Art Made by A**holes


What would you do if you spent an hour in an art gallery, found an exhibition of work that astounded you, moved you, made you laugh and cry and think so hard that you were exhausted and elated by the time you’d seen all the pieces … and a week later you found out that the artist was a chauvinist jerk, or a misogynist, or guilty of sexual harassment? Can you still admire the man’s work? Or has everything he’s done as an artist become so tainted that it’s no longer worthy of a spot in the gallery?

Can you still enjoy a Harvey Weinstein film? A Woody Allen film? The work of Dustin Hoffman? Kevin Spacey? Bill Cosby?

It’s weird, isn’t it? The curtain gets pulled back and people we may have thought highly of turn out to be assholes. Or worse. Maybe they’re assaulters. Rapists.

Still, there’s this body of work out there: movies we love, television shows we love, albums we love, books we love. Has it all become shit in light of the moral failures of these men (let’s face it, it’s mostly men doing the harassing)? Does it depend on how great the failure is? Is there a scale?

While I would never, never, never attempt to in ANY way excuse these moral failings/crimes, I think there are issues here worth exploring before we simply relegate all of these creative works to the entertainment trash bin of history.

It almost seems a given that men who are driven to seek fame have intense power issues. And once they achieve it, once the adulation starts to puff up their egos, rises them to “rock star” status, is it really a surprise that they abuse their celebrity? Especially if they start getting treated like little gods who can do no wrong. Power corrupts, as we know.

Even folks we might be tempted to valorize can fall mightily. Right, Bill Clinton? JFK? MLK? Here’s your power and … whoops, you abused it. Whaddaya know? It takes a strong man indeed to react with restraint, remain faithful to his wife, when he has scores of young, beautiful women falling at his feet. (In Weinstein’s case–and others’ who are guilty of assholery–they weren’t “falling at his feet,” but rather they were vulnerable in the shadow of his perceived power.) The onus of responsible, moral choice remains on the man, clearly, but I don’t think it’s a great shock that the area of sex and sexual attraction is an Achilles heel for most men. Kingdoms, literally, have fallen.

Was it a mistake for us to have supposed these beloved (by many) figures were particularly good, decent, moral men? It seems pretty safe to assume that a fair amount of the art we enjoy is being made by assholes of varying degrees … but, in many cases, we just don’t know it. No doubt, there are authors of great works of literature written long ago who we will never know were abusive jackoffs.

We now live in an age where it’s getting harder and harder to have secrets. Hell, ya can’t even run a stoplight at 3 a.m. without some damn camera taking your picture. Phones with cameras are everywhere. News spreads Twitter-fast. And, while men still have way too much institutional power, the voices of women are, more and more, being heard, respected, and believed. Men can’t just dismiss women as “hysterical” and get away with a wink and a nod. These are all good things (except the red-light cameras) for most of us, but not so good for men who believe they ought to be able to behave badly and never be held to account.

The #MeToo movement is a hopeful sign of our times.

We’re likely at a cultural turning point. More and more diversity (of race, gender, and sexual orientation) in our world means ever-more diversity in our businesses, politics, and art. Sexism, racism, homophobia, ageism … these ideas have been falling out of favor in the wider world for decades and this will probably only accelerate. The kinds of values and attitudes that helped “create” men who thought they could touch any woman or girl they wanted because of their status as an actor or director or artist or politician are ever-diminishing. This, too, is all to the good. As it should be.

But we still have the creative legacies of many fucked-up men; quite an archive of art made by assholes that’s unlikely to disappear in its entirety any time soon.

Films are not singular efforts. Weinstein may be an unforgivable monster, but if writers and actors and directors have made something memorable that happens to bear his name … do we refuse to watch it? Do we never watch “Rain Man,” or “Kramer vs Kramer,” or “The Graduate” again?

Tell me, where’s the line for you? How bad can a man behave and yet you are still able to admire the body of work he leaves behind? Is there a way in which you would feel comfortable separating the jerk from his work?

