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The Limits of Tolerance

Engaging with Morally Repugnant Artists

For if men will impartially and not asquint look toward the offices and function of a poet, they will easily conclude to themselves the impossibility of any man’s being the good poet without first being a good man.—Ben Jonson

I have a confession to make: for the past nine months I have been harboring a murderer under my roof. He moved in when I was asked to write a book about his most famous play. Since then, I have found myself falling asleep next to him, laughing at his jokes, and marveling at his peculiar genius. His name is Ben Jonson, and in 1598 he stabbed and killed an actor.

Painting of Ben Johnson
Benjamin Jonson

I find it difficult to accept that a man who wrote some of the most important plays, poetry, and criticism of the seventeenth century could also be capable of such depravity. Even though it is contradicted by the facts of Jonson’s own life, I want desperately to believe his assertion that artists must first be good people before they can be good artists. I concede that I am a moralist when it comes to art. I think that one of art’s essential tasks is to promote human decency, inspiring others to live in a more just and compassionate manner; therefore, I often experience intense cognitive dissonance when I discover that the goodness in the art is not matched by the goodness in the artist.

Some manage to avoid this cognitive dissonance by claiming that art is amoral and that its value is strictly aesthetic. Others skate around the problem by claiming that man’s need to make art does not stem from a moral impulse but from a transgressive one. For this group, art is immoral and exists so that humans can undercut all social norms and taboos. Such positions, however, are minority positions. Most of us, even if it is not the primary thing we seek in a work of art, desire art that sensitizes us to the needs of others, and we become troubled if the one(s) doing the sensitizing appear devoid of decency. This is why the discovery that Shakespeare probably hoarded food during a famine so that he could sell it to starving men and women at obscenely high prices produced such consternation. It is a direct affront to the saintly image we have of Shakespeare as the “inventor of the human.” Several critics desperate to repair the image of the fallen Bard have gone so far as to argue that Shakespeare wrote Coriolanus as penance for this deplorable act. Apologists for J. D. Salinger have performed similar contortions in the months following the recent publication of David Shields and Shane Salerno’s damning biography Salinger, which depicts the reclusive genius as a selfish seducer of teenage girls, while Gore Vidal and others in Hollywood embarrassed themselves by defending Oscar-winning director and child rapist Roman Polanski after the United States sought his extradition in Switzerland in 2009. Such apologetics and mental gymnastics do not hold water, though. The indefensible cannot be defended, which means that we are ultimately left with the disturbing yet undeniable paradox that terrible people often create works of unimaginable beauty and soul. What are we to make of this? Do we let the character of the creator tarnish our experience of his/her creation? Do we go so far as to boycott work from a contaminated source, or do we celebrate all great art regardless of its point of origin?

The indefensible cannot be defended, which means that we are ultimately left with the disturbing yet undeniable paradox that terrible people often create works of unimaginable beauty and soul. What are we to make of this?

The issue, though, goes deeper than how we respond to a work as audience members: it also includes how and with whom we make art. Unlike a painting or a novel, a stage production is a collaborative endeavor built on relationships between people. Consequently, every theater artist has a vested interest in both the talent and character of the other artists in the rehearsal room. I consider myself fortunate to have worked primarily with people who are as ethical as they are gifted; nevertheless, I have encountered my fair share of sleazy, dishonest, self-serving egomaniacs in the theater. These individuals use their power to verbally demean, insult, and belittle their fellow artists both inside and outside of the rehearsal room. They may sexually harass others (see Theatre Bay Area’s informal survey of sexual harassment in the theater) or circumvent union regulations (see Punchdrunk’s recent flouting of federal labor laws), denying actors and stage managers what is rightfully theirs. Many of these people are also damn good artists. Should we close our doors to them? If we do shut them out, we deprive the world of the extraordinary art that they would create and embark on a dubious path of sanctimonious condemnation that has no clearly defined beginning or end. If we do not shut them out, we implicitly condone their behavior and signal that such actions will be tolerated so long as the perpetrator is rich in talent.

