that I feel your love and I see you hugging each other. I love that, I love when we are all together.

I want you to remember the times we shared, every milestone that I got to be a part of.

I won't be waiting for you at the door anymore and my fur will slowly stop covering your clothes. It will be different, and the house will feel empty. But I will be there in spirit.

No matter how bad of a game you played, how terrible your work day was, how ugly your outfit is, how bad you smell, how much money you have, I could go on; I will always love you just the way you are. You cared for me and I cared for you. We are companions, partners in crime.

To you, I was simply a part of your life, but to me, you were my entire life.

Thank you for letting me grow up with you.

Love always,

Your family dog

Cover Image Credit: Kaitlin Murray

Related Content

Connect with a generation
of new voices.

We are students, thinkers, influencers, and communities sharing our ideas with the world. Join our platform to create and discover content that actually matters to you.

Learn more Start Creating

From One Nerd To Another

My contemplation of the complexities between different forms of art.


Aside from reading Guy Harrison's guide to eliminating scientific ignorance called, "At Least Know This: Essential Science to Enhance Your Life" and, "The Breakthrough: Immunotherapy and the Race to Cure Cancer" by Charles Graeber, an informative and emotional historical account explaining the potential use of our own immune systems to cure cancer, I read articles and worked on my own writing in order to keep learning while enjoying my winter break back in December. I also took a trip to the Guggenheim Museum.

I wish I was artistic. Generally, I walk through museums in awe of what artists can do. The colors and dainty details simultaneously inspire me and remind me of what little talent I posses holding a paintbrush. Walking through the Guggenheim was no exception. Most of the pieces are done by Hilma af Klint, a 20th-century Swedish artist expressing her beliefs and curiosity about the universe through her abstract painting. I was mostly at the exhibit to appease my mom (a K - 8th-grade art teacher), but as we continued to look at each piece and read their descriptions, I slowly began to appreciate them and their underlying meanings.

I like writing that integrates symbols, double meanings, and metaphors into its message because I think that the best works of art are the ones that have to be sought after. If the writer simply tells you exactly what they were thinking and how their words should be interpreted, there's no room for imagination. An unpopular opinion in high school was that reading "The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne was fun. Well, I thought it was. At the beginning of the book, there's a scene where Hawthorne describes a wild rosebush that sits just outside of the community prison. As you read, you are free to decide whether it's an image of morality, the last taste of freedom and natural beauty for criminals walking toward their doom, or a symbol of the relationship between the Puritans with their prison-like expectations and Hester, the main character, who blossoms into herself throughout the novel. Whichever one you think it is doesn't matter, the point is that the rosebush can symbolize whatever you want it to. It's the same with paintings - they can be interpreted however you want them to be.

As we walked through the building, its spiral design leading us further and further upwards, we were able to catch glimpses of af Klint's life through the strokes of her brush. My favorite of her collections was one titled, "Evolution." As a science nerd myself, the idea that the story of our existence was being incorporated into art intrigued me. One piece represented the eras of geological time through her use of spirals and snails colored abstractly. She clued you into the story she was telling by using different colors and tones to represent different periods. It felt like reading "The Scarlet Letter" and my biology textbook at the same time. Maybe that sounds like the worst thing ever, but to me it was heaven. Art isn't just art and science isn't just science. Aspects of different studies coexist and join together to form something amazing that will speak to even the most untalented patron walking through the museum halls.

Related Content

Facebook Comments