Dear Mr. Spong

I have a feeling I’d like you if we met. Perhaps we’d chat over a cold beverage (something imported, let’s say from Holland). We’d talk about life and death and spirituality and science and man’s search for meaning.

Since that’s a very unlikely proposition, I am instead writing this letter that you’ll never read. Because I can.


You, sir, I will necessarily concede, are a whole lot smarter than I am. Your level of formal education far exceeds mine, as does your extensive life-experience and study. The accomplishments of your career are significant and impressive. I would have no prayer of winning a philosophical argument with you, and I’d probably hesitate to try if I were in your presence. I’m sure a lengthy talk with you would be fascinating, enlightening, and a pleasure for me.

But, since you aren’t here to gently decimate my arguments, I am going to argue with you. In a friendly, respectful way. I hope you don’t mind.

At the beginning of your book, Eternal Life: a New Vision, you go very much out of your way to convince the reader how plainly obvious it is that we (humans) are a product of many accidental events.

I have to propose that this is not plain at all. I have to suggest that there is an entirely different way to view our arrival on planet Earth … as quite dramatically and irrevocably inevitable.

It’s not that complicated an argument, really. It can’t be. Because, like I said, I’m not that smart.

Let’s start with a simple illustration.

Suppose Billy bats a baseball intended to land somewhere in the vicinity of his friend, Tommy (presumably so that Tommy might catch the ball and throw it back). However, when bat and ball meet, the ball’s trajectory sends it flying into and through Billy’s neighbor’s (Mr. Johnson’s) living room window.

As it turns out, Mr. Johnson is a very reasonable fellow and, when he catches up with Billy and Tommy (who have run off out of sheer terror), he assures them he is not mad and only wants them to talk to their parents and get the window fixed. More interestingly, Mr. Johnson excitedly invites them over to his house to take a look at something he tells them is, “Really quite spectacular.” That something is the hole left in his window by the ball. As they stand before it, the boys’ mouths drop in amazement.

The hole in the shattered glass looks precisely like the profile of Abraham Lincoln’s head and torso. Uncanny. Beyond improbable. A freak accident if there ever was one.

Or is it?

Yes, you might make a lengthy, complicated argument stating that any of countless, tiny adjustments in Tommy’s throw, Billy’s swing, the wind, the ball, the bat, the curvature of the Earth (you get the idea) … and that hole would have looked like any other random hole in a glass window. And you would be right.


Your point is moot. All of the circumstances and nuances of nature and that moment were exactly what they were. And, from the beginning of time, that outcome—the one that left an Abe Lincoln-shaped hole in Mr. Johnson’s living room window—was absolutely unalterable and completely certain. Put another way: because that event did happen, it had to happen.

Now, apply this notion to humanity’s rise from amoeba to ascendance.

All those events, those “accidents” you describe so eloquently? That infinitely dense ball of matter (the “cosmic zygote,” if you will), the arrival of one-celled living things, sea-life making its way to land, the fall of the dinosaur, the evolution of a primate to modern man? Because those things did happen, they had to happen.

Again, yes, I know, if the sun were in another position, if the dinosaurs hadn’t been wiped out …

But this is conjecture on what might have been, nothing more. It’s like arguing that the team that won the Super Bowl would not have won if only Quincy the Quarterback hadn’t thrown that boneheaded interception in the fourth quarter. (He did. It’s done. Get over it.)

The fact is that, hyper-complex cosmic circumstances being what they were, mankind was most assuredly inevitable. You, dear Mr. Spong, were inevitable. Precisely you. Exactly as you are, with your height and eye color and hair color and temperament and potential for intellect. You had to be born. As did I. And my neighbors, and their ill-tempered wiener dog, Puddin’.

This doesn’t necessitate God in any way. Ours may indeed be a purely material world. Blind matter, and a universe without intention, making absolutely sure that you and I (and all our ancestors) came into existence. Conditions being what they were, we couldn’t not happen.

