What Should We Do When a Talented Creative Is a Terrible Person?

What Should We Do When a Talented Creative Is a Terrible Person?

Should we separate the art from the artist? Are we complicit in perpetuating terrible behavior when we elevate talented creatives who also happen to be poor humans?

Past Work

I'm a classical music professor, which means I deal with a lot of older art, art that was often created by people living in cultures and ethical climates far different from our own. And often, the people I study were not particularly great human beings. Debussy threatened to commit suicide if Lilly Texier refused to marry him, then drove her to attempt suicide five years later due to his infidelity with Emma Bardac. Carl Orff allowed his friend, Kurt Huber, a member of the White Rose resistance group, to be killed by the Nazis for fear of his career being ruined. Two years later, while under interrogation by American intelligence, Orff then claimed to have helped Huber start the very resistance that had gotten Huber killed so he could collect royalties on his work. Richard Wagner was vocally anti-Semitic. 

Debussy, taken by Atelier Nadar, public domain

Yet, Debussy is by far one of the most important composers of the early 20th century, Wagner is famous for his operas, and Orff wrote one of the most well-known pieces of classical music, "Carmina Burana." Should we never listen to their work again or even acknowledge its existence? That's a complex question. Even if we never played their music again, the impact it has had on shaping subsequent work is undeniable, and to pretend it never happened would be like pretending a child simply didn't have parents. If you want to understand where subsequent music came from, you have to acknowledge them and understand their role. We can't undo that work's place in history after the fact, especially when further work has been created that is derivative of it.

On the other hand, what we can do, however, is spend the time and research to reach back in the past and find artists that might have been marginalized. Would I prefer to see concert programming embrace other artists? Yes, of course. But that's for a variety of reasons, including the fact that modern composers don't get the exposure they should, partially because the old classics often please donors. But in regards to this topic, I would prefer to hear more marginalized composers, those whose exposure was not proportional to their artistic merit due to the prevailing sociopolitical climate at the time and place their work was created. 

Current Climate

On the other hand, what about current creatives? I will not name specific people here, but suffice to say that just like any other industry, there are good people in photography and videography and there are bad people. There are great people. There are terrible people. The photography world has some of the most wonderful people I have ever met, and I consider myself incredibly lucky to know them and call them friends. I have also seen people who are vocally racist, who take advantage of models, who write Wikipedia pages for themselves and tell critics to kill themselves, who sexualize children for their own notoriety and financial gain, who win (and accept monetary prizes) from their own contests — the list goes on and on. There's a lot of disgusting, abhorrent behavior. 

The idea of separating the artist from the art was not always around. It emerged mostly as a critical tool of the New Criticism formalist movement in the beginnings of the 20th century. Part of this philosophy was simply to elevate modern work past the inertia of the obsession with classical works. As T.S. Eliot wrote: "I have assumed as axiomatic that a creation, a work of art, is autonomous." 

Remember that an axiom that is self-evidently true and thus, cannot be deconstructed by means of logical methods, for it forms the framework by which those logical methods function, and calling it an axiom is dangerous because of just that. It was an attempt to transform criticism from mystical inferences of the intentions of the author to self-contained analysis of the work and only the work. 

This might, at least in terms of intention, seem like a great thing. Any piece of art, regardless of the race, sex, social status, privilege, etc. or lack thereof of the creator, should be evaluated from an equal starting point — the creator shouldn't even be acknowledged. It sounds like something that puts all art on equal footing to start. It's a slippery slope, though. First, we can discuss the issue of if all creators are given equal footing and opportunity to put their work into the world, but that's beyond the focus of this article. Rather, in this case, the question is: should we even consider the work of creators who are universally (or nearly) considered to be bad people? Are we implicitly validating the behavior of the creator by allowing them into the current discussion?

Simply put, no, I don't believe we should. 

To be clear, I am arguing for the dismissal of creators who have committed egregious acts that are universally condemned and whose behavior we have strong evidence of. There are plenty of examples of rushing to judgment and ruining careers and lives out there, and rarely does the truth that comes out later get the same sort of press; it's simply not as interesting for mass consumption. But when we see a photographer tell a critic to kill themselves, or when we see stories from models about a predatory photographer, or when we see a filmmaker making blatantly racist statements on Facebook and we still allow them in the discussion and we still elevate their work, we are telling them and the world at large that this is okay, as long as your talent exceeds the virulence of your behavior. 

This is a dangerous message to send, because it enables a culture that implicitly accepts this sort of behavior. We are saying that as long as you keep producing interesting photos or selling cool tutorials, we will overlook your abhorrent words. And by contributing to that culture, we thereby enable future such behavior.  

Certainly, it is sad that we can't expect people to simply be good without the threat of financial repercussions or loss of stature. But there are a lot of people in the world for whom the only motivation is just that. And money and stature are powerful things, especially in the photography world, where your ability to increase one is often dependent on the other. And as such, if we do our part as consumers not to pay money to those who perpetuate that sort of behavior and as professionals by refusing to give them an audience, regardless of their talent, then the idea of success being contingent on talent outweighing behavioral virulence becomes success being contingent on talent and simply being a decent human being. That, in turn, reduces opportunistic poor behavior, because the culture at large no longer accepts it. We are seeing the beginnings of a shift toward this sort of thinking in society at large, and that's a wonderful thing, and we as creatives can do our part too.

