It’s a question I’ve tried to answer before, both directly and peripherally (see Cancel Culture). And the answer seems to change as I learn more about life. Right now, my answer is “no”. And here’s why.
Take this thought exercise. There are two paintings in a gallery, both are for sale. They both look exactly the same, down the brushstroke. Same image, same colors, same frame. You can’t tell the two apart. So you ask the curator what the deal is. She tells you that the one on the left is the original. The one on the right is a forgery painted by a college student.
Which one would you rather buy?
Assuming you’re not trolling, you probably said the original. Why? As consumers of art, we don’t just want the work. We crave the story behind it. That’s why DVD special features are popular, that’s why people interview musicians, that’s why people write tell-all books. They want to see how the sausage is made.
I mean, you can have art that exists solely independent of its author and context. But in today’s world, it’s nearly impossible. We are influxxed with media about media because journalists need something to write about. People seek it out–looking for spoilers, behind-the-scenes trivia, star gossip. Not only that, but as an author/artist, you want that publicity. Maybe back in the 1200’s, when someone handed you The Canterbury Tales, you could enjoy it without knowing anything about who this Chaucer chap was. You can’t watch Justice League without thinking about the Snyder Cut. You won’t be able to watch The Flash without thinking about Ezra Miller.
Art is designed to evoke a response. It’s like making food without a chef. Or maybe even AI like ChatGPT could be an example. Without a human behind it, it’s a little… empty. It’s uncanny valley. It’s not quite right.
Here’s another thought experiment. Look at this lovely painting.
Not bad, huh? You can tell the artist at least as competency. Pretty high quality. Nothing special, but it’s pretty. Something you might see in a museum. A little slice of life. An instant of time. Something you could put up in a bathroom or a hotel room.
Oh, the artist? Adolf Hitler.
Still want it?
Was he an evil despot when he painted it? No. Does the fact that he’s an evil despot now make a difference in the art? You tell me, but I think you know the answer to that question.
As much as it’s a fact you can’t separate art from the artist, it’s a fact that bad men create good art.
Intent matters. This is a thing I’ve learned from watching videos by Legal Eagle on YouTube. The severity of a crime, whether you get a guilty and not guilty verdict, has a lot to do with intent. I always thought this was something that would be hard to prove. Like serial killers don’t need a motivation, they’re just crazy (maybe that’s why they’re so hard to catch). The only evidence I thought necessary was whether you did it or not and how strongly can that be proven. But I’m learning intent has a lot to do with it too. Like whether Alex Jones intended to call Sandy Hook victims crisis actors to stay popular so he could hawk his man pills. It’s why we have different degrees of murder.
There can be art intended to make you hate, like propaganda. There can be art intended to make you love and give you good feelings. Art made by immoral people may have nothing to do with their beliefs or actions, like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski and J.K. Rowling. People like Louis C.K. and Dave Chapelle doubled down on their actions and got bigger audiences, more money, and awards. Cancel culture didn’t work for them.
The problem is, outside of a criminal court, their intent can’t be proven. Are they making jokes or are they trying to impart their beliefs/justify their actions. You can’t say you reject the author and embrace the artwork. If you try and pirate the Harry Potter books, you’re still engaging in the artist’s work. And thusly, the artist.
Here’s my big question. What is the line when a person is no longer irredeemable? When they no longer make attempts to make amends or change as a person. When they eschew accountability for their actions.
I don’t know. I feel like I’m bringing up more questions when I was trying to answer.
My conclusion: art is supposed to make us a better person. It’s supposed to evoke an emotional response, to make you feel something. If you feel like the art encourages hate, fear, or crime, that’s bad art. Art shouldn’t add net misery to the world. And if it is, then you are a monster.