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When Bad People Make Good Art

“We’re all like the moon,” quipped Twain. “We each have a dark side.” Despite our luminescence, even the most acclaimed among us has a barren backside. Perhaps this is why public moonings have replaced public floggings as our chastisement of choice.

The recent revelation of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s history of child abuse  left many reeling. Apparently, while the late sci-fi icon was creating other worlds, she was pretty much defecating on her own. Bradley’s crimes have, understandably, evoked harsh reactions. While some authors and publishers have vowed to donate any proceeds from Bradley’s books to anti-abuse charities, others like G. Willow Wilson admit that Bradley’s crimes are unforgivable.

The responses were similar after the allegations of molestation brought against Woody Allen by his adopted daughter. While some compared Allen to Roman Polansky as some of the smarmiest pervs in show biz, others vowed to never watch another film made by the acclaimed director.

Then there were those who were, shall we say, pragmatic. For instance, earlier this year, in an essay for Slate, novelist and screenwriter Rafael Yglesias defended his decision to work with director Roman Polanski  (Polanski pleaded guilty to unlawful sex with a minor in 1977) by concluding

“Working with a rapist is not the same as condoning rape.”

Others would probably disagree.

Granted, these are extreme examples. Nevertheless, the Bradley revelations have broached familiar terrain. Namely, the whole Art v. Artist debate.

What do we do when a really terrible human being makes great art?


At what point does an artist’s behavior taint their art? Is it possible to know that the author, actor, or director of a given piece is a complete jerk, if not a criminal, and still admit they make a darned good product? Do an artist’s crimes, addictions, or eccentricities, diminish their art? What is the appropriate response of the art consumer to such revelations?

For the most part, we appear willing to separate art from the artist. But in the case of Bradley (and Allen and Polansky), that dance seems more difficult.

Celebrity / artist misconduct always resurrects the discussion about character and craft, its connection or the lack thereof. Should we view The Passion of the Christ any different because we know its director has some serious problems? Is The Picture of Dorian Gray tarnished by its author’s excesses? Does Sir Elton’s sexual preference minimize his music? Does Wagner’s anti-Semitism and affairs with chorus girls make his sonatas less beautiful? Can we – should we – divide art from the artist, distinguish what one creates from how one behaves?

Whatever your stance, separating character from craft is a difficult act to perform. Chesterton said, “Art is the signature of man.” As such, the line between the art and the man is indeed fine. Some would even suggest that this notion of “lines” actually blurs the issue. In other words, they import their gauzy, subjective, artistic relativism into the realm of morals.  Meaning that judging people is as nebulous as judging art.

Another reason for the disconnect between creator and craft is the fact that art more often, and more easily, transcends the artist than the artist does her work. God once spoke through a jackass and the speaking, though magical, did not transform the beast. Many artists are the equivalent of Balaam’s ass, and their art is far more miraculous for their lowly nature. What surprises us more than that great art is made, is that jackasses like ourselves can make it.

So maybe, in the case of art, a “bad tree” can produce “good fruit.”

Which brings me back to my central contemplation: Can I partake of “good fruit” (in this case, good art) without condoning the “bad tree” (or bad person) that bore it? Or as Rafael Yglesias put it, Is it possible to enjoin the work of a rapist, pervert, drug addict, con man, or anti-Semite, without “condoning” their sin?

Near the end of his life, after being convicted of the offence of “gross indecency” and imprisoned for two years of hard labor, Oscar Wilde penned these words:

“Ah! Happy they whose hearts can break
And peace of pardon win!
How else may man make straight his plan
And cleanse his soul from Sin?
How else but through a broken heart
May Lord Christ enter in?”

An addict and avowed homosexual, Wilde spent his last three years penniless, exiled from society and artistic circles, a broken man. His talent had garnered him greatness. But in the end it was his heart, not his art, that he labored over.

So while we may separate the craftsman from the craft, we must never separate the man from morality. In the case of Marion Zimmer Bradley, her “morality” is of such a heinous nature that no amount of philosophizing can keep it from soiling her art. And therein lies the rub, the divide, the line we must tow at all costs. I can concede that evil chefs can still make tasty meals. But depending on the evil, at some point, consuming those meals might make me an accomplice.

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{ 6 comments… add one }
  • Jay DiNitto July 28, 2014, 1:07 PM

    This can be difficult–by all logical means, the wrongdoings of authors should not have any effect on one’s enjoyment of their work. But humans are not completely logical. If a wrongdoing is egregious enough our empathy wires are tripped and our subrational flight reflex to “avoid at all costs” in engaging with the author’s product.

