When artists are terrible people

Aesthetics for Birds has reposted a symposium from Daily Nous on the question of whether we can separate considerations about artwork from considerations about the artist who created it. By way of my summer reading and current procrastinating at the end of the semester, here’s a comment on the topic.

Lots of the contributions revolve around the assumption that Shen-yi Liao calls aesthetic meritocracy— that “only aesthetic merits or demerits should determine our allocation of attention and time.” Many of the posts can be seen as implicitly accepting that assumption but differ in working out what counts as aesthetic. One position is that the aesthetic and ethical are necessarily separate. Another is that ethical evaluation can enter into aesthetic evaluation with respect to the content of the work— for example, allowing us to condemn a song with pro-genocide lyrics.

Over the summer, I was part of a reading group that worked through Alexander Nehamas’ Only a Promise of Happiness.1 In it, Nehamas argues that we are never in a position to weigh up all the merits and demerits of a beautiful thing. It is the nature of beauty (on his account) that it rewards continued attention. The reward is not just more of same (i.e., it was pleasing last time and will be pleasing in the same in the same way next time) but instead an open-ended possibility. Beautiful things are rewarding in ways that surprise us and even in ways which change who we are.

A beautiful thing may change who I am, so I may end up wanting different things or finding different things rewarding after engaging with it.  The future reward may be something different, perhaps even something which I wouldn’t initially have found rewarding.

Thus, taking something to be beautiful is a tentative act of trust. I engage with it more, and I expect that engagement to produce positive outcomes I could not have foreseen. Thus, a claim of beauty is a promise of happiness. It could turn out that the trust is misplaced and the promise will be broken.

This undercuts aesthetic meritocracy. Since the aesthetic rewards of a beautiful work will only reveal themselves partially and over time, we cannot weigh them in advance so as to let them guide our time and attention.

If that’s right, then what should we do when we find out that an artist is or was a terrible person?

This knowledge should at least give us pause. I should ask— should I trust this work to shape (in part) who I will become, given that the artist became such a villain?2

The answer to this will vary depending on the work. In the symposium, Stephanie Patridge suggests that our assessment of Kind of Blue should not be lessened by knowing that Miles Davis abused women, but that our assessment of Louis CK’s jokes about wanking should be effected by knowing that CK was (is?) an abusive wanker. Even if those are the answers we get, the upshot of Nehamasian considerations is that we have to ask for both cases.

  1. I think I’d endorse the consequences of Nehamas’ view that I draw out here. I like his account in general, although I’d quibble about details.
  2. There’s a related question of what to think about philosophical works by philosophers who were bad people. Some people argue that considering the viciousness of the author at all commits genetic fallacy, but that strikes me as too heavy handed. Especially when the philosophical views are about how we ought to live, viciousness of the author should prompt at least some reflection on what might be implicit framing assumptions. Did Heidegger’s embrace of Nazism resonate with his conception of the human situation? Were features of Kant’s ethical and political philosophy fitted to his racism?

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