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49 Comments

Robert K Baggs's picture

I find it difficult to separate the two, but I do try to let logic prevail. For example, I was speaking with friends recently and they mentioned House of Cards (the U.S. version) to which I said "Kevin Spacey was incredible in that show." Multiple people had negative reactions to that, citing the allegations he's had made against him. Even if every allegation is completely true and he's a morally bankrupt person, he's no less a brilliant actor for it. Unfortunately, it seems the 0.1% greatest in most creative domains are often troubled and so it's a conversation I have with myself often. So, I'd say the logical answer is that the work and the creator's life must be separated, but realistically, they're not non-overlapping magisteria and often our enjoyment of a creation is tied up with our feeling toward the creator. Great article!

Matt Williams's picture

I agree with you about being able to still appreciate the work of terrible artists. I think Spacey is (was?) a great actor - I still love American Beauty, Glengarry Glen Ross, Seven, Swimming with Sharks, LA Confidential, etc.

Just like how I appreciate the films of John Wayne (though I don't think he was a great actor, but he is in many great films). He was a horrible racist and homophobe and all around jerk.

HOWEVER, for people who are still living, it's important to not separate the two to the point that the person continues to work freely as if nothing happen - especially if they're sexual predators, rapists, assaulters, or generally abusive. Kubrick's behavior toward his crew and actors was awful and would NOT be tolerated today for good reason. But his films are brilliant - I can manage both beliefs.

For example: people like Spacey, Weinstein, and Terry Richardson absolutely should not be getting work - as they aren't. Richardson was a known sexual predator for YEARS and no one cared. It was super gross. I'm glad he got kicked to the curb. Plus his photos suck.

Deleted Account's picture

<Kubrick's behavior toward his crew and actors was awful> -- Steven Jobs was also terrible to his employees and associates. In the spirit of "competition and perfectionism" which you all glorify because it serves your interests as consumers.

Matt Williams's picture

wtf are you talking about

Yeah, Steve Jobs was an awful person. And? I didn't mention him or say he wasn't.

Abusive people are still quite tolerated. Ask any acon, ask many professional and likely even nonprofessional musicians and athletes about their teachers.

Look at Amazon and the multitude of other companies where blue collar workers are treated as if they don't deserve reasonable accommodations and as if they're subhuman in other ways. People who attack others are viewed on a number of ways, unless you meant assaulters as in "sexual assaulters" (which is redundant but makes more sense).

You really think Kubrick wouldn't be tolerated now? Oh please.

You can pretend the world is full of unicorns and rainbows, but in the real world those unicorns would probably be carnivorous and rainbows just mean someone's getting rained on.

Deleted Account's picture

"House of Cards" was not made by Spacey. He was merely an actor/worker following the director's instructions. It's just a show for light entertainment, not a moral guide.

Matt Williams's picture

1) Spacey was a producer of the show and 2) directors have nothing to do with the creation or storyline or writing of TV shows. TV directing and film directing are not the same.

Simon Patterson's picture

Great response. How we each manage that tension between our opinions of the artist's integrity vs the artist's ability is a very personal choice.

We should respect each other person's choice about this, even if we personally have made a different choice to them. The ability to respect the choice of people we disagree with is sadly becoming lost in our culture, though.

Matt Williams's picture

Absolutely not, we should never separate the two. For one, the art is informed by the artist. Just watch Woody Allen's MANHATTAN, with what we know now, and try to tell me that it isn't creepy.

Also, by separating the two - particularly in the case of abusive, predatory artists (*cough* Terry Richardson) - we're allowing them to continue working and doing the terrible stuff they do.

For people that are dead, that's a different story. In that case, I think we can recognize the talent and appreciate the work, while also acknowledging that they sucked (John Wayne is a good example - terrible and racist person, many great films).

Daniel L Miller's picture

“Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.”
Mark Twain

These days it's much harder to keep it a secret that we are an a$$hole.

The Mark Twain quote implies that everyone is an asshole. The next sentence implies that it's only some people, and that they are assholes specifically for having this dark side that everyone else has. Huh?

I think given the current climate of "personal branding," plus things like metoo, it will just be more of a cultural fact that the two are hard to separate. I personally have always linked the two, because I think art is as much about the creator as it is about the work (but that's a complicated issue). It can certainly have its downsides, though, like how Communists where shunned in Hollywood in the 1950's. As for the commercial side of things, which I think you're talking about more, it's just a fact that bad behavior won't be tolerated by clients, because their customers will eventually find out. That's a different kind of cultural shift, and it will continue.

Nobody's perfect - the sheer amount of arrogance in the article seems to imply that telling the author this is necessary at this point in time.

