My nominee for one of the dumbest sentences ever spoken goes to Andy Rooney, who said of Kurt Cobain after his suicide, “No one’s art is better than the person who made it.”
Take a quick dip into any one of the hundreds (thousands?) of years of art history and you’ll find that, no, actually, plenty of great art was made by creeps, assholes, vampires, perverts, and worse.
In Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, the narrator calls them “art monsters”:
My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.
We’re all complicated. And we’re all creepy, to a certain degree. If we didn’t believe that we could be a little better in our art than we are in our lives, that our best selves are found in the art, what would really be the point? But it’s still crushing when someone who’s made art that you love turns out to be a real creep.
What is heartening, I think, is that the cultural celebration of the Art Monster is fading, and the myth that being an absent parent, a cheater, an abuser, an addict, an asshole, etc. is somehow a prerequisite for — or is somehow excused by — great work is slowly being torn down. And if making great art ever let you off the hook for your failures as a human being, those days are going away, too. (Good riddance.)
Director Steven Soderbergh was recently asked if he believed that an artist has to be disturbed in some way to make memorable art. “Not at all,” he said.
It takes a lot of energy to be an asshole. The people I admire most just aren’t interested in things that take away from their ability to make stuff. The people I really respect, and that I’ve met who fit this definition, have a sense of grace about them, because they know that there is no evolving and there is no wisdom without humility.
Earlier in the interview, Soderbergh said that when he speaks to a film class, he spends the last 1/4 of the talk “discussing personal character, how to behave, and… how you treat people.”
That’s the kind of talk that helped me as a young artist. I remember asking George Saunders how he managed to be a decent artist and a decent family man. How he and others showed me that it’s not impossible, you don’t need to be an art monster, and that, in fact, being a decent human being will only make your art better.