Adam-Troy Castro recently kicked off an interesting discussion regarding the connect / disconnect between artists and their works. It’s an ancient debate: How much of the artist’s personal behavior impacts the quality of the art? How good does art have to be to justify being enjoyed separate from knowledge of the artist?
There are a lot of artists out there with truly shitty behavior. Not just cranky / snarky / hit-the-bottle-too-much behavior but murder, betrayal, treason, bigotry, genocide, etc., etc., and of course, etc.
And there’s no one-size-fits-all pat answer. You tell me Jerry Lee Lewis acts like a loon, married an underage teen cousin, knocks back pills and booze like nobody’s business, discharges firearms recklessly, says stupid and outrageous things, well…yeah…that’s what he does.
You listen to his music, you’re listening to the work of a madman. You’re not shocked that his kind of music comes from that kind of person.
That’s his brand.
And, yeah, I know a lot of people roll their eyes at the term “brand” thinking it’s just Madison Avenue jargon but there is validity to the concept. Your “brand” is how the public perceives you; it’s different from a reputation which is a personal evaluation about you. A lot of people with crazy balls-to-the-walls brands have reputations as trustworthy individuals because behind their brand they are professionals who honor commitments and show up on time and do what they promise. You can trash a lot of hotel rooms if they know you’ll make the show the next night.
When Jerry Lee’s first cousin televangelist Jimmy Lee Swaggert gets caught again and again consorting with prostitutes, well, Jimmy takes a hit while Jerry gets a pass.
Jimmy’s brand was undermined by his personal behavior.
Now, none of this is to excuse bad behavior, but if you’re planning a career for yourself, plan one with the largest sandbox to play in. Fred Rogers had a long and honorable career because he never deviated from the Mr. Rogers brand; he was happy inside that particular sandbox and it served him well.
But if you decide to get in a Mr. Rogers-size sandbox, you can’t suddenly hop out and run over to the Jerry Lee Lewis sandbox to play.
If you want to play in both boxes you can, but you have to establish yourself in advance as the sort of person who can play in both boxes.
Bill Cosby and Woody Allen have specifically built careers on either being staunch moralists or in asking probing questions about morality. By the very nature of their subject matter, their work and their lives were inextricably intertwined. Egregious bad behavior raises legitimate questions about how valid their observations are.
In Cosby's case, an apparent long career as a serial rapist draws into question the legitimacy of all the morality expressed in the Fat Albert and Cosby Show episodes; those programs often take on a creepy tone now in their new context. In Allen's case, having neither the self-restraint nor the common sense to avoid entering into a relationship that was certain to have a devastating impact on many peoples’ lives makes one wonder if Allen ever really meant anything he said in his films, or if it was all posturing to suck in a specific type of audience.
To Allen’s partial defense, he repeatedly warned people he was not the person he appeared to be, that he harbored deep and vile secret thoughts, and that he was capable of terrible behavior. The problem was those things were always said in the context of a self-depreciating interview in which Allen joked about other aspects of his life: His audience did not take his statements seriously.
It’s like having a friend come over to your house and jokingly say, “Lock up your silverware because otherwise I’ll steal it” and you laugh and have a good time while they’re visiting and the moment they’re gone you realize your silverware is missing.
“Well, I told you I was going to steal it!”
Yes, but not in a way that anyone truly believed.
There are writers -- Charles Bukowski or Jack Kerouac or William S. Burroughs -- who are far more open and honest than Allen ever was with their personal lives. We can appreciate the beatific words from their typewriters because they have acknowledged their sins and shortcomings and have said their work is an attempt to reconcile their demons with their angelic longings.
It’s not a new phenomenon. Google Lewis Carroll or Charles Dickens and scope out their pretty egregious bad behavior. In both cases it was widely known at the time, but never brought to the public’s attention in a manner that affected their sales (though for Carroll it ultimately cost him much socially).
They needed that social hypocrisy in order to present a brand for one thing while indulging in behavior that completely undercut what they became publicly associated with.
In Dickens’ case, what he wrote is now seen as a window into the past, not necessarily as something with exact applications today. In Carroll’s case, as too often the case for other fairy tales as well, what he wrote has been whitewashed and divorced from its original purpose and context.
Conversely, Mary Wollstonecraft used her notoriety to gain an audience for Frankenstein and her other works, including her political writings.
Ironically, that gave her freedom she probably wouldn’t have found had she not been associated with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron.
Back to the question at hand: When and how to judge the work in relation to the artist?
Again, no easy answers. There are times and circumstances when many crimes can be forgiven in the light of one transcendent moment, there are others when an entire oeuvre should be cast aside.
Ultimately, we have to judge our decisions on what to keep or discard by what we are.
 Holy #%@$! That fncker’s 80 years old and still touring!!! Geeze, with six sets of alimony payments I guess he has to.
 That blade cuts both ways. If you wrote speeches for Ku Klux Klan leaders and other white supremacists and do not have a public come-to-Jesus moment where you denounce your past, don’t expect the book you write about Native American spirituality under a Native American pen name to stay on anyone’s must-read list no matter how good the contents may be viz The Education Of Little Tree. Likewise if you claim to have a tragic past as a hard-scrabble street thug and dope addict but turned yourself around, then you better have a rap sheet to back it up, viz A Million Little Pieces.
 Burroughs in particular. Long before he burst into mainstream attention, he was one of many early beats who led a reckless bohemian lifestyle. He killed his wife Joan Vollmer, herself a young poet in the beat movement of the early 1950s, in a drunken William Tell game at a party; she put a cup on her head for him to pick off with a pistol shot and he blew her brains out. That the horror and guilt and self-loathing at what he had done forever changed him and ultimately set him on his path as a writer is a valid observation, nonetheless Vollmer’s death is too often treated as a footnote to his success and not a monumental tragedy in her own right.
 It’s not always bad behavior that undercuts one’s brand. Too many clowns die tragic deaths, Robin Williams being among the most recent. For him a lifetime of severe depression was held at bay by the brand of a zany comedian; after establishing himself with that brand he expanded on it (but never truly left it) by veering off into comedy drama, then drama with humor, and finally straight drama. We can look back now and see the arc of his illness in how his brand shifted and expanded. Because he successfully expanded his brand towards the end, Williams will live on in the public memory a lot longer than others who just presented their manic side to the world until their demons caught up with them. Williams is tragic, they’re just sad.