Reluctant Muse's Blog

Diary of a Mad Creative Writing Teacher
Editor’s Pick
JANUARY 18, 2010 12:18PM

Love the Art, Not the Artist

Rate: 18 Flag

A number of years ago, I stopped reading music magazines, despite the fact that I am a great lover and consumer of music.  After one interview too many where the members of some band that I had up until that moment enjoyed turned out to be idiots, I realized that what I felt about the artist had a real effect on how much I enjoyed the music. (I can't tell you how disappointed I was to recently learn that Johnny Ramone was a staunch Republican; it took the sheen off a brief, post-show meeting with him that took place when I was 18).


I had a similar reaction when I saw the biopic about painter Francis Bacon,  Love is the Devil.  Though I'd always been a fan of his powerful, bloody, carcass-filled triptychs, the film presented the painter as so nasty, petty, and vile that the art, though it hadn't changed, was no longer something I wanted to look at, and I felt cheated.  I think anyone who knows too much about Picasso may experience the same dissonance.  

  Francis Bacon Triptych-1946

Francis Bacon, Triptych, 1946

Now, the more I like the art, the less I want to know about the artists that created it.  I'm always happy to learn something about their process, but as for their private lives, I'm probably never going to have a glass of wine with them or debate philosophy, love, and politics, so I feel it's none of my business.  I'd rather let the art speak for itself.

Is an actor or a writer or musician or painter any better or worse based on their personality? In my experience, real artists are often difficult, unreliable and not always pleasant people.  Their art is the best of them distilled and perfected.  That's why we fall in love with a singer when s/he's onstage, or the voice and wisdom of a writer on the page.  Writers, in fact, often say that their writing is wiser than they are.  To expect these people to live up to their work is foolish.  The song, or the book, or the painting is an artifact, outside themselves, that they have put everything they are, they know, and they aspire to be into, then given it to us as a gift.  But it is not necessarily who they are the rest of the time, nor do I need it to be. 

Is Michael Richards any less funny objectively because he spouted racist epithets?  And to fans of Chris Brown, are his songs less catchy because he's an abuser?  We may not want to support these people after finding out their dirty secrets, but what their skills are as artists remains separate from who they are. Who knows what Shakespeare, Dante,  Beethoven, and Carravagio were really like, since their every move wasn't recorded and broadcast 24/7?   We judge them on the work they left behind. 



Barring any real nefarious acts, it's ok by me if an artist I like is "not nice."  This requirement of niceness is perhaps the need of people who want to be able to "relate" to the artist, to believe that s/he is no different from you and me--it is a form of self-aggrandizement. It is also the dull consequence of our time, when the cult of personality reigns supreme. Look at reality shows: how many of the real talents get eliminated in favor of mediocre competitors who have more winning personalities or are relatable? Do you really want to listen to lousy music made by someone with a sweet smile and a touching back story?  Wouldn't you rather listen to something fantastic, even though the person who made it is a little odd, or abrasive, or offensive, or anti-social (or a lot)?


Real artists are different from you and me; they are natural subversives, and don't give a damn what we think of them anyway--that is precisely what makes what they produce interesting.   My belief is that art should stand on its own, that it should be compared to other similar works to determine its relative value, and that the person who made it is irrelevant in this assessment, both in the moment and especially in retrospect. 





Your tags:


Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:


Type your comment below:
Agreed. I like Wagner... but can one separate the music from the ranting anti-Semite? A very hard call.
My argument is that we must if we value art. But I'm a purist that way...
so true.

The art is the compilation of months of thought and generally a distillation of earlier work.

The artist is a person, plagued by minute to minute changes in their environment and with their own concept and message.

The viewer is looking at a representation created from the thoughts of the artist without the knowldge of the artists conceptual motivation so the work become interpeted solely by the viewer by relating it the viewers senseabilities.

hence the huge break in communication.
You make excellent points here. Is Beethoven's Fifth Symphony diminished by knowledge that the man rarely bathed? I think not.
I have the same problem about negative feelings about the artist affecting my response to the art. Interestingly enough, though, it doesn't happen for me in reverse.

