Jerks and Great Art

by Brendan I. Koerner


Growing up, Jack London was high atop my personal literary pantheon. The first time I read "To Build a Fire", it absolutely rocked my world—I mean, who knew you could have a story in which the protagonist's death-by-freezing could be portrayed in such a sweet manner? (That closing vision of "the old-timer on Sulphur Creek" still slays me to this day.) While it may be a stretch to say that I became a writer because of London, I certainly remember thinking to myself that I wouldn't mind following in his ink-stained footsteps.

So imagine the terrible emotions I felt many years later upon seeing Unforgiveable Blackness, a documentary about the life of boxing champion Jack Johnson, in which London is revealed to have harbored some seriously twisted racial notions. (The clip above is only the tip of iceberg.) The boxing doc led me to look into London's other writings involving race, particularly his 1911 novel Adventure, a book that doesn't mince words in portraying the denizens of the South Pacific as less than fully human. So while scholars may forever debate the depth of London's racism, and whether the likes of "The Yellow Peril" were actually anti-racist works in slight disguise, I've read enough to make my decision: The hero of my youth was not the sort of bloke I'd like my son to admire.

But does that mean I should also prevent my son from reading "To Build a Fire", a story that doesn't include the slightest whiff of London's racial views? That's a tough question, and one I've been thinking about a lot in light of Mel Gibson's recent meltdown. As I listened to those tapes of Mad Max going genuinely mad, one of my first thoughts was, "How might this affect the love I have for Apocalypto?" In other words, how does one deal with finding out that one of your most beloved artworks was created by a man or woman whose personal behavior is (or was) odious?

The A.V. Club tackled this topic yesterday, at least in part. Much of the essay focuses on the issue of how artistic intent should factor into one's enjoyment of the finished product. But the writer, Tasha Robinson, also delves into the question of whether or not we should let an artist's gross personal failings affect the way we process their creative output:

I acknowledge that there are some excellent reasons to be aware of an artist's opinions or real life when approaching their work. Hypocrisy is a big one—it's hard to take Mel Gibson's avowed, public devotion to religion (and his mega-successful religious film The Passion Of The Christ) seriously given his apparent private behavior. And I can similarly understand people not wanting to financially support work by a creator they consider reprehensible; I have no argument with people who refuse to see new Polanski movies because they don't want to support the luxurious lifestyle of a rich fugitive from justice. Boycotting an artist due to personal reservations may mean you miss out on some great art, but if it keeps your conscience intact, it's a valid personal choice. And on top of all that, some people may just want to avoid work where they know the creator had a purpose and a message in mind and is actively going to try to sway people with it, as with Lewis' Narnia books, or John Travolta delivering Battlefield Earth as a testament to his own Scientology. (Yes, there are many other reasons to avoid that film. Don't get distracted here.)

The essay ends with a good point: Art is (theoretically) eternal, but artists all wind up in the grave sooner or later. As a result, we should probably realize that there's an important distinction between the two, and that art ultimately exists independently of the human mind that gave it to the world. Extending that logic a bit more, you could even say that art is akin to an artist's child, and so we shouldn't blame the progeny for the sins of the parent.

But if you don't buy that reasoning, what's the rule of thumb for determining when an artist's reprehensible personal behavior is permitted to interfere with your admiration for their work? For starters, let's face it, many great artists are or have been incredible jerks—though certain sins (such as spreading racial hatred) are obviously less forgivable than others (treating subordinates like dirt comes to mind). And do we give certain artists a free pass because they couldn't help being products of their age? I have no doubt that John Milton didn't exactly believe in the whole brotherhood-of-man thing, at least in the modern sense, but should I really let that color my perception of Paradise Lost?

So, throwing two big questions to the splendid commentariat: Have you ever fallen out of love with an artist you once adored, simply because you discovered that he or she was an execrable human being in real life? And for the parents in the crowd, how do you feel about your kids reading the classic works of writers who you wouldn't want to break bread with?

(Full disclosure: I recently tackled the latter question in my monthly Wired column. But that was a pretty specific case involving a living writer, so the answer probably doesn't apply to the likes of London.)

Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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