There’s a reason great artists are assholes

If we erase every artwork based on the artist’s indiscretions, there wouldn’t be anything interesting left.

Chason Gordon

There seems to be something of a purge going on at the moment, targeting any writer, comedian, filmmaker and artist who ever did or said something bad. And I want to cheer it on with the other townsfolk, except for my fear that it will eliminate some of the world’s most interesting art.

Ideally, art would only come from a good place and be created by upstanding citizens who aren’t selfish or screwed up in any way. But so much of the best art is made by utter degenerates. If we get rid of them, the remaining artists with good childhoods won’t be able to handle the workload.

Whether it’s Picasso’s streak of dating women who would later go mad or kill themselves, Jean Genet’s penchant for petty theft or Louis CK’s awful timing, artists’ rap sheets are sometimes as prodigious as their work. And while many of us would be happy to take their art into our homes, we wouldn’t necessarily want them picking up our daughter for prom. ‘Get the hell out of here’, we’d say, before adding, ‘Big fan’.

Why is it often that the most flawed among us make the best things? To oversimplify a little, it’s because there are two types of artists: those who merely want to make art, and those who need to and feel like they have no choice. Guess whose work is better? The desire to pursue an irrational career in the arts tends to begin as a desperate need to escape a troubled background – sometimes based on poverty, an abusive childhood, rejection by the opposite sex, or career suffocation. Whatever it is, the result is the eggs-in-one-basket type of person whose selfish need for attention and producing great art neglects most of what makes a person human.

Since masterful art requires an almost crazed commitment to one’s self, not only is self-obsession naturally encouraged, but it can also cause the practitioner to mistakenly believe they are walking a higher moral plane, and that departing from it will make them less original, less productive, less everything. Many artists wind up regretting their early selfishness later in life, but this conveniently only happens after they have become successful and are no longer desperate.

Now obviously there are plenty of good filmmakers and comedians and writers who appear to be decent and balanced human beings. This isn’t an either / or situation. What’s inconvenient, though, is that with some of their work you can detect a faint innocuousness in all of it, as if they simply learned the moves, without any of the artistry – to use an awful cliché – coming from the heart.

Can you imagine what the world would look like if only good, inoffensive people made art? Picture elementary-school productions combined with hotel-lobby paintings and the fake edginess of first-year college poetry. There would be pretend ‘rebel’ comedians doing material that both they and the audience know is neither challenging nor controversial, and movies and television that only reinforce cultural biases accepted by media elites. Actually, that’s what a lot of culture is starting to look like now.

It is usually at this point when someone criticises this argument by bringing up artists who committed acts of real evil. But the ‘bad’ artists I’m talking about are not criminals. The extreme cases we hear about in the press are actually rare. Most of the types I’m discussing are the ones who are simply selfish, neglectful of family, drunkards, philanderers and those who have had the occasional violent outburst – you know, pricks. Strangely, the dividing line isn’t always about the bad things the artist did, but how their reputations survive the passage of time.

None of the above is to dismiss the actual pain caused by less-than-decent artists to all those who were trampled on as they climbed their way to the top (or to the middle, which can be even more tragic). But often, great art made by a bad person does more good for the world than the alternative. One can’t help but entertain the horribly dark thought that the pain they caused was an unfortunate byproduct of the masterpieces they left behind. This doesn’t excuse terrible crimes or imply that great art requires them — it just suggests facetiously that while it is awful that they acted that way, at least we have their work.

They say you should never meet your heroes, but you shouldn’t read anything about them, either. Separating the art from the artist is crucial to appreciating anything. I don’t want to like or dislike an artist for any other reason than the work itself. I even avoid watching my favourite actors do interviews because so many talk like jocks who took a community-college acting class.

If you don’t support damaged artists for the same reason you won’t support certain businesses whose agendas you dislike, that’s fine. Feel free to enjoy that Pleasantville-like world. But eventually you’ll hear a great song or joke from next door, and wander over to the cooler party with all the more entertaining assholes.

Chason Gordon is a writer whose work has appeared in Slate, Vice, and the Globe and Mail, among others. He currently lives in Seattle, but is on a month-to-month lease. You can find less of him on Twitter: @chasongordon.

Picture by: Getty.

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George Lennan

16th July 2020 at 6:31 pm

Yeah, well I went to an exhibition in that Googleheim thing in Bilbao (did the builders not have a plumb line or a spirit level?) and got informed by an ‘artist’ that “Saturn is the heaviest planet” and that “all technology is, ultimately, futile”
The fact is that all modern art is absolute rubbish.