It would be lovely if Ben Jonson, confessed murderer, were right, if the most gifted among us were also the most compassionate and generous of spirit. We all know, though, that this is not the case, and therein exists the dilemma. There is no formula that can solve this ethical quandary, but I would suggest that we all consider the following questions as we navigate this delicate issue:

Do we work in a place where talent trumps decency or decency trumps talent? When we hire someone for our organizations, especially an artistic director, do we ask what kind of art will this person create or do we ask what kind of artistic community will this person create? How would our art and artistic communities change if we placed a greater emphasis on character? Would the quality of the art suffer, and even if it did, is that a price worth paying? When do we make the difficult yet courageous decision to leave a community that no longer embodies our values?

Ultimately, how we answer these questions is determined by whether we think we are in the business of making art or making humans because the reality of the situation is that it is not always possible to do both.


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"I think that one of art’s essential tasks is to promote human decency, inspiring others to live in a more just and compassionate manner;" The path of "promotion of human decency?" is littered with broken souls and dead bodies. Are you a good person, unblemished? Who decided that, you? Or do you obey the rules only. The art is not the artist. Whatever Shakespeare did to little puppies or unfortunate starving people doesn't change Hamlet or Coriolanus. And I wasn't there so I don't really know what happened. Yes, you are a moralist: that is a drag, for you.

Roberto Rossellini was a fascist director during WW2. So was Leni Riefenstahl. Sartre lived quite comfortably under Nazi rule in France. Even Shakespeare, who's justly adored, showed a conventional contempt for the common man's pretensions against the established order (good for him, since otherwise he would've been beheaded). There is no good/bad duality in art or in people; we're all a mess of good and bad. Trying to avoid "the bad" leads to cartoon art. It leads to timidity and self-censorship, to writing only what one feels will be acceptable to the most PC of PC theatergoers. Theater people need courage to bellow if they want to create profound and meaningful work. I don't know if our focus should be on being good so much as on making meaningful change, which, in a society that increasingly marginalizes theater, is enough of a challenge. I agree with Mia, for me, my main battle between good and evil in theater is in avoiding the assholes and working only with non-prima donnas who treat others with respect.

Have you, yourself, never done a "bad" thing? Instantly, I'm sure, "bad" becomes a matter of degree. Maybe I've cheated on my taxes, but I've never killed someone! Oh, except for that abortion.... It's interesting to me that this article (and the comments so far) frames the question in terms of the other, as though the major contributor to problems of "good" and "evil" is not the self. (Most writing on this topic is framed the same way, I've noticed.) "We" are always assumed to be benign, striving for a more fair and comfortable and safe world, as we observe the Evil Other. But how can this be true? (Isn't judgment, itself, a violent act?) You invite yourself to be arbiter of what is right and wrong.... that's a dangerous position for a human being, even if it's the only one available.

I'm about to play a terrible villain, and I'm about to play her as a lovable, vulnerable person "who just made a mistake." Can we have a real dialogue about Polanski, for instance, that does not include the horrifying details of his own victimization at the hands of murderers and Nazis? (Murderers and Nazis who were once someone's beloved, precious little babies, the hope of the world, the repository of every tenderness, and every terrible parental mistake.) Theater is really the perfect venue for this discussion--and that's what it will always be, a live discussion, without a conclusion, that could benefit from more introspection and less... judgment, perhaps?--theater is a great meta-lab where moral quandaries are often presented through mechanisms that are similarly flawed (the union-busting company, the dangerous dictator director, the alcoholic actor). That there is not a "solution" = art.

It's 12:27 early Christmas morning. Rebecca what an exquisite, eloquent, and insightful response to Marshal's post. A gift for all of us that may occasionally contemplate such thematic concerns. I need read no further, the meal is complete and needs to be savored.

Thanks for a stimulating post, Marshall. One of my great mentors as a poet is Ezra Pound, who supported Fascism during World War II--one of the major criminal regimes of the 20th century. But the fact is that I've learned a lot from Pound's vastly different worldview. Through him, I've been forced to discard my simple urge to reject the "bad," to open my mind and examine the ideals underlying Fascist thought--regardless of Fascist atrocities. I've grown by opening my mind to the "other," though I still detest Fascism and all its works. That experience has changed my ideas about the ultimate purpose of art. For me, art is about expanding our horizons--the artists' own as well as those of the audience. Like you, I hope that an awareness of other worldviews will help us all to become happier, freer, capable of more informed decisions. But my decisions as an artist and my tastes as an audience-member are different now. I don't hesitate--I'm actually obligated--to show "the bad" sympathetically, to speak with the radical voice that makes us squirm in our seats.

