I recently struggled through Chinua Achebe’s wonder Things Fall Apart.
My use of the descriptives “wonder” and “struggled” are not mere hyperbole. I would read pages and pages at a stint, caught up and transported to the villages inhabited by the Igbo people, listening to their searing voices and rhythmic music. The communal life flow and rituals for the harvest, marriage, birth, and death enrapture; the reader is completely drawn within, so artfully done is Achebe’s manner of writing.
It is this exact talent of the author’s that would inevitably cause me to recoil as I repeatedly encountered episodes of pain and hatred in the form of brutal wife beatings. Thoroughly disturbed by the rampant misogyny, I’d reject the story as wholly as I had once embraced it, putting it aside for indefinite periods of time. I am glad that I was able to push past these perverse feelings for the novel and finish it, with a full appreciation for what it represents as a contribution to world literature and the story of the African diasporas. But the incident with this novel begs a question: How are we to embrace artistry without reproaching the artist for faults and deficiencies?
I recall reading an interview Miles Davis once gave in which he described an episode with his then wife Cicely Tyson. The police had responded to a call for a domestic incident, whereas according to Miles, Ms. Tyson had been “slapped around a little bit” and was at present “downstairs, hiding out.” Beyond this, it has been alleged that Miles slapped around several of his wives, mistresses and even on occasion, a couple of band mates…very bad behavior indeed. How is one to reconcile the genius within the demon, or is that the demon in the genius? How do you hate the sin and love the sinner ?
Perhaps the problem is that we somehow expect more from the artist than fine work; we hope them to be fine people as well. No one wants to become acquainted with the seedy underbelly of an artist’s misogynistic underpinnings. That would demand that we examine our baseline ~ that is, what forms of behavior surpass our personal threshold for tolerance. How much easier it would be for everyone if the artists we patronage would commit to living admirable lives. This is of course, counter-intuitive to everything that makes the artist a celebrity: notoriety, infamy and scandal.
So, in the final analysis it seems a more grown-up response to the artist-behaving-badly scenario is required of the patron. Reading a great book or listening to red-hot cool jazz is an aesthetic endeavor, not an opportunity to pass the creator through the sieve of morality. The grown-up in us may also appreciate this caveat: It’s not so easy to be a good person. It’s even harder to produce brilliant work… so much so, that few of us ever accomplish either in a lifetime. Holding the artist to such an impossible standard may be a state far to arduous for any mere human to achieve. Enjoying the art for its own virtue is a matter of acknowledging the unlimited virtuoso it demonstrates, while understanding the human limits of its creator.