When An Artist Fails as a Person, Is Their Work Invalid?

When I was young, I thought that an artwork reflected the values of the person who made it. If the work was moving and revelatory and full of high ideals, I thought its creator must be that as well. Over time, I learned that this was very often not the case; the brilliant artists I knew were often profoundly flawed people who sometimes did cruel or unthinking things. What of the wonderful work they made?

Scrolling through Improvised Life’s many years of content, I’ve come across many examples of work that is illuminating in powerful ways. Yet its creator has since been accused of some pretty nasty things.

It got me wondering.

Is Louis C.K.’s wise/smart/true riff, Everything Is Amazing, (above) about looking around at all we have — like flying in an airplane —and seeing them as the amazing miracles they are,  invalid because of his sexual misconduct?

Are Chuck Close’s Notes to Self: 8 Rules for Living any less useful or true because he has been accused of sexual harassment?

Never let anyone define what you are capable of by using parameters that don’t apply to you.

Virtually everything I’ve done is influenced by my learning disabilities.

Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. Every great idea I’ve had grew out of work itself.

Sign on to a process and see where it takes you. You don’t have to invent the wheel everyday. Today you’ll do what you did yesterday; tomorrow you’ll do what you did today. Eventually you will get somewhere.

No one gets anywhere without help. Mentors…can make you feel special even when you are failing in other areas. Everyone needs to feel special.

I learned very early in life that the absolute worst thing can happen to you and you will get past it and you will be happy again.

If you’re overwhelmed by the size of a problem, break it down to make bite-size pieces.

There’s always someone worse off than you.


Pablo Picasso's atelier in Cannes, France

photo: 7 das artes

Both Picasso and Steve Jobs famously treated their children badly…

steve jobs quote, connect the dots, have faith

Trungpa Rimpoche, whose writing I’ve found transformative, and who was Pema Chodron’s teacher, was an wild alcoholic with a controversial teaching style.

Improvised Life


Mario Batali, who I knew back in my food writing days, cooked celestial food and was extraordinarily generous. Is his defiant and heartening response to 9/11 less so now that he has been accused of serious treacheries; are his recipes any less inspired?

Maria Robledo


Do works of wisdom or beauty stand on their own?

7 Responses to When An Artist Fails as a Person, Is Their Work Invalid?

  1. Jim Dillon 03.28.2019 at 10:27am #

    This question is valuable to me. It’s helpful (for me) to think of it this way: what is the nature of the connection between the worker and what they produce, after it’s been produced and sent out into the world? What is the link between the poet and the poem, after the poem has been published? Does authorship give one a lifetime of authority over (or responsibility for) what one has written? Which inverts the question of responsibility: is the art burdened with its maker’s character, or the other way around? And can character be completely separate from intention? The movie Chinatown comes to mind, I have to admit.

    I think the interesting place to be is on a middle ground between insisting we consider only the work of art itself, in isolation from anything that contextualizes it, and attaching every scintilla of meaning or value of the work to some aspect of the artist’s biography or “times.”

    The key is to negotiate WHERE in that middle ground we’re working, honestly and explicitly. And remember that WE as audience members, or public, or readers, are free to make our own uses out of what we encounter in the world – – – our interaction with film, theater, painting, sculpture, music doesn’t have to be passive absorption!

    So for me it’s always more questions, more uncertainty, more mess. Which I think is good.

    Thank you!

  2. Jim Dillon 03.28.2019 at 10:36am #

    One thing I forgot to mention: it seems to me that some discussions of this topic don’t give enough credit to the audience (US). People are used to dealing with complexity. Go ahead and make Batali’s recipes, while telling the stories of what he did, good AND bad. We can handle it! Keep looking at Guernica, but keep Picasso’s misogyny in mind as you do it. It’s not impossible, it doesn’t destroy the art or ignore the harm done, it complicates our reception of the art. And I think it will be good for us, both to chastise ourselves to try and not do harm, but also to reassure us in our making, in our art, that even though we aren’t perfect, we can make good stuff.

  3. Carole Ferguson 03.28.2019 at 10:59am #

    The false choice is perfect vs heinous behavior. A sociopath who murders vs Mother Teresa when both make art we appreciate is made more complex by the contrast we experience. But there should be no sense of “oh well that is just who he/she is”. Child abuse is not put in context differently if the perpetrator is an esteemed artist. Our personal actions are still a tremendous part of who we are made more complex perhaps by our talents.

  4. gallagher 03.28.2019 at 4:35pm #

    Maybe ‘Art’ is an Artist’s “Question”,

    not an “Answer”.

    An Artist’s “Struggle”,

    not “Achievement”.

    An Artist’s “Quest”,

    not “Arrival”. (?)


    How definate is ‘Art’?

  5. Sally Schneider 03.28.2019 at 4:45pm #

    There is much interesting thinking about about this. I like the idea of embracing complexity, uncertainty, ambiguity, “mess” that may be involved in viewing a work and having difficult information about the artist, and Gallaher’s idea that “art is an artist’s question”, As Jim says “it doesn’t destroy the art or ignore the harm done, it complicates our reception of the art.” It also points up how very complex and varied we humans are. Lots to mull, more to come.

  6. Anna Dibble 03.29.2019 at 9:15am #

    I think in a way we artists are conduits – the best art comes from an ability to let go of conscious thought, editor , critic and tap into the mysterious subconscious. I don’t think I’ll ever know what the subconscious actually is (and don’t really want to know) but I imagine it is made up of our DNA (perhaps, layers of our dreams (maybe), and especially that thing that makes us a unique individual human animal. We’re so complicated – for instance why do some people cross the line from good to bad, good to evil? I think it’s good to be open to art made by bad people. In some cases the work reflects their badness – Fred Seidel comes to mind. He’s a brilliant poet but the poems are hard to stomach. Then there are artists like Bill Cosby – I still think of pieces in the early comedy records that totally hold up, are still funny. It’s an interesting topic.

  7. Jim Dillon 03.29.2019 at 11:22am #

    Anna! I was thinking of Cosby as I typed my response . . . “Chicken Heart” in particular! I loved sharing it with my sons when they were in elementary school.

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