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Bad artists, good art

Posted by Robin Abrahams  March 6, 2014 03:03 PM

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Earlier this week I read and greatly enjoyed Ender's Game. It's a shame I didn't read it at a younger age; I'm sure it would have messed with my head in all the most wonderful ways.

The author, Orson Scott Card, is messed up in the head in some distinctly non-wonderful ways. What do we do about artists who are also bad people? My Facebook feed has been the Woody Allen Show for almost a month now, as people debate his character, his work, and the appropriate response to it all.

We all enjoy work by artists who were bad people. It's like living on stolen land: Everybody does it. Liking the work doesn't imply approval of the artist's behavior or life. That said, there is far more music and art and literature and performing arts than anyone will ever be able to hear and see and read, so excluding works from your personal canon on the grounds that the creator is a schmuck seems as fair a reason as any.

These are my personal guidelines when I'm faced with the Bad Person/Good Artist conundrum:

1. Will I be benefiting this person? Well, yes, this is just a polite way of asking if they're dead yet. Patricia Highsmith was a big ol' Jew-hater, but I've got all her books because my shekels aren't going into her pocketses. Mr. Card, on the other hand, is still with us, so his books I get from the library.

2. Does the personal evil permeate the work? This is an extraordinarily subjective call. I adore Patricia Highsmith, but I know many people feel that her writing, if not explicitly anti-Semitic, is generally too misanthropic to take. On the other hand, Woody Allen has been tripping my Spidey Sense for years. I find his work narcissistic, predatory, and nausea-inducing.

Ender's Game, by contrast, was an extraordinary book, generous of spirit and broad of mind, that is quite possibly better than its author intended.

What about you? Are there artists whom you think are terrible people, but who create work that is markedly better than they are? 

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at

Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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