Aritists Need Not Be Nice

A week ago I heard Philippe Petit, featured in the respected movie Man on Wire, on a radio show and thought he sounded fun and so I ordered his movie from Netflix.  This  morning I read about Polanski in the New Yorker, this afternoon I was talking to an artist at a party about how artists are held to much lower morality standards – behavior that is shrugged off in artist biopics would be condemned for business-folk or politicians or economists.  When I got home I watched Man on Wire, and alas found that confirmed yet again.

A team of folks spent years planning and preparing for the dramatic stunt of Petit walking on a wire strung between the world trade center towers.  The movie gives lots of screen time to the rest of the team, but at the end we find that Petit abandons them all the instant he is famous.  Within hours he has dumped his loyal girlfriend for a stranger’s bedroom.  He is released without penalty and becomes the toast of the city for years; his teammates are immediately expelled from the country and into oblivion.  They are clearly hurt by this.  And we never do hear anything about whomever supported Petit and team financially for all those years.

Just as most movie reviews focus on the actors and ignore the hundreds of other folks it takes to create films, the dozen reviews of this film I read, mostly glowing (here‘s Tyler), are overwhelmingly focused on the man on the wire.  They seem more impressed by his feat than by the entire team who created those buildings.  The reviews hardly mention that anyone else was even involved in the event; certainly none show interest in their ultimate treatment.  With art, all that matters is demonstration of individual artistic ability; we don’t need artists to be nice or considerate or cooperative.  (Though their vague concern for African kids may touch us deeply.)  Beware: the rest of us will be held to higher standards.

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  • Jeffrey Soreff

    Beware: the rest of us will be held to higher standards.

    Alternatively – to more restrictive standards. Perhaps, to the extent that we all contribute to social restrctions, we should rethink this, and see if we can allow all of each other a larger measure of freedom, closer to what artists enjoy.

    • Perhaps, to the extent that we all contribute to social restrctions, we should rethink this, and see if we can allow all of each other a larger measure of freedom, closer to what artists enjoy.

      I’m not sure that’s a good idea. I certainly wouldn’t want my friends to act as Petit did, nor do I think that they would appreciate it if I did the same to them. Those restrictions are important in maintaining social order and thus I don’t think that it’s a good idea to move everyone toward the “artist model” of social restriction.

  • Buck Farmer

    Is this analogous to the anecdotal leeway we offer other sexually/genetically desirable people?

    If it’s part and parcel with it, does this (society’s perception of the role and proper behavior of artists) represent an institutionalization of the practice? Where else has this been institutionalized?

  • Brennan

    A business-folk, politicians and economists have a somewhat parental role. They’re expected to do what’s best for everybody else. An artist simply produces something of amusement. A morality geared towards treating others well barely matters if you’re not in a position to take care of others. Assembly line workers don’t need to be nice either.

    Come to think of it, business-folk aren’t exactly expected to be the most moral.

  • One aspect of civilization is a merciless search for supernormal stimuli.

    Football is deadly– the average lifespan for those who spend at least five years in the NFL is 55 years— but the typical response seems to be “but we love football just as it is” rather than “it’s important to quit killing the men who are giving us so much entertainment”.

  • anon

    This was also why most left liberals wanted to give Roman Polanski a get-out-of-jail free card for the heinous crimes he was accused of. Some people will do everything they can to give this kind of immunity to the most visible members of their in-group, even when they feel like behaving like repellent scum.

    This is not limited to artists either; just consider Catholics’ reactions to accusations of child abuse by priests.

    • 2999

      I sincerely doubt that most liberals wanted to give Polanski a get-out-of-jail free card. Certainly, I suspect that more liberals than conservatives did, and more artsy/hollywood types did. But I think the Pro-Polanski camp is pretty roundly despised by most people, liberal or conservative.

  • Bill

    There are really two issues in this post: 1. Fairness of distribution from a group effort and 2. amoral artists and others.

    Taking the latter first: while some point to Polanski, others would point to Rev. Jerry Fallwell–who cares. The middle supports neither.

    But, as to the distributive allocation of credit by the tightrope walker, I would guess that is also a voluntary exchange: I know people who have worked on projects (movies, large ventures) where, if they are not the person who gets the lead credit, nevertheless are heard to say “I worked on this project with Tom Hanks, or I worked on this big project and learned y”. Or, bringing it closer to home, how many authors co-author with someone else to get their name associated with that co-author.

    No, what is the problem is bait and switch: where something is promised, and the promise is broken. Expectancies without a promise are a different thing. Caveat emptor.

