Great art coming from not-so-great people

History is full of beautiful, influential, innovative art created by morally flawed people.

Here are five examples:

  1. 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”.[50] 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”.[51]

  1. 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”
  1. 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.

  1. Harvey Weinstein, absolutely gross as he is, is an accomplished film producer.

  2. Japanese writer Yukio Mishima . I love his 金閣寺, but dude was a right-winger.

His film 憂国 (忧国,commonly translated as “patriotism”, but that is an inadequate translation) is full of Imperial Japan symbols.

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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 I know and absolutely do not deny portrayal of women in a 1950s movie might be outdated.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?

3 Likes

My 2 cents.

Of course we can, I think the real question here is, is it worth it? And the answer depends on the individuals.

I personally don’t consume as much culture as a pastime as most people, firstly because I don’t enjoy being indoors, secondly I’m the kind of weirdo who reads Physics for fun when I am indoor. So not watching a particular movie or TV show is not a loss to me.

Compared to most people, I need a substantial justification to watch something, not a substantial justification to not watch something. I can imagine if you are already a huge movie fan and you have run out of contemporary works by “flawless” artists, it does no harm to start to consume stuff whose creators don’t exactly align with your value system.

(For Hitchcock, it’s unfortunate to hear that he has a sexual harassment case under his belt and he doesn’t portray women in a good light. For I’ve enjoyed reading his short stories when I was little. Never watched his movies though.)

When it makes me cringe too much or too uncomfortable to the point the cringeyness or uncomfortableness outweigh its other artistic value. I can’t imagine listening to something glorifying violence against gays when you are one, or even when you are not gay.

Why make yourself unhappy? To remind yourself there are a huge amount of assholes out there who wish to commit violence against you? Nah I’d rather spend my time advocating for LGBTQ rights instead.

I think the content itself is much more important than the creator unless you care about not handing out your money to a particular content creator. For example, a classical music composer could be the vilest human being, yet their vileness probably has little to no effect on the orchestra piece they created. I’m thinking of Richard Wagner, who has some dubious track record on racism and Antisemitism. But did such positions of him affect his orchestral works? Not that I can tell by listening to any of them.

Since none of Wagner’s work make me cringe or uncomfortable, not like he’s blasting “Jews will not replace us” in his Opera, I’m going to continue listening to them.

However, people in Israel don’t seem to think so.

Wagner’s operas have never been staged in the modern State of Israel, and the few public instrumental performances that have occurred have provoked much controversy.

Looks like Wagner’s controversies are important for some Israelis. I can respect that, however, these Israelis should allow other Israelis to enjoy Wagner’s operas though.

Again, my time on earth is limited, a piece of art needs a substantial reason for me to consume it. Not a substantial reason for me to not consume it. I need to weigh the cost-benefit of watching a two-hour-long movie instead of doing something else.


I don’t particularly agree with this one. Because the supply of art and friends is practically infinite. There are constantly new arts on new mediums being created. And you can always meet new people. I don’t feel particularly bad dumping my friends whose moral values bother me a significant amount because by living in a big city I get the benefit of being able to constantly meet new people.

Same with arts, thanks to the internet, all the creation of humanity across millennia is practically a few clicks away. By selectively putting your money and attention into the best stuff you can find, you incentivize people to make better stuff.

The boundary of toleration doesn’t need to stay the same, it can grow tighter or looser with the circumstance. You can afford to be more selective when you move into a big city, for example.

Another thing is, pretty much everybody needs friends, we are social animals. But I don’t think we all need to consume art to be happy or alive. A person who only watches football can be perfectly happy, and I respect that.

I personally treat them separately.

The value portrayed in artworks affects the work’s artistic value. At some point, a nicely wrapped shit is still going to be shit, and you can smell it. I’m pretty sure Nazi Germany and USSR spent a large amount of resources to make some nicely wrapped shit and I’m not going to waste my time on them.

I avoid giving bad people money in general, if in some very unlikely scenario that I really want to consume someone’s work while I really despise the creator(s) I’d just pirate it.