They compose masterpieces that light up our lives, paint pictures that capture the spirit of their time, and chisel out vibrant icons from lifeless stone. Great artists enrich our lives and fill them with emotion and wonder. Yet, some great artists were (and are) nasty individuals. Composer Richard Wagner was a rabid antisemite. Of the seven main women in Pablo Picasso’s life, two went mad and two killed themselves. Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary, paid for sex with boys, and novelist Norman Mailer once tried to kill one of his wives. In fact, there are enough examples of obnoxious artists to make us expect them to be nasty rather than the contrary.
Indeed, there is no reason why creative people should be more “righteous” than the rest of us. Art and morality have nothing to do with each other, and if we expect them to be, it is our mistake.
Creative people, who are exceptional by their very nature, are even more prone to moral flaws than the rest of us. Their highs are higher than ours, and their lows are lower than ours. They move between extremes but in the end, they are the same as all of us: self-centered individuals.
We all contain both the highest, most noble feelings and thoughts, and the lowest, most despicable ones. Only when we recognize what we have within us can we grow. If we have only one side of the scale, we will never know the other side and will not be able to choose between them. We will be robots and not human beings.
King Solomon said about this, “There is not a righteous man on earth who does good and did not sin” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). In other words, only when we discover our true nature can we make a conscious choice to be good, and that is what makes us righteous people rather than robots.
Until we are corrected, everything we do is for ourselves. Artists are no exception, yet this does not diminish the greatness of their works. Because they go to extremes, when they are high, they create truly glorious works that we can all enjoy. Nevertheless, we should not expect them to be corrected in their personal lives because they, too, will have to go through the same process of realizing the wickedness of human nature and resolving to rise above it.
At some point, we will all have to reckon with our nature and acknowledge the harm we are inflicting on each other and on all of nature. We will realize that in order to survive, we must become more of the righteous and less of the wicked that we tend to be. But in the meantime, we can benefit from the works of great artists, and if they make us reflect on life and its meaning, it is all the better.
Pablo Picasso at his studio on Rue Des Grands Augustins in Paris circa 1950s