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      I know people who have worked on projects (movies, large ventures) where, if they are not the person who gets the lead credit, nevertheless are heard to say “I worked on this project with Tom Hanks, or I worked on this big project and learned y”. Or, bringing it closer to home, how many authors co-author with someone else to get their name associated with that co-author.

      good point

  • lxm

    Conflating Polanski’s criminal actions and Petit’s tawdry actions requires too broad a brush. Polanski’s wealth has enabled him to avoid consequences for his past actions, not his status as an artist. It is true that some would grant Polanski a pass because of his artistry, but most will not. Petit’s betrayal of his friends would not be worth notice except for Petit’s great art. Petit’s art has brought him greater scrutiny of his personal shortcomings rather than less.

    So do artists get a pass? Did Lenny Bruce? Did Ezra Pound? But perhaps you are correct. Perhaps great artists do get a pass. Their art counterbalances their sins. Why not? Great money and great power also get passes.

    I found Man on Wire as much a celebration of the Twin Towers as a celebration of Petit’s actions.

  • rob

    Artists not only get a pass for their sins, they also often flaunt them. Mick Jagger could laugh and brag about how many other women he was seeing when he was married. Tiger Woods must portray the same behavior as a shameful mistake. It isn’t a question of corporate sponsorship either: The Rolling Stones have corporate sponsorship.

    Perhaps it is simply that because great artists are so rare and apart from ordinary society, they aren’t perceived as a threat to the general social order. Great politicians and superstar businessmen are rare too: but their behavior resembles the behavior of ordinary people more. They still seem like “one of us”.

    Why professional athletes are judged differently than artists may be harder to square. There is something fundamentally conservative about sports. I think we expect athletes to disappear into polite society when they walk off the field, whereas we don’t expect artists to ever enter polite society.

    • Doug S.

      Isn’t that sort of expected of male rock stars?

  • Being an artist is no reason not to participate decently in life. Unfortunately, I am unable to define decent, but I recognize decent behaviors.

    “A real artist is the one who has learned to recognize and to render… the ‘radiance’ of all things as an epiphany or showing forth of the truth.”

    Joseph Campbell (1904-1987)

  • Dain

    Thomas Kincaid is one of the great artists of our time and he would be welcome at Christmas dinner let me tell you!

  • Millian

    I need to co-operate with people to pass laws and to do business. In particular, I need to abide by social norms so that I don’t abuse my power. I don’t need to co-operate with people to make art, as long as everyone else is engaging in the norms that allow me to survive. This is partly because I don’t have that much power. Note that this is most true for visual art, with groups from Dada onwards asserting their desire to radically change society. Then you have music, then as you go towards theatre/film this becomes less true and it becomes more like a business wherein the top people in the production exert power over the other participants. We ought to expect the powerless painter to have more free moral action than the powerful businessman.

  • Joe

    This has more to do with honesty than anything else. Politicians, social conservative ones in particular, are held to a higher standard in their personal affairs because of how willing they are to condemn private, personal behavior as bad.

    Mick Jagger, as far as I know, has never spoke out about marital infidelity, or has even accepted a role that makes it expected for him to condemn it, such as aren’t-I-squeaky-clean Tiger Woods.

  • mjgeddes

    Seems to me artists are *expected* to thumb their noses at the mob, to cut against the grain so to speak. That’s a public display,’part of the show’ so to speak. As regards private moral behavor, I’d be interested in some stats. I suspect that on average artists are *more* moral, given that those associated with the liberal-arts tend to be more egalitarian.

    I hypothesize a 3-D ‘personality space’ with politicans/religious folk represented along one dimensional, business/libertarian folk on another dimension, and artistic folks on the third dimension. Let me call these three types of personality: Warriors, Tycoons and Wizards, respectively.

    Could each of the 3 types of personality be associated with a particular cognitive style? Lets assume a 3-D ‘rationality space’ representing a particular cognitive style.

    Warriors (political/religious folks) are more attracted to absolutes – I would expect them to gravitate to a style of thought favoring symbolic logic. So lets place ‘symbolic logic’ along our first rationality axis.

    Tycoons (business/libetarian folks) are more attracted to probabilistic logic.. tools which have a close link to economics after all, so its easy to put ‘Bayesian Inference’ along the second rationality axis.

    Wizards (artist folks) think in analogical terms -in terms of categorizing things, the link between the arts and categorization has been mentioned on this blog before. Thus, ‘Categorization’ represents the third rationality axis.