Tony Northrup's picture

"I am arguing for the dismissal of creators who have committed egregious acts that are universally condemned and whose behavior we have strong evidence of"

Agree 100%! BUT at least here in the US, there is no such thing as an act that is "universally condemned". There's also no such thing as "strong evidence" in the court of public opinion. A large portion of the world decides whether they like or dislike someone. If they like them, whatever they do is justified and any evidence against them is fake. And vice-versa.

But sincerely thank you for bringing up the topic. We can each individually choose who we support and of course ethics must be a factor.

S M's picture

Get off your high horse. The reason you catch so much flack is you denounce the way everyone else chooses to showcase their work as though your work is the purist form their is in the world.

Quite honestly, your demeanor is why people downvote you. Constantly you are ragging on THIS FREE WEBSITE for not acknowledging your work. You say you’re going to leave for good but you never do.

And your work? It’s fine. It’s not horrible, it’s not my flavor, but it’s you’re own art. You constantly tell us that “all that matters is your wife’s opinion of it”. Great man! Congrats! Glad you have a loving, caring, supportive wife. Their is someone for everyone. If her opinion is all that matters to you, why do you continue to rub it in everyone’s face that their opinions suck because of your purist work?

On top of this you bash on fstoppers constantly. You praise Gurushots continually on here. I tell you what I completely dislike going on Yahoo.com because of their asinine articles and comments that I don’t get from other news sources and because of that I simply DO NOT GO.

What are you looking for, a pat on the back? You won for being the biggest crybaby on this site. Congrats!

Hunter Chan's picture

Uh......I participated in the GuruShots game for a few months and my VPN stopped working, so I couldn't vote. GuruShots is good at revealing your overall improvements but it is fundamentally unscientific to tell whose photos are better just by the votes. (I like GuruShots though, it is fun and gives you a deserved sense of importance for what you've made)

I genuinely have no idea who you are, but after reading your cringeworthy comment I have no intention of finding out. Your hyperlink to your profile will remain blue.

Matt Williams's picture

dude, you're narcissistic and insane. I've seen your trolly comments many many times and just ignored them, but you sound unhinged.

This article has nothing to do with you. At all. No one cares about you enough to write an article about you - and also because you're just a jerk all the time to the fstoppers writers and staff.

Who gives AF if they feature your work or not? You seem to desperately seek validation while simultaneously being narcissistic enough to think this is about you.

It's about people like Terry Richardson, Kevin Spacey, Woody Allen, Bryan Singer, etc. No one specific.

Good lord, man.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Wh..wh,.wwhy would you even think an article is about you? Just last month, you were crying about the same thing: https://fstoppers.com/education/5-things-you-shouldnt-spend-money-new-ph...

David Justice's picture

The problem is if you continue to support the work of someone problematic, you're giving them the go ahead to continue on their path because they will always have the means no matter what they do. If a photographer is known for harassing women, yet still books jobs and models work with them, then you're allowing them to continue their behavior.

When it gets murky is when they come back. Obviously, unless it's something illegal where they need to be brought to justice, there's a learning period that needs to be had. But there's no "official" comeback period or anything like that. What allows someone to come back and what can they do?

Or are people in this category doomed to never work in a public setting again.

Deleted Account's picture

I agree with the general idea, but it's not a secret that model photography in the most famous European settings is full of sexual exploitation etc to a far greater extent than in America. The Europeans are not receiving criticism because they are not Americans, it's "hush hush" or sometimes even acceptable. When Strauss-Kahn was arrested in NY for sexual harassment, almost all Europeans sided with him and called Americans "closed-minded".

David Justice's picture

... huh? This was just an example and other American photographers have been called out. One I recently saw was called out last year is back and in a different location. But people are still working with him.

What came to mind.

Deleted Account's picture

My point (which I did not present fully, my apologies), was just to show that double-standards is the norm in the "public opinion". On the one hand we allow sexual exploitation, even prostitution of models in other countries, which occupy the same space in our social media screens and enjoy admiration, and on the other hand we go full force against much less in our own country. We exhaust all our criticism on shop-lifters, and allow bank robbers to keep going.

You can go to jail for a murder, spend there 20 years and then “come back”.

Marius Pettersen's picture

What if the photographer admits to being a douche around people and change genre to something without people? Like landscape or product? Could that person be redeemed and their work valued?
It can sometimes (or often) seem like 'the online gang' has been lowering and lowering the 'point-of-no-return'. You fucked up in the past? You've shown to be a better person in the latter years? Sorry, your past takes precedence.

Matt Williams's picture

^^This exactly. Prime example: Terry Richardson. Long known to be a sexual predator, using photography to do so, but people continued to work with and hire him.

I agree. When you find out that is a terrible person, stop buying their work and stop praising it. Even if it is good. Because by doing so you are enabling bad behavior.

Deleted Account's picture

From now on we should accept work only from celibate Christian Saints (you all sound very religious in this forum). On the rest, we'll outfit them with cameras to see what they do 24/7. I recently got rid of a nice painting because I found out that the guy who framed it was cheating on his wife. Btw, Karl Marx married money, a very wealthy wife, and he bankrupted her (lol) - should I take his work seriously?

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