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Richard Norrie

16th July 2020 at 2:04 pm

I had coffee with one of the best painters in the country the other day. She’s really nice!

Art is all about a good eye for beauty and dedication to one’s craft. This idea of someone who just has to make art because they feel the passion so intently, is more of a myth popular among those who’ve never picked up a conte crayon, I suspect.

Kenneth Clarke made the point that the best artists were not hell-raising radicals, but rather, observant Christians. Bad behaviour must surely stem from the fact that artists command a scarce and precious commodity which always brings people back for more. Nor is bad behaviour the sole preserve of artists. Their good deeds will be overlooked while those whose behave themselves and lead conventional lives will not make for good biographies.

K Tojo

16th July 2020 at 12:09 pm

Why does Picasso never get cancelled? He was a vile Communist hypocrite, a brutal sexist, a bully boy and a fundamentally overrated artist.

Gareth Edward KING

16th July 2020 at 11:31 am

Marc Quinn is extremely irritating. Between Quinn and Alison Lapper, I’m not sure who is worse. I’m surprised that that new in-your-face statue in Bristol isn’t actually made from ‘black’ blood in the same way that Quinn used blood to put some moulds together with that Lapper woman. Blood tends to ‘blacken’ (geddit?) as it comes into contact with air in any case so I’m sure there’s plenty of material there for the two of them to work on. For these two, the material used is supposed to ‘say’ so much: that horrendous Lapper statue in Trafalgar Square was in marble for a reason (don’t ask!) as was the fact that the statue of Lapper herself was also so ‘relevant’ (you know because she was still alive, etc., etc.) (Yawn..).

James Conner

16th July 2020 at 11:26 am

Great artists might be arseholes, but not all arseholes are great artists. My next door neighbour for example is a complete arsehole and yet the only thing I’ve ever seen him paint is his garden fence.

Barry O’Barmy

16th July 2020 at 11:23 am

Tony Hancock’s character in his film “The Rebel” summed this up perfectly if at rather great length !

john gunn

16th July 2020 at 9:58 am

The word you require is arsehole not asshole.

CJ Hawes

16th July 2020 at 9:47 am

When using the term “jocks” are you referring to our brothers and sisters to the north?

Gareth Edward KING

16th July 2020 at 8:48 am

Alternatively, there are plenty of low lifes who’ve produced no decent art at all-the prisons must be full of them! Whether one is an upright citizen or a ‘degenerate’ there are so many other variables that are at play for someone to produce ‘great art’. William Boroughs and Phillip Roth dealt with the ‘shadier side of life’ in their novels but as people with a life behind them, as far as I’m aware they’re quite distinct.

Tom Joad

16th July 2020 at 8:26 am

When i think of it, actually almost all artists i love have been denied of entry to USA at one point or another. It seems it’s unbearable for some people that unperfect individuals can produce perfect art. Like your skill for great art should come only from highly righteous mind. I mean, we have heard this before somewhere. That the idols of youth should be clean, righteous and morally perfect. Yep, when rock’n’roll started to arrive. Then the claim was made by hard conservatives. Do not dig low lifes, no matter who good art they make, they said. Politically correct wokeness has kind of brought this old conservative class-morality back in a new form. The idea that art should present middle-class decency of it’s maker, no matter how undecent the art itself might be. Like you can paint a huge vagina on main street only if you have never smoked weed or said anything offensive or something.

Mike Stallard

16th July 2020 at 7:06 am

Do woke people watch gangsta?

locifer joy

16th July 2020 at 6:51 am

I am making 92 bucks an hour working from home. i was greatly surprised at the same time as my neighbour advised me she changed into averaging ninety

locifer joy

16th July 2020 at 6:50 am


Dominic Straiton

16th July 2020 at 5:56 am

I much prefer the male arseholes of art. I bet most of the men painting the walls of Lazue were pretty non pc. The greek artists,Polykleitos etc didn’t really have that much interest in women’s issues. Give me Carravagio over Gentileschi any day of the week. I bet Michelangelo didnt mince. Im glad and not really surprised Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser were left out of the Royal academy painting. Picasso and Lucian Freud treated women like crap.Im sorry, but narcissistic misogynist men created art far surpassing everyone else’s.Its is just a fact, get over it. I bet Marc Quinn is far from perfect.

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