The premise of Roxane Gay’s latest missivein Marie Claire, that “we can no longer worship at the altar of creative genius while ignoring the price all too often paid for that genius,” is entirely flawed. Gay’s argument is based on the Cosby problem, wherein an artist who is loved, whose work is loved, turns out to be a bad guy. Cosby is not the only one, of course. This is happening with Michael Jackson, as well, and unless things change, it will continue to happen, over and over again. But while the legacy of an artist may be tarnished by their poor or exploitative behaviour, the work itself must be allowed to stand alone.
The 21st Century demands that artists, entertainers, and public figures be exemplary in all areas of their life or have their work as well as themselves erased or substantially downgraded in terms of cultural importance. The problem with this is that great art is not easily made. There’s this idea circulating, complete with stupid meme, that says “there is no abusive ‘genius’ who could not be replaced by someone who isn’t shitty.”
While this certainly sounds quippy and clever, and has a truthy vibe about it, there’s absolutely no reason to believe that it is true. What makes a great artist, and what makes a great person, are not necessarily the same thing. And what makes great art has little to do with either one.
Legends and the work they made are being destroyed and intentionally erased daily. If we keep on this path, of taking down the 20th Century masters because they were shitty people, there’ll be no one left. Everyone has done something horribly wrong; it’s only a matter of time before we find out about it.
If we destroy all our contemporary artists and leave their art to rot on the proverbial vine because we know about their flaws, who and what will be left? The only artists who will be left are the old dead white guys, about whom we know little, or forgive them the error of their eras.
When we destroy our contemporary artists, specifically those who overcame economic disadvantage, or race, or sex, we refuse to acknowledge that they overcame the trauma of trying to achieve despite institutional racism and misogyny. And we do it because they were unable to achieve perfectly, without inflicting their inherited trauma on others.
Can’t we forgive them their flaws? Accept their work, torment and drive of their soul, into which they put all the meaning of their life, as a peace offering? Can’t we accept them as they are, their pain and horror, and embrace their work if we love it?
What misery they must have gone through, being chased, caught, and brutalized by their own demons. Do we actually believe that Cosby, or Anne Sexton who was revealed to have sexually molested her own daughter, behaved in a way of which they were proud?
How many of us are capable of denying our worst impulses every time? And perhaps these flaws, these truly horrible things that these artists have done, that they have inflicted on other people, are worse than our worst habits and impulses. But why destroy the work of those brilliant artists who were incapable of living up to our expectations, or ethical standards, or legal ones?
In talking about why she will not continue to consume Cosby’s work, Gay says “Every time I think of Cosby’s work, I remember the women he victimized and how their silence was trapped by the gilded cage of his fame.” Presumably thinking about the victims makes Gay feel better about herself, that she has the emotional wherewithal to deny herself the art and focus instead on the not-art, the silence, the unknown absence. I hope she gets big laughs from that, or at least a whimsical feeling of moral superiority.
Art is neither the object nor the artist, but the experience that happens between the object of art and the audience of that work. The artist, having given creation to the work, stands apart from it, even in those instances, such as in comedy, when the work is performed by the artist, himself.
All of my favorite artists are assholes. So many of writers I have loved, many of them alcoholic 20th Century problematic white men, were probably awful to everyone, to women, to men, and racially they were probably not cool at all. But the work is transcendent, and that’s enough reason to still admire the work, and to communicate with it across time and space.
These consistent purity tests for artists are not meant to fix anything, or bring any thing true and lasting to light, but to make us feel better about our own selves. Great art work, work that exists for us on a personal level, that affects our worldview, our understanding of ourselves and the world around us, does not magically appear from people who we can also look to for their personal contribution to kindness and decency. In fact, despite everything mass media wants to be true right now, those who are capable of turning their lives into art, their personal trials and struggles into genius, are often shitty people.