Anyhow, important not to sweep too widely with generalizations. Not all artists have been jerks or subversives, much less vice versa.
I couldn't agree with you more. And what scarabus said. Excellent post.
I like to separate the art from the artist, I am interested in general in their lives in how it has shaped the work, but try not make to have expectations based on my own morality or lack of or in between. R
wschanz: it could be years of thought, perfected. I always point out to my students that the word art comes from artifice

Judy: I'm not sure I needed to know that about Beethoven--I have a very sensitive nose...

Scarabus: I didn't imply they were all jerks, though many are, working from a different emotional and social base, though I believe all act requires subversion of some sort in the most loose sense

O'Really: Thanks!

Rita: I agree that knowing something about how their life experience translates into the work is interesting, but for me the work is still prime, even when I see clear connections (Colette is a good example of art drawing from life.) Everyone has a life, but not everyone can make actual art out of it.
Oops, that should be all "art" requires subversion.
I think if we all stop listening to, or reading, or looking at art because the artist is or was of less than stellar behaviour/morals, then we're going to land back in the Dark Ages.

Having said that, I think that it is encumbent upon adults to teach children that although (for instance) Wagner is to be admired as a musician, and something to aspire to, as a "man" he is an example of what not to be. Then let them decide if the art produced is worth the feelings engendered by the background knowledge of the artist.

Personally, I prefer not to validate Wagner. His music, to my ears, is not good enough to make me forget the "man" behind the notes.
hourglass: I believe that children can/should be taught to judge the art separately. Taste is a personal matter of course, and if the art itself doesn't bring out enough emotion, of course the emotion engendered by the artist will prevail. Though if you love the art and are not listening, watching, reading, etc. because you find the artist distasteful, you're the one who ends up deprived.

I'm no fan of Wagner, in particular, and anti-Semites, in general, but credit where credit is due:

Wilhelm Richard Wagner (22 May 1813 – 13 February 1883) was a German composer, conductor, theater director and essayist, primarily known for his operas. Unlike most other opera composers, Wagner wrote both the music and libretto for every one of his works.

Wagner's compositions, particularly those of his later period, are notable for contrapuntal texture, rich chromaticism, harmonies and orchestration, and elaborate use of leitmotifs: musical themes associated with particular characters, locales or plot elements. Wagner pioneered advances in musical language, such as extreme chromaticism and quickly shifting tonal centers, which greatly influenced the development of European classical music.

He transformed musical thought through his idea of Gesamtkunstwerk ("total artwork"), the synthesis of all the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts, epitomized by his monumental four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (1876). To try to stage these works as he imagined them, Wagner built his own opera house, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus.
I think the film Amadeus framed this same discussion nicely.
Really, though, in the rock music category, the best rock is made by misfits and assholes. I can affirm that, having met many of them in the day. It's not that big a coincidence that so many big stars OD on heroin and other hard drugs. Art frequently comes from darkness and despair, it's what connects with us when we're in the same place, and when something positive comes from it, it's hard won. No, no happy rock stars for me.
I aspire to this, but rarely achieve it. I can't always separate the stupidity or hatred or abuse or psychosis from the art.

Chris Brown comes to mind. Nope. I can't listen to him anymore. The local Boulder band 3 Oh! 3 is another; too wrapped up in frat boy-style anti-woman stupidity to pull their collective head from the collective ass. And it stinks; I like Still Around.

Isn't this what the Hollywood elite have been arguing about, to expand the argument a little, over Roman Polanski all along?

I just don't know. Sometimes I'm too rigid for my own good.
AshKW: Polanski made some awesome films--his sexual stupidity simply doesn't change that fact--you don't have to watch them if you don't want to, of course.

I like this band Electric 6. The lead singer is a moron, so I won't subject myself to the live shows anymore, but I still dance around my living room to them, and use their music for running. They're awesome songs--maybe his asshole nature channelled into the music creates that frenzied, awesome beat.

In Jungian terms, it is the triumph of the shadow.

Ardee: After a number of musician boyfriends, I can say a fully agree with you. I would never disparage their musical talent because they were emotionally corrupt, however. Their songs were their moment of transcendance from their otherwise broken selves.
I generally agree with your assessment, although I think it is a difficult position. I have been surprised to discover how many metal musicians are conservatives, which at first I found boggling, but has come to make a certain sense.

