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What to do with the art of horrible people?

This article by Claire Dederer raises an interesting question. What do we do with the art of monstrous men? In other words, does knowing that the artist is a horrible person invalidate their art? She addresses Woody Allen as her primary monster, for his appallingly disgusting sexual antics (such as having an affair with (and then marrying) his partner’s daughter dear god words fail me), but also Roman Polanski (who raped a teenage girl, among other heinous acts). But these bastards made some great films… what to do?

Roald Dahl is another, though not in Polanski’s league for criminality, as far as I know. Writer of the best kids books ever, and some pretty damn good stories for grown-ups, he was so horrible (and a raging anti-Semite) his publishers wanted nothing to do with him. Emily Temple discusses this here.

This problem is widespread, and probably related to the fact that to make art, you have to have a selfish streak. To actually finish a book, a play, a film, a sculpture, you have to abandon those around you and get it done. It’s hard. And possibly one of the reasons that so many people have unfinished book projects on their hard drives.

It is also related to the fact that really successful people tend to be powerful; their positions enables them to bestow or withhold favours, patronage, advancement. Imagine what it would do for my career if Steven King told all his fans to buy my books! Or what it might do for a young woman’s acting career if Harvey Weinstein thought she’d look good on camera… Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That excuses nothing, but it raises an even harder problem- most of the really good art out there has a monster involved in its creation somewhere. Should you boycott a movie because the second assistant director beats his wife? (I’d say probably not, because their name doesn't sell the movie.) Or refuse to buy a book on the grounds that the publishers don’t pay their female employees as much as their men? (I’d say definitely yes; you can always buy it second hand, which doesn't benefit the publisher at all.)

I try to prevent the monster from benefitting from my patronage. Dahl is dead; he can’t benefit from my buying his books for my kids. But that’s hard to do in all cases, especially movies (unless you simply pirate them, which has its own ethical problems). Buying them second hand on dvd is a good solution, because the horrible creators don't benefit.

And what about swordsmanship styles sources? In almost all historical swordsmanship cases, the author is long dead and cannot benefit, so it doesn’t actually matter that he (I can’t think of a primary source written by a woman- do let me know if you think of one!) may have been horrible. Also, we must remember that it takes an extraordinary person to rise above the generally accepted morality of their time; not even Thomas Jefferson resisted keeping slaves. So Fiore dei Liberi stating that “a man without boldness is worth less than a woman” (as he apparently does in the prologue of the Pisani Dossi ms) is appalling by today’s standards, but it would be simply absurd to expect him to adhere to modern expectations of sexual equality. I do not hold with meta-ethical moral relativism; in this case, Fiore is wrong. That doesn’t invalidate the art he taught, but it also means that we should not discourage women from training just because he would have. Dammit, I even teach the art to peasants, which would have horrified him probably more than teaching women (so long as they were noble born; unfortunately I don't think a single one of my hundreds of female students were of the necessary social class). But in this case it is easy to separate the art from the artist, and there are no moral problems in developing his art.

But with artists that are still alive, that’s very hard to do, and in many cases should not be done. If you buy the products of a person you know to be reprehensible, you are enabling their crimes.

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

11 Responses

  1. I used to admire you Guy, but you’re really losing your head (and focus!) dragging identity politics into medieval fencing. You sound like a young and inexperienced SJW (Social Justice Warrior), this kind of virtue signalling is, quite frankly, pathetic.

    Love, F.

    1. A few things: 1) you don’t have to read everything I write. I try to tag posts like this one as “Reflections”, so you can avoid them if you prefer. 2) if you separate ethics from the study of swordsmanship, you get a pointless but fun activity. Not something I’m interested in. 3) it’s impossible to entirely separate politics from any activity that people do together.
      I write what I want, about the things that interest me. The web is huge; I’m sure you can find something more to your taste out there…

    2. I am not sure what to do with the ad hominem -structures. I understood if someone is dissed because of using fallacies. I am also undestanding that blog which is written under no organisation but with own name is, quite frankly, open in all kinda of stuff of political intrests.

      I think that if you are intrested in ethics, you might give alternative opinion and explain that. And not use ad hominem -structures like “i think your thing is pathetic”. (I might say that basic manners say that you might save your words if they are basicly insults. Like saying true but non-artumentative sentences. Like “all who use just ad hominem -based opinions are idiots”. Those may or may not be true but …you know. I am kinda poor in this myself so I am not continuing that further.)

      It is quite hard to do swordsmanship without taking political stances. (In things like “I have political stance and opinion on the selling and reselling bladed weapons”. And that is, quite frankly, hard to differ from the topic. It is actually tied in what we do. ; And it is actually kinda relevant to think things like “What Fiore say about the woman” and “do we have to let tle woman train”.)

      But, off course, my word mean nothing. I am not a noble born and I have no salt in my brain. Someone (Vadi?) said something like that.

  2. So….
    Hitler was a very horrible person.
    And he was a painter.
    Would you buy an original Hitler painting?
    (What I have seen, is that he was a bad painter – so for that reason I wouldn’t)

    1. That’s a great question. No, I wouldn’t, because there is an evil cult that still reveres him as their icon. So everything he created is tainted beyond redemption.

  3. To voice a different opinion: I like the fact that your blog swings into different topics every now and then because you often share interesting thoughts.

    In regards to the current article I wanted to share a side-thought about this quote, though:

    “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

    Is this really true? Or are currupt people just more likely to gain power and powerful positions because the look for them out, want them and are more ruthless?

    This is a question Rory Miller once brought up and it really stuck with me: Why do we tell children and people that power corrupts? Having power means being able to influence your surroundings, to be able to make things the way you would like them to be. Many things can equal power, depending on the situation, but which other animal would shy away from this instinctivly? You require some thought of power to protect loved ones or help friends in need.

    And you can only try to make the world a little bit better, if you have good and strong ethics as well as some power to change things, either in small or big ways.

    As I said, this criticism by Rory really stuck with me – “power currupts” is a statement that in the end probably serves bad or selfish people. They don’t care. They may even know where they stand and be ok with it. Like it to be an asshole, even.

    Good people on the other hand? Oh, power corrupts, many learned this even as kids. It’s somehow dirty to try and become powerful… Whom does this serve?

    I think ethics come first and good people should absolutely not fear or refuse power, as long as it doesn’t spring from dark sources.

    The world profits from good, strong, powerful people. It doens’t profit from weak, powerless good people and all the power in the hands from corrupt people who never cared in the first place.

      1. I wonder if its striving to retain power that is ultimately more corrupting. Obviously it all depends on the ethical conviction, both personally and politically of the people concerned, but observationally many people seem to intitially seek power and powerful positions for sound reasons (whether i agree with them politically or not.) But once power is gained i think many powerful people seem to expend more and more of their effort in retaining that power and thus it becomes an end in itself.

  4. It’s certainly a complicated issue. The cancellation of Louis C.K.’s show cost a bunch of people besides him, and deprived the world of what was probably going to be some brilliant entertainment. Society is changing and these predations that used to be swept under the rug will reduce as all people, in and out of positions of power, have the courage to stand up and say no. Did Roald Dahl’s anti-semitism harm others, or did it only harm himself? That standard of harm I think is the key point to consider.

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