History is full of beautiful, influential, innovative art created by morally flawed people.
Here are five examples:
- Alfred Hitchcock is easily one of the greatest film directors, ever. He wasn’t exactly celebrated for his portrayal of women. There is even a sexual harassment case under his belt.
During the filming of Marnie , Hedren found Hitchcock’s behavior toward her increasingly difficult to bear as filming progressed. “Everyone—I mean everyone—knew he was obsessed with me. He always wanted a glass of wine or champagne, with me alone, at the end of the day. He was really isolating me from everyone”. Hedren’s co-star in Marnie , Diane Baker, later recalled, “She was never allowed to gather around with the rest of us, and he demanded that every conversation between her and Hitch be held in private… Nothing could have been more horrible for me than to arrive on that movie set and to see her being treated the way she was”.
- When legendary rapper DMX died, everyone was mourning — except the gay community. The rap scene can be notoriously homophobic, but even so, DMX still stood out for vileness . Here is how the gay community discussed his death: “Sort of feels like my high school bully just died”
- The Birth of a Nation, made in 1915, is every film student’s must-watch. It is a landmark in film history, but…
The film portrays African Americans (many of whom are played by white actors in blackface) as unintelligent and sexually aggressive toward white women. The film presents the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) as a heroic force necessary to preserve American values and a white supremacist social order.
Harvey Weinstein, absolutely gross as he is, is an accomplished film producer.
His film 憂国 (忧国，commonly translated as “patriotism”, but that is an inadequate translation) is full of Imperial Japan symbols.
Here are some open questions:
- Can we consume art created by problematic people?
- When does it violate one’s moral integrity? At what point would you just stop consuming their content?
My personal take:
We are all products of our times, and I do not expect people to rise above the prevailing moral values / mores of their era. I know and absolutely do not deny portrayal of women in a 1950s movie might be outdated. Neither do I condone that. But I am only inflicting unnecessary anguish on myself if I expect a 1950s filmmaker to act like a woke millennial.
- Founding fathers of the US were great people, but at least one was a slave owner.
It is unrealistic to only consume art from morally immaculate people. You cannot hold a magnifying glass at every artist’s bio.
- Similarly → if you only make friends with morally immaculate people, you will be very lonely. Flaws within a tolerable boundary are ok. But that boundary of toleration can be very subjective.
I weight artistic merit vs personal flaws on a (very subjective, constantly evolving) scale. The more flawed an artist is, the more artistic merit he has to claim to compensate for that. I will drop that person if my balance sheet becomes negative.
- I apply a similar rule when evaluating historical figures. Ishiwara Kanji and Tojo are both Japanese war criminals, with the former being the mastermind of Mukden Incident (“九一八事变” in Chinese) and the latter needing no introduction…But Ishiwara Kanji was at least smart. Tojo, though, was a dumbass.
- The above is personal though. I will not ask any other Chinese/Korean/nationals of countries invaded by Japan to “appreciate” Ishiwara Kanji.
What are your thoughts on these?