The New Yorker has a profile of author Gene Wolfe. “His narrators may be prophets, or liars, or merely crazy, but somewhere in their stories they help to reveal what Wolfe most wants his readers to know: that compassion can withstand the most brutal of futures and exist on the most distant planets, and it has been part of us since ages long past.”
Posted February 7, 2013
I told my 3 year old that I’d find a bed for his google-eyed dinosaur. “I promise, sweetheart.” Then, after 45 minutes of ducking in and out of his room with him crying and the senile cat howling in the background while I tried to write an article, I threw the dinosaur across the living room, accidentally breaking it’s eye. God, I hope we still sell those at work.
This, in combination with the homophobic media bumbling of several San Francisco 49ers players prior to Superbowl XLVII, left me pondering the dilemma of bad people making good art. If someone is a reprehensible person, what does it make me if I find their creations beautiful? At the low end of the spectrum, readers might have enjoyed my writing, blissfully unaware that during the process I broke a toy, a promise, possibly a toddler’s heart, and barely resisted tossing my 19 year old cat out into a snowbank. More serious are the ever-popular examples of Wagner’s anti-Semitism or Ezra Pound’s proto-fascism, and somewhere in the middle of the road lies my ability to appreciate the athleticism of football players even when they don’t support my access to equal human rights.
So what’s that about? Athleticism has an artistic beauty, and even though I know that a lot of football players probably hold opinions I’d think make the world a worse place if I knew about them, I still enjoy watching them play. The challenge is deciding what constitutes plausible deniability and what I can afford to label not my business when it comes to a few hours of tv entertainment.
Examples of off-field behaviors I’ve found highly specious but possible to ignore while watching a game:
- Attacking a paper towel dispenser for being empty
- Shooting yourself in the leg in a club with an unlicensed firearm that was tucked into the waistband of your sweatpants (so many things wrong with this scenario)
- Texting pictures of your privates to women who may or may not have wanted to see them
- Non-specific “family values”
Some deal-breakers I can’t bring myself to overlook no matter how great you play:
- Beating your wife and/or kids or committing sexual assault
- Running a dog-fighting ring
- Saying gay guys better get out of your locker room
- Participating in the It Gets Better video project to lower suicide rates among queer and trans youth and help them survive bullying, then denying that you were involved in any such thing in a way that makes it clear you’re freaked out by gay people
The last two examples were part of this year’s pre-Superbowl media circus, and even though I have fond childhood memories of the championship Niners of the Joe Montana and Steve Young eras, all of my friends and I were cheering for the Ravens this time around. It’s the first time I’ve seen my wife get emotionally invested in football since her ex Football Boyfriend, Ben Roethlisberger, crossed over to her deal-breaker list when he was accused of several counts of sexual assault. The Niners player from 3) above apologized and promised to learn from his mistakes and Big Ben has yet to be charged, but then again fame complicates the location of guilt. There has to be room for people to learn from their mistakes or make reparations, but neither fame nor artistry excuse violence and hatred.
Similarly, I’ve never wanted to know much about any of the actors I like unless it’s to hear what they have to say about acting. My appreciation for them is related to their art, not what they wear or like to eat for breakfast, and frankly, knowing their opinion on gun control or birth control or marriage often creates an uncomfortable association that means I lose what I got out of their art in the first place. I remember being pleasantly surprised when Salma Hayek had some smart things to say about feminism and race during interviews after her role in Frida. It made me much more inclined to watch Ugly Betty when I realized she was executive producing it.
A counterpoint to my assiduous lack of interest is the pervasive obsession with celebrities lives, resulting in stars having to worry about finding paparazzi lurking in their cereal box in the morning like some freaky prize. And the combination of the pressure and opportunity to misbehave on an epic scale results in behavior that ranges from entertaining to genuinely horrifying to Theatre of the Absurd. It seems that bad behavior is like a car crash we can’t help rubbernecking at, and even when it’s actually reprehensible it holds such morbid fascination that people continue to pay the price of admission rather than drawing a line.
There’s also a pull to conflate character and actor, to feel like you know someone because the experience of watching them act left you emotionally invested in a person who looked like them but wasn’t. Instead of writing stories about characters, some people write fan fiction about actors or make up stories about them as if they were characters. Take the phenomenon of Feminist Ryan Gosling. He seems like a nice enough guy, but the creation of that identity is a work of art by other people using his face and name. As long as he doesn’t do anything noticeably dissonant with that persona his actual content is irrelevant, and millions of people’s opinion of him will be subtly influenced even if he’s not really that guy.
So how much does it matter who someone is if their art is what people interact with? I think it’s a valid argument to say that art has an existence and value independent of the artist – a value located in the experience of the viewer – but there’s a line past which our social responsibility as citizens requires that we refuse to accept bad behavior despite artistic merit. Conversely, policing art on moral grounds can come disturbingly close to fascism.
Also, sometimes I just like to drink beer and watch football.
alex MacFadyen really does think it’s adorable that all your crafts turn out crooked.