Good art; bad people


Charles McGrath, The New York Times

Norman Mailer in a rage once tried to kill one of his wives. The painter Caravaggio and the poet and playwright Ben Jonson both killed men in duels or brawls. Genet was a thief, Rimbaud was a smuggler, Byron committed incest, Flaubert paid for sex with boys. Case closed: good art invariably comes from bad people. Right?

The obvious answer — so obvious that it practically goes without saying, and ought to make the examinee suspicious — is that bad people, or at least people who think and behave in ways most of us find abhorrent, make good art all the time. Probably the most frequently cited example is Wagner, whose anti-Semitism was such that he once wrote that Jews were by definition incapable of art. Degas, a painter often praised for his warmth and humanity, was also an anti-Semite and a staunch defender of the French court that falsely convicted Alfred Dreyfus. Ezra Pound was both anti-Semitic and proto-fascist, and if you want to let him off the hook because he was probably crazy as well, the same excuse cannot be made for his friend and protégé T. S. Eliot, whose anti-Semitism, it now seems pretty clear, was more than just casual or what passed for commonplace in those days.

Then there’s misogyny, racism, murderousness, theft, sex crimes. That’s not to mention the drunkenness, drug-taking, backstabbing, casual adultery and chronic indebtedness that we know attended (or attends) the lives of so many people who make unquestionably good art. Why should we be surprised or think otherwise? Why should artists be any better than the rest of us?

The reason that question — “Can bad people create good art?” — is misleading is that badness and goodness in this formulation don’t refer to the same thing. In the case of the artist, badness or goodness is a moral quality or judgment; in the case of art, goodness and badness are terms of aesthetic merit, to which morality does not apply.

Read the full article by Charles McGrath at The New York Times …