Can We Take the Life Apart?

I’m going to retread a little territory here because it’s been on my mind and what else is a blog good for if not to document how one’s thought processes evolve over time? Call it the Chris Brown Question for contemporary relevance, but it could equally be the Roman Polanski Problem, or the Pablo Picasso Predicament. That is, how do we reconcile professional respect or appreciation (Who doesn’t like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon?) without condoning some horrifying and harmful behaviors?

I just finished Ann Patchett’s novel State of Wonder, about a team of researchers investigating ethically controversial new pharmaceuticals in the Amazon basin. A husband and wife duo have an argument about a well-regarded scientist who was also a chronic philanderer:

Nancy: “I’m not saying people don’t have affairs, even very decent people, let us be so lucky as to fall into that category. But we cannot unbraid the story of another person’s life and take out all the parts that don’t suit our purposes and put forth only the ones that do. He was a great scientist, I will grant you that, and by all accounts a true charismatic, but he was also deeply unfaithful to two women and frankly that bothers me. It bothers me that the man you say you wanted to become was a lifelong philanderer.”

Alan: “We can take the life apart. We do it all the time. Picasso put out cigarettes on his girlfriends and we don’t love the paintings any less for it. Wagner was a fascist and I can hum you every bar in the opening of Die Walkure.

Les_Demoiselles_d'AvignonThis argument doesn’t quite capture the Chris Brown Question because infidelity, while personally painful, is not high on my list of “bad behaviors.” Compared to, say, beating your girlfriend, raping a 13-year-old, or putting out cigarettes on humans, it’s pretty mundane. That said, the language of this passage helps articulate how I think about this stuff.

There’s the bad behavior that makes one a lousy role model (infidelity, selfishness, etc) and then there’s the Bad Behavior that makes you a shitty human (abusing people, sex crimes, etc). Does that distinction hold up? I don’t know… abuse and violence stem from someplace…and where does redemption and rehabilitation fit in? Bah. Pesky humans and their complicated psyches!

And if you’re someone in that second category, the capital-B category, can I really appreciate your art/music/writing as separate from the Bad Behavior? I don’t know.

This has not been a productive post because I have no answers. What do you think? If you stop dancing when Chris Brown comes on at the club, do you also walk by the Picasso room at the art museum?

Related Post: Can I listen to Chris Brown with a clear conscience?

Related Post: Dove, pioneer or panderer?

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Filed under Art, Books, Gender

12 responses to “Can We Take the Life Apart?

  1. I don’t know my art history (admittedly) so I had no knowledge of Picasso’s actions. However, I’ve never been a big fan anyway, so whatever. I can almost excuse someone’s behavior when what they are creating is amazing and innovative and maybe their behavior speaks to their disturbed psyche that actually enhances their art (possibly Picasso). However in the case of Chris Brown, I think his music is garbage and banal, so he get’s no pass from me.

  2. we each choose things in life that we will tolerate from people and those we won’t. i don’t offer any more leeway to those who are accomplished in some field than i do the ordinary sort.

  3. I totally agree with you, it’s hard to know what to do. It might help to remember that we are fighting the problems (ie abuse) and not the person. The complications of people doing both terrible things and wonderful things is reality, and we see it on every scale imaginable with the people we know in every day life. The complexity reminds us that these are just people, that they ARE capable of good, that there is still hope for change. But maybe I’m just too much of an optimist.

  4. Art is a commentary of life, a reflection of life, it is there to interpreted by art historians and the public alike. However Picasso treated his muse, it doesn’t come into the equation. This is a painting of a brothel the mademoiselles on the avenue. I don’t think its a great painting myself but it is supposedly one of the modern masterpieces.OK Chris Brown :P

  5. I think there’s a difference between getting pleasure from something like a song or a painting and appreciating that same thing’s aesthetic value. I think we can keep ourselves from getting pleasure from things in order to protest their source (but should we? who knows…). The really scary thought, though, is that it’s likely that the aesthetic value depends on a lot of the awful qualities of the person who produced it. Do we really think the way that Picasso represents the female form is totally divorced from whatever allowed him to put cigarettes out on it? Maybe it’s because it came from this awful person that it’s as artistically good as it is…

  6. acertainmrloewy

    For these purposes, the single significant difference between Picasso and Chris Brown is that one of them is living. I do nothing to encourage Picasso by seeing his work. Listening to Chris Brown means he gets a royalty check. I can’t in good conscience contribute to the livelihood of someone who uses the comfort my dollar provides to add pain into the world. It’s the same reason I won’t walk into a five-star restaurant if the busboys are picketing out front.

    • Thanks David, I think these are both great points. I think the past acts as a pretty helpful buffer in separating cruelty from the art. Helpful? Distancing? Not sure…

  7. acertainmrloewy

    And incidentally, I do pass the Picasso wing at the museum. After visiting his museum in Barcelona, I was left with the overwhelming impression that the mind at work there was outright cruel to his subjects, his family, and his friends. I don’t find it compelling, just disquieting. There are other cubists who did the same kind of work, just as well, without leaving me feeling complicit in someone’s humiliation. There are moments when one absolutely can glimpse the defects of personality in the work itself.

  8. I’ve had a similar thing going on with one of my recent blog posts (this isn’t an advert, honestly!) where I questioned the lyrics of one of this summer’s hit songs: Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke. The song has a good tune and a catchy beat, which is what’s made it a hit. However, the lyrics are horribly degrading to women, and, I think, contribute to rape culture. The chorus repeats the line: “I know you want it” for example. I have been amazed at the number of both men and women who have berated me and told me to “just enjoy the tune and stop getting your panties in a twist”. Can we really ignore a damaging lyric just because a song is catchy and fun? I don’t think so, personally.

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