On Art and Artists, or Leave Taylor Alone!

On Saturday I was in Manhattan visiting my older daughter and we saw Jackie Hoffman on the street. (You know, the annoying co-op board lady in Only Murders in the Building!)

We talked about how she has pretty much the perfect level of celebrity, because if anyone approaches her, it’ll likely be with a compliment, and it’s not like she can’t go to Trader Joe’s for fear of being mobbed by fans next to whatever yuzu-related product they’ve just released.

My daughter then told me that fans consistently stake out Taylor Swift’s home in Manhattan, hoping for…a glimpse? Maybe?

Why do we do this? What is it that we hope celebrities, and artists in particular, can give us?

I think there are a few different motivations. One is simply that most of us feel disposable in some way (thanks, capitalism!), and so if we can be in proximity to someone who matters in this society, maybe we, by proxy, can matter too!

Or perhaps we just want to, on some level, thank them for their art which has meant something to us. This is what I did when I met Judy Blume. I could tell that she would have much rather had a normal conversation instead of me thanking her profusely for her work, but she was very kind and gracious about it.

Or we have a weird parasocial relationship with them, and because we know so much about them from their work and from social media and gossip sites, we can delude ourselves into thinking this is a two-way relationship.

Or, finally, and most disturbingly, we want more. They have seen into our hearts with their lyrics. They have given voice to feelings we had but never knew how to express. And then we want more. Romance? Friendship? Or just to be as memorable to them as they are to us?

But here’s the thing about artists: their work is what we get. We’re not entitled to anything else from them. What’s more, their art represents the best part of them. Whatever else you could possibly get from them couldn’t measure up.

Lemme give you an example. I saw a clip of Joey Ramone from MTVs 120 minutes in the early 90’s, and they asked him about Husker Du. He said he’d always thought that they were a Ramones ripoff band, but “I guess Bob Mould is a talented guy.”

In short, he was, in this instance anyway, a dick. (Also—Husker Du a Ramones ripoff band? I wanted to reach into the past and say, “Either you don’t know what they do or you don’t know what you do, or possibly both!”) This was disappointing, but it doesn’t ruin, say, “My-my Kind of a Girl” for me. Many of his songs reveal a charming sweetness and vulnerability. But maybe that’s the only place in his life where he let those qualities out. (Or maybe he was just having a bad night on MTV).

There are plenty of other examples. Even if Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole, there’s no question that he was one. The fact that someone made art that touched you doesn’t make them a good or kind person.

Which brings me to separating the art from the artist. I think we can, and we have to. We don’t have to admire Frank Sinatra as a human being to admire his astounding vocal performance on “In the Wee Small Hours”. We don’t have to want to hang out with Jack White to enjoy “We Are Going to be Friends.”

In fact, I think it’s a mistake to write off a person’s art because of their personal behavior. We’re all complicated and flawed, and I think we all hope that people will remember the best of us. Art is what allows us to connect with other people, and for many people, it’s the best, noblest, kindest thing they’re capable of. I think we all hope people will remember us at our best and overlook our worst, and I think artists deserve the same.

Three caveats:

Sometimes a person does something so evil that it erases any appreciation you can have for their art. Fair enough. This is why we don’t pay attention to Hitler’s paintings. I guess I’m talking about regular dickishness rather than true evil. (I recognize that this is a VERY fuzzy line and is probably different for everyone.)

Sometimes revelations about an artist’s life will make you see things in their art that ruin it for you. I can still listen to most Michael Jackson songs, but it makes me physically ill to hear him sing that he wants to love a pretty young thing. When Morrissey asks how he can smile at people who he’d much rather kick in the eye, I now can’t help wondering if he means Black people.

Also, if you’re financially supporting an artist who is using their money to actively do harm in the world, like R. Kelly before he was convicted, or J.K. Rowling now, then I’d suggest maybe you should spend your money elsewhere.

Otherwise, lets appreciate the art we get from artists and not expect or demand anything more.