I just read an interesting article about H.P. Lovecraft, both as an author and an unapologetic racist. It brought up something that I’ve thought about on many occasions, namely that a lot of wildly talented, artistic, creative people who have done amazing things are also, at times, serious assholes.
You see this surface a lot when people talk about celebrities, musicians, politicians and especially famous historical figures. There’s always some intrepid reporter or historian who wants you to rally behind their outrage because they’ve uncovered unnerving evidence that someone who was previously admired is, in fact, a douche.
People become massively disillusioned when they find out an athlete is a drug user, Steve Jobs was an asshole or any other person of elevated importance was in some way a bad person. We want to believe our heroes are not just good at what they did, that they’re wholly good people. This is rarely the case and I submit a different point of view. I personally came face to face with this in my teens after a phone call with one of my idols.
Growing up I was a huge Devo fan. To me, Devo represented everything I had come to identify with as a socially awkward pre-teen, they were stylish in an alien, toxic waste sort of way, they made music that I thought rocked (I can’t tell you how many times I was asked what kind of music I liked and people mistakenly thought I said “DIO” and then changed their opinions from “Cool” to “EWWW! Those nerds in flower pot hats!?” when I corrected them. For the record, it is in fact DIO who sucks, Holy Diver my ass)
To me, Devo was a musical representation of how I felt about myself. Awkward, weird, wanting to express big ideas but also vastly misunderstood by the masses of people who only appreciated small, dumb ideas expressed by big, loud guitar riffs.
Years later while in high school I decided to try to make contact with the lead singer of the band, Mark Mothersbaugh. Lacking internet or any form of reliable data I decided to extrapolate on a few facts to devise his whereabouts. I knew that he scored some films, and I knew that a lot of musicians lived in Los Angeles. Armed with this information and shooting purely from the hip I guessed that if he was making movie scores he had to own a business and that business probably had a nod to Devo in its name. It turns out my instincts were spot on because on my first shot in the dark, asking directory assistance for “Mutant Music” in L.A. the operator gave me the number for Mutato Music, Mothersbaughs soundtrack company.
The operator connected me, I asked for his office and was immediately connected with the lead singer of my favorite group of my childhood.
“Hi, I’m sorry to bother you at work but I am big Devo fan and I just wanted to talk to you for a minute” I started, probably far less smoothly than I remember now.
“Oh fuck. Why do all these fans keep bothering me lately!?” the voice on the other end of the line asked accusingly. I really wasn’t qualified to surmise a hypothesis on why a recent surge in annoying fans had been trending for him, I could only speak as to why this particular, annoying fan had decided to bother him lately.
“Uhm, I just wanted to ask you a few questions…” I sort of trailed off as a few more profanities and lamentations on being bothered at work made their way across the line.
“Fine, just don’t say anything that’s going to make me want to change my number. Don’t make me regret talking to YOU”
The ensuing conversation would be best classified as tense, condescending and curt. Although I was granted an audience it was extraordinarily terse and I hung up feeling like the worlds biggest, most intrusive asshole.
Now, before I continue let me say that I am sure a litany of factors could have contributed to this rather unsavory interaction. First off, if he had been experiencing a rash of rabid, obnoxious fans bothering him as he tried to go about his day I am sure yet another one was the last thing he needed. If I met him at an art gallery showing I am sure things could have been much better. I was a teenager so my etiquette was outweighed by my excited of having ferretted out his personal information and initiating contact. So my lack of decorum and a likely slew of other bad fan interactions probably played a big role here and is no way indicative of him as a person and I wouldn’t presume to know what he’s really like based on one single interaction.
I did, however, walk away with a few very good revelations:
- Just because you interpret a meaning from a work of art that personally resonates for you does not mean that’s what the artist was feeling or intended. Part of what makes art magic, unlike many other human endeavors, is that it’s open to interpretation that makes it more accessible to a wider array of people. You can’t look at the Golden Gate Bridge and go “You know, to me I think that’s a rocket ship” because, no motherfucker, that’s a bridge you dense fuck. You can, however, listen to a song by The Cure and remain reasonably (if erroneously) assured that it’s written about your ex.
