Judge the art, not the artist
By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in the Other Press. Oct. 2013
I always wonder what Hitler would have created if he had made it into that art school.
All throughout history, bad people have created brilliant artwork. There doesn’t seem to be a correlation between artistic ability and common courtesy. Musicians, painters, filmmakers, and all other artists are just average people, and people are complicated creatures. Sure, we might condemn a person for an unforgivable act, but is it right to boycott or banish the art they produced? Are we horrible people for enjoying the work of monsters? Shouldn’t the work of art have a life of its own?
In modern times, there are several despicable individuals who have created such a substantial body of work that we cannot help but admire. The first that comes to mind is Kanye West. Although I don’t know the man, I do know his work and his reputation. His arrogant persona often makes entertainment headlines and causes a stir. I for one don’t care how he behaves or what he does, as long as he continues creating evocative and enjoyable music. His 2010 album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is one of my favourite albums, and I couldn’t imagine it without the hit single “Runaway,” where Kanye acknowledges the fact that he is a douche-bag.
In 1977, Roman Polanski, director of classic films including Chinatown andRosemary’s Baby, was arrested for raping a 13-year-old girl. Fleeing from America to France to avoid imprisonment, Polanski went on to direct some of the most thought-provoking films of the past three decades. The Pianist, which received theatrical release in 2002, still remains one of my favourite World War II movies. Polanski was detained when he tried to attend the Zurich Film Festival in 2009, where he was to receive a lifetime achievement award for his work.
Anti-Semitism and racism have been the muses of many artists throughout history. From the works of Joseph Goebbels to TS Eliot to DW Griffith, all have had an impact on history—despite their bruised reputations.
Goebbels developed some of World War II’s most appalling and brilliant pieces of cinema, all of which were used in some form or another as wartime propaganda. He was therefore known as one of the most influential people during the Third Reich.
Many consider TS Eliot to be one of the greatest poets of all time, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t find inspiration from his prejudice. In a piece entitled “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar,” Eliot uses a classic stereotype to compare the Jewish people with vermin: “The rats are underneath the piles. The Jew is underneath the lot. Money in furs.”
My last example is DW Griffith, who was best known for directing American masterpieces The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages. The silent films made in 1915 and 1916 told the stories of the American Civil War, but through the eyes of Griffith’s racist ideals. Although the Old South bias stained the cinematic experience, the movie led the way in filmmaking and storytelling innovation and changed cinema for the better.
It seems as though art is a lawless occupation, where quality entertainment offers immunity. In a world where any other professional would lose their job, an artist can survive, because creating art is akin to creating life—the art lives on honestly, while the hateful person dies shamefully.