    There is probably some social component to this to avoid guilt by association (“You still read that dude’s books? Do you know what he did?”, etc.) that I’m sure factors in to a degree.

  • Joanna July 28, 2014, 7:21 PM

    I’m just going to slip in a little thank you for introducing me to “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.”

    Oh my goodness, that poem is powerful. I saw that quote and googled it, surprised that Oscar Wilde had written it, based on what I’d heard about him, and discovered this brilliant and deeply moving piece of literature.

  • Alan R Joiner July 29, 2014, 5:44 AM

    Interesting question, Mike.

    I’m waffling here in my own mind. I read CS Lewis because of the stories, but his themes, worldview and character are also a major reason. I was never interested in ‘The Golden Compass’ (on the other side of the coin of blatant worldview/theme), even though I’m sure it was a great story.

    I was an avid Stephen King reader, though I knew his personal feelings on organized religion. Years ago, I stopped reading Clive Barker, though I loved his style and stories–not because he is an open homosexual, but because his erotica was so pronounced in his stories.

    MZB? I honestly had no clue about any of this. Should it pull her off of ones’ shelves? For me, I think, yes.

    I don’t think I could knowingly read/buy the product of a pedophile/rapist/murderer/abuser… Just because I wouldn’t like the idea of financially supporting them.

    It’s an interesting proposition, Mike. I think it brings up a lot of conversations with no easy answers. As Christians, should we make distinctions on who we read, based on the authors’ sinfulness? And if so, how do we draw the line?

    How sinful is the author? Which sin is ‘worse’ than the next? (And can we make that distinction? Is tax evasion OK, but homosexuality no? Is homosexuality banned, but adultery is OK? Will both of those be OK, but child abuse isn’t?) Once a distinction may be made, then where do we slide the line to? Is an unsaved sinner off limits, but a redeemed sinner OK?

    I’m not trying to sway the conversation one way or the other. I’m not promoting a relativistic morality. Just the opposite, I think. It’s all evil and a stench in the nostrils of God.

    So, for me, the question is bigger than posed. The question is, ‘How can we live in the world but not of the world?”. It is “How can we protect our heart and spirit without becoming elitists?”. For me, as it almost always does, it comes down to my personal relationship with Jesus and continually seeking the Spirit for my boundaries. For me, there is always such a slippery slope that I must constantly be asking God, “Is this footing solid enough?”

    And perhaps, for me, that means erring on the side of what I know is solid footing.

    (Sorry if I over-spiritualized the question…)

    In any case… Quality subtext in the article. I’m not sure how hard you had to work at it, but the theme of ‘barren backside’, through Balaam’s jack-ass, in connection with MZB was noted and brought a smile. I would agree that, if the accusations are true (and it seems they are), she was a huge ‘rear end’ with a lot to say– to say the least.

  • Jodie B. July 31, 2014, 1:27 PM

    This debate … is kinda symbolic of what man is.

    We are made in the image of God, were intended to have fellowship with God, but, through our actions (and the influence of Satan) sin is in the world. We can make great art because we are made in the image of the creator God who has created the most magnificent art there is that we know of (the universe, heaven?), but we are also marred by the effects of sin, and we do sin.

    I think you can see great lessons in the art of bad people (after all, they are like us). I also think looking to God for inspiration – the only one who is truly good and makes truly good art as sin was/is our fault, not His – is even better. I can’t wait until we get to heaven! Imagine the great art -music and more – we will surely get to create and/or watch God create throughout eternity unmarred by sin!

  • Lyn Perry August 3, 2014, 2:23 PM

    I stopped reading Anne Perry (formerly Juliet Hulme) when I found out she, as a 15 year old, helped murder her friend’s mother in 1954. I didn’t know her history, but enjoyed her Thomas Pitt books. Couldn’t go back once I read about her role in the murder.

    But then, I often stop reading writers once I know more about their personal backgrounds, religious/political beliefs. I know, it’s prejudicial. But there are plenty of other writers out there to sample, so I’m not boycotting as a protest against them, per se; I’ve just moved on.

  • Jill August 5, 2014, 1:42 PM

    Often, the spirit of the person finds its way into the work. Anne Sexton would be an example of this. She abused her own children and suffered from depression; eventually, she committed suicide. Her work represents her spirit because it is largely confessional. While I’m sure it operates on the level of “case study” of mental illness and all the baggage that comes with it, I don’t find it at all enjoyable or uplifting to read. Contrast that with Oscar Wilde, and you don’t find work that is quite so confessional–or work that is willing to revel in bad behavior quite so much. You get a critique of society and its depravity and foolishness from a man who knew he was depraved and given to excesses.

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