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We can learn lessons from the problems found in good art and bad people

<n a bad person make good art? I have struggled with this question for as long as I have appreciated works of art and, by extension, the people who make them.

When I first started listening to hip hop in high school, my friends introduced me to the music of Kanye West.

At first, the narcissism and sexism of some of his lyrics disturbed me, to the point that I was unable to appreciate the music at all.
With time, or mere exposure, perhaps, that changed somewhat; I now appreciate Kanye as a lyricist and producer, and even as a sometime social commentator.

But I can’t shake the discomfort I feel when I listen to songs with lyrics like those of “Drunk and Hot Girls,” which is about as unpleasant as you might expect from the title.

What’s worse, art as well as the people who make it contain deeply rooted problems, everywhere you turn.

Even public figures you would ordinarily associate with positive messages sometimes prove themselves to be downright awful.
John Lennon of the Beatles was notoriously abusive to his first wife, Cynthia Lennon; feminist writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has made exclusionary remarks regarding transwomen; Erykah Badu recently said there were “beautiful” parts of Adolf Hitler; Chelsea Manning is close friends with a war criminal who murdered Afghani civilians.

In works of art as well, it is easy to find foundational issues that, once noticed, prove impossible to ignore.

From the objectifying male gaze of Hollywood films, to the misogynistic lyrics of virtually all popular music, to the near-complete absence of people of color from leading roles in all media, to the reduction of minorities to stereotypes on the rare occasion that they do appear in media, to the jingoism many American works of art consciously or unconsciously espouse, we can’t escape dangerous messages.

How can we reconcile these jaw-droppingly awful realities with our usual perspective on these and many other popular heroes?

The easiest answer, if one of the least satisfying, is to throw our hands in the air and accept that all people are hypocrites.

But this resignation allows for little nuance when dealing with people and art.

The world and its inhabitants are too complicated to reduce any one person to a net positive or negative.

Allow me to make a brief analogy. In my A&I seminar, our syllabus read in big, bold letters: No text is above criticism!

I have always remembered that, and likely will throughout my academic life.

In many ways, this adage can apply to people too. We are all, in a sense, contemporary historical texts, waiting for the next generations of social critics to analyze us.

I find it much more helpful to, rather than throw out a text entirely when part of it proves objectionable or even abhorrent, dissect it to understand what its troublesome messages have to teach us, not just about the world as it is or as it should be, but also about the prejudices that would lead someone to make such a problematic statement in the first place.

I recognize that I speak from a place of privilege.

It is easier for me to say we cannot throw out works of art or people completely when I am not their immediate target.

Still, I think it’s important to draw a distinction between rejecting a message and ignoring it.

The fact is, we cannot ignore the prejudices that have always appeared, and likely will always appear, in our artists, heroes, and works of art.

If we did ignore these problems, as many centuries of people have often attempted, we tacitly accept the messages they contain.

Instead, we can best fight these messages by confronting them head-on.

This directness enables us to appreciate the good (or not) that may be present in the art or artist while also acknowledging their shortcomings in perspective, and even their irreconcilable flaws.

Nobody is perfect, which is of course never an excuse for harmful words or actions.

But it is important to remember. If we can’t find something to criticize in someone or something, chances are we’re not looking hard enough.


My grandfather liked to say regarding his approach to Judaism, only half jokingly, “Take what you want, and leave the rest.”

Despite the statement’s flippancy, I still find it poignant.

We can find many truths in people and art, even though both are invariably imperfect.

We do not have to accept the whole world—some actions are irredeemable, after all—but neither can we discuss the world of art, or indeed any public sphere of life, without accepting that we will run into problems, and sometimes deeply troubling ones at that.

Hence, we can only begin to appreciate art for what it is when we recognize its limitations.

Thinking critically about artistry opens new possibilities to us, allowing us to form our own opinions about the world we inhabit and making us better citizens in the process.

Isn’t that an ideal we can all agree to strive for?

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