A Portrait of the Artist as an Asshole
As a bit of tangential discussion to this entry, I’d like to address the topic of creative people being assholes.
1. Some creative people are assholes. This is for whatever value of “asshole” you use, because what makes someone an asshole is a somewhat subjective thing — like pornography, we tend to know it when we see it. Some creative people are assholes because “creative people” is a subset of “people,” and some people are just assholes, independent of their chosen line of work. There are asshole cops, asshole laywers, asshole doctors, asshole grocery checkout people, asshole presidents, asshole postal workers, asshole baristas, etc.
Additionally, everyone’s occasionally an asshole, because people are fallible. If you have a reputation as an asshole, it’s probably because you’re often visibly an asshole to others and/or when your being an asshole is pointed out to you, you tend to see it as a feature rather than a bug. Be that as it may, everyone’s an asshole once in a while, and has the potential to be an asshole more often than that. Trying not to be an asshole all the time is usually a good thing to work toward.
Finally, some people will think you’re an asshole no matter who you are or what you do. Sometimes they may be right! But other times you may have done nothing other than exist. Honestly, just about the only person in the entire world I have never heard of someone speaking ill toward is Fred Rogers, and I’m sure there’s someone out there who thinks even he was kind of an asshole (please note that if you actually believe Mr. Rogers was an asshole, you’re almost certainly an asshole yourself and should seek help for that).
That some creative people are assholes should not be news. However:
2. Most creative people who are assholes are assholes independent of their creative drive. It’s correlation, not causation. There are the rare individuals who find specifically within their assholishness a deep and abiding wellspring of creativity, because creativity is a mysterious thing. Their numbers are fewer than you would think. For most creative folks, the foundation of their creativity lies elsewhere than in the impulse to attack or belittle or to jump on other people.
Now, there are times when someone will use creativity to amplify their assholishness, because creativity is their tool, or weapon, against other people, and besides it’s often enjoyable, at least in the short term, to take a punch at someone. This is especially the case if that creative person, like any number of creative people, has a cheering section out there in the ether. But using creativity as a tool for being an asshole is different from one’s creativity being forged out of that particular aspect of one’s make up. Most people who are creative are still creative when they are not actively being assholes to someone else.
3. Art does not justify being an asshole to others. The first of those is a thing one creates or does. The second of those is who one is to others. Again, these are largely entirely separate things. One can create gorgeous things, but if one is also an asshole, it’s fair for people to say “that dude’s an asshole, and I don’t care how well he creates, I’m not going to support his work.” There will be people who don’t care (or care, but not enough to stop consuming the work), and that’s fine, too. But at the end of the day the artist has to live with themself, and may want other people to live with them, too. In which case curbing the impulse to be an asshole might be a thing they want to consider. Very few people will tolerate living with an asshole for long.
But censorship! I hear some of you cry. If you can’t be an asshole, you limit your options as a creator. Well, no:
4. Creating challenging/controversial art is (usually) separate from being an asshole to people. Which is to say that an artist and creator should have the right to question, to provoke and to upend assumptions in their work, and to follow the muse wherever the muse goes. When the work gets out there, the rest of the world has their say. How the creator responds to the criticism is a largely separate thing.
And yeah, it can be tricky, which is a really polite euphemism for it. Also, yes: sometimes a creator cluelessly blunders into a controversy they did not intend and has no idea how to respond to when it happens, and as a result makes a few asshole moves. Welcome to the modern world, where such things occur. It’s time to recognize that is part of the landscape.
Criticism is often really hard for creative folks to take — and can be especially so when the criticism is about something the creator wasn’t expecting (or may not have even known about prior to the criticism). If you don’t know the landscape of a particular field or line of criticism, it can also seem unfair. All of this raises the chance of the creator flubbing the response.
Does this mean creators should muzzle themselves? No. They should do the work they want to do. It does mean they should be aware of the world into which their work is released. They should be prepared for criticism, and should be aware the criticism may not be what they expect. That criticism may or may not have an influence on their future work, as the case may be.
(Mind you, sometimes creators do make something specifically to antagonize others — they know what they’re getting into with that.)
5. A creator’s audience is not always their friend, when it comes to the asshole thing. I’m not gonna lie — it’s fun to have a cheering section, i.e., a group of fans who enjoy you as a public personality as much as they admire you as a creator, and who enjoy your adventures and pump their fists wildly as you go into battle against… well, whomever it is you’re going into battle against, for whatever reason you go into battle. They can be relied on to have your back, to tell you it’s the other guy who is the asshole, and to say and do all the things that let you rationalize being a jerk to someone else, or a whole group of someone else’s, or whatever.
The thing creators have to remember is that to a very real extent they are fictional characters to their fans — and that what fans want (the product they like, they way they like it, served up by someone who they often see as being just like them, only more interesting/exciting/successful/etc) isn’t always going to conform to what they actually need in their lives. Additionally, fans will construct narratives to justify whatever behavior a creator dishes up… as long as the end result is more of what they want. Enabling! It’s a thing.
In the real world, however, and being an asshole can have ramifications in one’s career and in the day-to-day personal life of the creator. A fan can make the argument that decades from now, no one will care whether you were an asshole or not. The thing is creators live today, and today being an asshole can make a big difference in your creative life. It can restrict opportunities. It can keep people from working with you or buying what you create. It can make people who care about you move away from you, because you are intolerable to be with.
Creators are actual live people. The lives they lead matter, both to them, and ultimately to the sort of work they will create, by which they will presumably be judged.
(Also, you know what? Decades from now, maybe they will care that you were an asshole. We have no control over how posterity perceives us; it’s always in flux. And at the end of the day, if you leave a long paper and/or electronic trail of your being a complete asshole to people, then there’s a pretty good chance that’s going down on your permanent record.)