I doubt that great art is something suburbanites do in their spare time. You may be interested to know that I too am an Electric 6 fan!
Does the art make the man, or the man make the art, to rephrase your original question. I suppose for me, there is an essential connection between the two.

I still think this is a great, thought-provoking post, RM.
Ah Monsieur Chariot, I sensed you were a man after my own heart.

Thanks for the Electric 6 video--brightened my day. "She's White" is my other favorite off that album. I think I will now go put it on and dance around madly.
I agree. Your artistic view is valid.
Well done, rated.
I'm an artist. I am also an ordinary social adept person who now and then puts her foot in her mouth. My art is spooky, scary in many ways since people appear in most of them without my putting them there, ghostly forms even frightening bloody forms. So that is the stuff I repress rom my daily consciousness. Maybe that is what art is all about. And may of us don't bother to repress it from our social lives.
AshKW: you raise a good point, worth considering. maybe you can write a rebuttal.

Thoth: Thanks. Glad you liked it.

Claire: I think what you're saying is that what some people should just put in their art bleeds into their life? Or what is great in art is often not so comfortable in life. I can attest to this.
What makes art -art is that it is potent enough that many can identify in their own world. Finding out too much about what the artist intended or who they are spoils the first pure reaction.
Genius can come through anybody at any time. It reflects that moment and says something about that person. It's not a total definition, of course. But if there's no life in your life there's no life in your art. No way around that. We're all just day-to-day.
"art should stand on its own, that it should be compared to other similar works to determine its relative value, and that the person who made it is irrelevant in this assessment, both in the moment and especially in retrospect. "
Very true, very difficult words. It is also true that no one should be above ethical considerations, but only as citizens of a particular society. Art should not be pilloried or burnt at the stake because we do not happen to like the artist or if he/she is truly unlikeable. Like yourself, I find myself turned off when I know too much and the knowledge is not to my liking.
I've had a pleasure of encountering a number of my heroes who were real jerks. Mostly musicians, but let's add professional athletes into the mix, as well. Just because a guy can throw a ball does not make him a wonderful human being.
Reluctant Muse,
I understand totally. Too much is based on the personality at time rather than the substance they create.
Just gimme the goods, I say :) Sometimes we're lucky when the person is as good and as interesting as the art.

But I can still love Joey Ramone - Gabba Gabba Hey, Neil Young & Patti Smith even if I don't follow each and every of their political or religious views.
Really interesting post. Since I do some controversial and political art, it's not hard for people to figure out where I stand when they see those pieces. I have deliberately "hidden" certain pieces that potential clients might find offensive as a result. It's a good thing I have no clue what political or religious beliefs some chefs have. I would surely miss out on some fabulous meals.
This is very thought provoking. I'm not sure where I stand, but I think it's with you.
You're right that lots of talented artists are jerks. I read Clapton's auto-bio and he comes across as a superficial, self-indulgent weenie when he gets away from his music. He's still my favorite guitarist though.

And Dylan sounds like he's also very self-centred and somewhat cruel. I can't say that it's detracted much from enjoying his musical genius.

I guess I look at the artist versus his/her art on a case-by-case basis. For instance, I could never warm up to Sinatra because I thought he was a disgusting pig as a person. It isn't clear to me what the principle is that gives Clapton and Dylan a pass yet slams the door on Sinatra. Thanks for raising an interesting topic.
Thanks everyone for your responses. I'm pleasantly surprised to have so much support in my point of view.

But Scarlett, Joey wasn't conservative, and I still like a lot of Ramones songs because I'm able to---separate art from life!

WalkAwayHappy: Yeah, going to a concert is a whole different story. Why can't they just play and shut up!

Abrawang: Maybe you just don't like Sinatra's music so he doesn't get a pass?
Yes, you'll get no argument from me. I know Joey wasn't conservative.

I'm referring to love as in loving what they give me or have given. For instance it's complicated... and I attest I may not be communicating clearly. I love Lou Reed, his rock n roll animal & all his music he made when he was strung out but I don't endorse the lifestyle he had. I love the creation within Lou Reed & Lou Reed the person. Oh maybe I can't separate the two after all ... Rock n roll can bop intellectualism on it head. I'm conflicted which is a valid post-modern post rock n' roll condition, isn't it ?;)
True. You can love the art, but not the artist. Rated