    I suggest that the greatest levels of arsehole-like behavior are seen in the warriors (political folks), whereas tycoons (libertarian folks) are nicer but still exhibit alarming amounts of arse-hole like behavior. Finally I suggest the wizards (artist folks) are actually nicest of all.

    Is there a natural hierarchy here? Could the cognitive style of wizards weilding analogical inference actually be more powerful than that of tycoons limited to only Bayesian inference? Beware Robin, before insulting the wizards! 😉

    • Buck Farmer

      I’d strip away the axis-to-profession identification and just examine the space. So many questions to answer…

      (1) Can these three modes of thought be separated in observation?
      (2) Can variation along an axis be understood much less measured? (What would the origin be? What does being far out along all axes mean? Is your metric space defined consistently across all axes?)
      (3) How much variation in the world is explicable through these axes versus another rotation or the space?
      (4) What’s the relationship between these thought-patterns and behavior, strategies, and outcomes?

      Personally, I find very very few people that use symbolic or probabilistic reasoning. Most people I know in business rely almost exclusively on analogy. My superiors actively avoid discussing either deduction or uncertainty in presentations to their superiors and peers. Instead they ideally find a simple and immediately understandable analogy in which the reasoning has already been done and can be applied without thought to the novel situation.

      This makes me think maybe these axes don’t provide a lot of explanatory power (because almost everyone is clustered along one axis).

      • mjgeddes

        Good questions. This is a relative space, not an absolute space, what matters is the ‘distance’ between people in this space, there is a consistent metric (similarity), so distance in rationality space measures the similarity between cognitive styles. Note: It’s similarity which is fundamental, not probability.

        Insofar as someone needs to communicate something, the optimal mode for that is analogical, so business folks become ‘artists’ or ‘performers’ when giving presentations or explaining results, but this doesn’t mean its their favored style.

    • I think the personality trait that determines whether you act like a dick is conscientiousness. I think that businessmen have a lot of it, even if tycoons don’t, and artists have the least.

  • We let beautiful women get away with more too. Sexually attractive people in general.

  • Jackson

    I can’t remember which book it was but I was reading an Economics book recently and it had a chapter devoted to pretty much this theme… the oversexed artist.

    I’ve kind of made a word up Poiesphobia (poiesis) – fear of the creative or artistic.
    I consider myself very creative and as a consequence I’ve notice how this can often subtly cause agitation in people (yes, of course it might be because I’m deluded… blah blah). It might as well be a pheromone… people are as sensitive to it as a shark to blood but they don’t wish to seem meanspirited so they are expert at skirting the issue. The fact is, creativity can be very disruptive in terms of social comparison, ranking, self esteem etc.

  • Kezia Kamenetz

    I think economists, business people and politicians are held to a higher moral standard because they have a position in society that gives them the power to exploit the public for their own selfish benefit. To have an extremely selfish economist, politician or business person could have directly negative consequences for society as a whole, so it makes sense for the public to judge these individuals as such.

    On the other hand, although I don’t think it’s impossible, most artists don’t have the power to exploit or dupe the public for their selfish benefit. Even someone like John Grisham, who you could arguably say only writes his novels for the money, is still bringing a lot of pleasure and enjoyment to his readers whenever he does so. Artists are judged by their creation, and whether or not it provides something of use to people on the whole. So, if art is created that brings enjoyment or satisfaction to others, it makes very little difference to the public whether or not the creator of that art was a moral person, which makes sense.

    Now if the issue you are trying to describe is that people tend to idolize the individuals whose art they appreciate the most, overlooking their moral failings, yes that is certainly true. But isn’t that true of anyone who makes a contribution to society that we enjoy/appreciate? Are artists really unique in this?

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  • Atavist

    An underappreciated component of moral motivation is its signaling function in the domain of long-term mate selection. It’s less rewarding to cut a good moral figure when your mating opportunities permit more self-indulgent behavior. See Geoffrey Miller on women’s preferences for creative men as short-term flings (and across the menstrual cycle), and Julia Pradel on how long-term, but not short-term, relationship desires predict people’s attraction to altruistic others.

  • shootfly

    Isn’t it a two-way street, though? Sure, the troubled artist is permitted to be more lax morally, but then the rest of us feel less of a compulsion to contribute to his welfare. The priest, to take this all the way to the other end of the spectrum as far as moral expectations go, has virtually zero leeway in his behavior, but if he needs a helping hand we are much more likely to help him out. So, yes, artists might be able to get away with more, but they don’t get that for free.