It’s great because you can feel any way you want listening to a song, watching a movie or taking in a painting, but remember that the meaning you’re parsing is not always what the creator meant to convey.
- Processing someone else’s art in no way gives you any indication of who they are as a person. I’ve met inspirational figures that were as rotten, bitter and mean as they come and I’ve met writers who produce angry, ranting, hate filled works who in reality were great people and actually really nice. Art is, in many ways, a byproduct. Art is not, contrary to popular opinion, magnanimous creation, it is in fact usually selfish, emotional excrement.
I don’t mean that in a dickesh way, I mean it at face value. Art isn’t usually something the artist makes because they are loving, giving souls who want to brighten the world, it’s usually something we make because we have demons to exorcise, hate, anger, hurt and despair to let out. It’s emotional excrement. The byproduct waste that must come out of an artist lest they keep it all in and fucking explode.
Artists usually make art because they have to let some things out. If those things resonate with other human beings, make other people feel good or at the very least, give them something to identify with, that’s great but it’s not really always about that, it’s usually more about the artist and any subsequent benefits to humanity are a purely unintentional side effect.
That being said, it was pretty hard to listen to and enjoy Devo for a while after that. I realized that the things I heard in their music were likely more reflections of what I wanted to hear because they were how I felt but in no way reflected that of the artist. I also had a hard time rocking out to music with the knowledge that the lead singer was kind of a jerk to me.
A while later I recalled a sitcom I watched when I was younger where a dad brings his kid to a country singers concert and they make their way backstage with the help of a bouncer who introduces him to the singer. They meet him, he’s wonderful and they leave but the kid realizes he left something in the dressing room, runs back to get it and walks in on the singer absolutely berating the bouncer, insulting him and giving him a ream of shit over letting a fan backstage.
Of course the kid is crestfallen. The conclusion at the end of the show was the father telling the kid, basically “You liked his music before you knew he was a jerk, and yeah he might be one, but he sure can write one great song can’t he?” they agree and continue listening to the music.
Is this a shitty lesson? I don’t think it is.
There’s a pervasive opinion that people who contribute to the world in any way are also responsible to be morally sound, fantastic, upstanding people without fault, that a singer, politician, inventor or visionary must also be the type of person you’d want to be best friends with. We want to see people who do great things also as great people and when evidence surfaces that they are anything less than the epitome of human excellence we start to discount their contributions as worthless because they’ve somehow failed us.
They have not, it our perception that is in fact flawed. People who contribute to the world, be it a song, movie, book, invention, etc never signed up to be great people. The patent office and record studios don’t have a space on the form where you have to provide character references for a reason. Contributors aren’t liable for anything but their contributions. If they’re also great people, fucking awesome, but they aren’t required to be and when they are not it doesn’t in any way change the value of what they made.
The world is full of fantastic people who haven’t done anything to enrich humanity. The worlds also full of fucking jerks who haven’t done anything to enrich it either. If a nice person moves the race forward with something they did, great. If a really sucky dickwad contributes greatly, hey, at least it’s better than just being an asshole who didn’t bring anything to the table at all.
Winston Churchill was infamously drunk, a late sleeper and many other allegations on his character exist but he also put a boot up Hitlers ass so far the Fuhrer could have flossed his teeth with Churhills shoelaces. Do we exclude him from history because he wasn’t perfect? Hell no, we celebrate his greatness and what it means to the world.
When it comes to the great contributors to the human race it’s not who they were, it’s what they represent. Thomas Edison was an asshole, there are volumes of evidence supporting this claim but you know what? As big of a dick as he was, he represents the ideal of creative invention to generations of people. Decades after his death he continues to inspire people to pick up books, learn and create. Yeah, he was rotten but rotten food makes the compost that grows new and beautiful food.
People work miracles in our world but the greatest miracles are never performed by saints, they’re performed by imperfect, flawed and in many cases, despicable humans.