Pablo Picasso is arguably the most important artist of the 20th century. He pioneered cubism, used famous mural Guernica to protest the atrocities of Francisco Franco in Spain and inspired countless other artists in every medium imaginable. He was also an asshole.
Does Picasso’s inherent dickishness overshadow his brilliance? I don’t think it does. That is not to say that his abrasive, brash and narcissistic personality should be omitted from discussion of his work, just that his beauty of his art and his wide-reaching influence far outstrips the damage caused by his caustic personality.
Understanding art sometimes means consuming amazing works produced by terrible people, John Lennon beat his wife, Hitchcock was abusive and Elvis was a pedophile. All of these men are among the best in their respective mediums and are held in high regard despite the awful things that they did.
So where does that leave Bill Cosby?
The once-beloved comedian was so beloved he was christened “America’s Dad,” and his comedy has inspired generations of comedians. He also is a rapist who drugged and abused women.
Despite the obvious nature of his guilt, his legions of fans rushed to defend him because of their attachment to, and love of, his work.
This isn’t an isolated incident either, Hollywood rallied behind convicted child rapist Roman Polanski, and Michael Jackson’s most ardent supporters maintain his innocence despite the compelling testimonies of his victims in the documentary “Leaving Neverland.”
For the defenders of these artists, the idea that these people can be talented, brilliant artists while simultaneously being reprehensible people is an impossibility.
This mental block leads people to defend the indefensible and deny reality. Many who defend these artists and simultaneously tear down other problematic artists they don’t like.
That isn’t to say that these people shouldn’t be held accountable, just that often these artists are held to standards that other, more malevolent forces aren’t. If you shame others for listening to musician’s problematic lyrics but support Chick Fil-a despite their direct support of anti-LGBTQ+ groups, there is a discrepancy there.
Sure, the lyrics are much more upfront with their hateful message, while Chick-Fil-a is seemingly more benign, but one is actively contributing to the hardship of a group while the other is just saying offensive things.
There is nothing wrong with not wanting to consume offensive art because its offensive, but people hold artists up as moral paragons when that has little to do with what they are producing.
And sometimes, unfortunately, hateful art by hateful people is impossible to ignore. Birth of a Nation is a film celebrating the KKK. It is cruel, racist, promotes violence and is required viewing for any cinephile. Nearly every beginner film class will show Nation due to it being the first true epic-length film.
Roger Ebert said of the film in his review that it is like “bearing witness to the beginning of melody, or the first conscientious use of the lever or the wheel.” He continues to mention that while the film is monstrous in its message, that it is impossible to ignore as a lover of film.
Anyone who wants to truly understand any artform will inevitably encounter hateful, problematic creators, and while it is often difficult, sometimes we need to appreciate art while simultaneously decrying its creators.