And yet. No. I don’t buy the random non-intention of that scenario. Not really. Maybe that’s the truth of things. But it sounds wrong, doesn’t it? There’s a cause and effect problem of epic proportion there, in my estimation.

And this is where I invoke God. Not because I can prove God. I can’t. No one can. But I would suggest that the idea of God is (at the very least) no more absurd than mindless matter incrementally building the human mind, leading to consciousness and ultimately self-consciousness. The cosmic zygote came from … where again? Exactly. You don’t know. No one does.

You pick your unlikely conclusion. I’ll pick mine.

Religion is a different matter. I’m not talking about religious ideas of God (that would be a separate and more dubious undertaking, though I certainly have my beliefs); I’m talking about God as the uncaused cause, the unmoved mover. The one utterly inexplicable, irrational, incomprehensible thing that explains everything else. Here at least, as crazy as the notion may sound to some, the cause is sufficient to produce the effect. In a purely material creation you have to have a virtually infinite string of inexplicable materials and events where the spinning of spontaneously-appearing inanimate particles leads to living beings who contemplate their mortality, write poetry, compose symphonies, transplant vital organs, and build ships that carry them into outer space; beings who sing and dance, laugh and weep, hope and despair, love and hate, create and destroy. Fascinating accident, indeed.

Or is it?

Book Review: “His Dark Materials” by Philip Pullman


His Dark Materials
Author: Philip Pullman
Publisher: Random House

Frodo Baggins, tormented by the lure of the One Ring, battles within himself to find the will to destroy it. Mere feet from the fires of Mount Doom, he is under attack both by Gollum and his own intense desire to possess the ring’s power. As a reader I am totally absorbed by Frodo’s drama. I must find out what happens next. Tolkein has me.

Paul Atreides prepares to sink hooks into the great sandworm, to ride it across the deserts of Arrakis, ready to lead the Fremen warriors into battle for control of spice and the future of Dune. I can’t put the book down. Herbert has me.

I devoured the Dune trilogy and the Lord of the Rings trilogy when I discovered them many years ago. Wonderful books they were, and seminal in the maturing of my love for both reading and writing. I did not care what J. R. R. Tolkein believed or didn’t believe. I didn’t care if Frank Herbert was an atheist or a Zoroasterian. If these authors had an agenda, an ulterior motive, a political or religious point to make with their novels, it was of no consequence to me. I loved their stories. They entertained me for countless hours, yes, but they also made me think, laugh, cry, and hunger for the next opportunity to spend time in the worlds and lives of complex, fascinating characters caught up in epic struggles.

On to His Dark Materials.

If you want to ride on the back of an armored ice bear, if you want to wield special tools to divine truth and slice into parallel worlds, if you want to step into the land of the dead to see if two strong-willed children can free their young friend’s ghost … then you won’t really care that Phillip Pullman, the author of the His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass), is somewhere between an atheist and an agnostic on the religious scale.

Pullman’s made no secret that he is anti organized religion. It’s not hard to see the subtext in these stories. He would love to convince you that the church is utterly rotten and that Christianity’s God is an unfortunate but powerful myth best shed in favor of more reliable scientific and human truths.

But these works by Pullman—like the works of Tolkein, Herbert, and C. S. Lewis—are magnificent stories, well told. To refuse to read them simply because you don’t care for the author’s religious views is to rob yourself of the immense pleasure derived from reading exceptional, compelling, and often poetic prose.

I loved these stories. It’s been years since I’ve been so gripped by a novel, much less three novels. Pullman had me, no question.

I didn’t become a non-believer upon completing the series. If anything, I saw a whole lot of ways in which Pullman’s created world cries out for a sane, just, moral center and even a hopeful afterlife. I saw Pullman’s longing for the triumph of the good and the right, despite his disdain for religion.

This trilogy is not perfect. In places it is convoluted, confusing and maybe even a little oppressive. But, mostly, it’s a great adventure and a great read.

Jim Wormington