I have definitely had this conversation before! I don't think it's a question that can really be answered, but I will say this: I find that great theater made by good people is much more satisfying than great theater made by someone I find morally repugnant. Also, I did start to make the separation between a person and their theater (since theater is a collaborative effort), so it's possible to like a piece and hate an artist, and on the flip side, possible to love an artist as a person but not care for their work.

Certainly we all have the right to make art, and one could argue that making great art inevitably makes a person better at their core, just through honest expression. (But that's a whole other blog post.) Audiences have a choice to consume/buy art by artists they find ethically and morally murky, and that's their business. But as a collaborator I steer away from assholes and criminals if I can. Life is simply too short --- and I'm not ever being paid enough --- to put up with poor behavior. Being abusive to artists in collaboration is inexcusable. Period. I was once reluctant to name a director I knew with an abusive temperament. The other writer I was speaking to said, "No, you have to tell me. The only way to keep these people from getting more work and contaminating more projects is to talk." As much as I hate bad-mouthing people, I had to agree.

For me it's an issue of process and product. Plenty of abhorrent people can create a good product, but they will make the process hell. What I've learned is that, for every asshole, there are 20 really talented people who can deliver great artistry and craftsmenship while making the process a joy. Why would we work any other way?

The notion that one should be "good" in order to create good art assumes that art is about the "good" the virtuous; the right. It also assumes that art has a responsibility to be steeped in goodness rather than significance or is compelling or earth-shattering. There is no connection between art, and goodness. We'd have to explain why the Nazi death camp commanders could appreciate the works of Mozart and Beethoven among other things. And what is a "good" person? Is an alcoholic who's cheated on his wife capable of writing the definitive 21st century novel? Of course he is. Assholes make great artists because they don't give a shit and will say whatever they want. I would argue that they may be among the greatest artists. The question itself undermines what art is or can be. If we were worried about artists being "good" there would be very few artists and even less great art. It would be so terribly boring. Now there's a difference between that and a director abusing his/her actors. Or some fop throwing tantrums. In this case the "artist" is using people for their own gain which is not excusable and morally reprehensible and less about art and more about their relationship with human beings. But I would defend that person's right to go home and write a great play. And I would go see it.

Certainly a fascinating topic. I have often found myself engaging with the question of moral repugnancy when I consider the number of artists who, in the name of political engagement, engaged in apologetics for totalitarian regimes, and extremist movements over the past century.

Fascinating question. Thanks for this posting. My immediate reaction is that as an individual consumer of art, as an admirer of Picasso, for example, I can take value from the artist's paintings without approving of his mistreatment of the women in his life. But it's a complicated question. I like Roman Polanski's films and I paid good money to see the Pianist with only a vague understanding that he'd been in trouble with the law for misbehaving with an under-age girl. It was only later that I read a great deal more about it and came to understand that "misbehavior" is an understatement. It was, in fact, criminal behavior. But the fact that people were willing to work with him meant that he could continue to work -- and if he had not been able to do that -- because the disgrace attached to him was too great -- then would he have bowed to pressure and returned to the United States to accept his punishment? Would he have been willing to live in exile as a taxi driver? I don't think sainthood is a prerequisite to artistic achievement, but there is a line to be drawn somewhere--and the criminal code is a good place to look for that line. But then the question is, to whom does the moral burden of censure fall? Is it to the ultimate consumer of art--the filmgoer or theatregoer? Or is to his collaborators, the fellow artists whose willingness to overlook egregious behavior makes it possible for the accused to keep working--to continue creating art? Most of us are never going to be working on a Roman Polanski film, so the moral dilemmas we face will be much more pedestrian. We have to decide whether to work with someone who has a reputation for being verbally abusive, or financially irresponsible, or having roving hands. And most of us, I think, will frame the question in terms of what we can tolerate, rather than what we should tolerate.