Over the past few years there has been an increasing tendency to look harshly at the art of monsters. We have found our appreciation of Bill Cosby’s calls for decorum to younger comedians and his family friendly entertainment like the Cosby Show dimmed by the reality of his repeated use of quaaludes to take advantage of women. We have found that our appreciation of Phil Spector’s wall of sound does not prevent us from being horrified by his murder of an actress. We have explored the fact that people like John Lennon and plenty of others were simply not very good people, and that some people who might be thought of as historical victims in one sense were also monstrous in other senses. There are salutary benefits to this, of course. It would be wise if we did not idolize those people who created art that we happen to enjoy, because the relationship between art that we can appreciate on various grounds and our moral approval of the people who create that art does not need to be related at all. Good people can create good art, bad people can create good art, good people can create bad art, and bad people can create bad art. As a firm believer in absolute moral standards that are external to the human beings who apply these standards to themselves and others, I recognize that while our taste in art has a lot of subjective elements, there are also objectively good or evil elements, however complicated they may be by the issue of framing and context.
Nevertheless, with all that complexity and nuance taken into account, we still must account for the fact that a great deal of the art that we have in this world in the past and present and likely the future as well will have been created by monsters. This is not pleasant to deal with. For some people, the fact that a creative person was monstrous means that they have no respect at all for the person nor any desire to appreciate the art, on the feeling that to honor the art of monsters is to give undue honor to the monsters themselves. This negativity continues when we look at the deeds of people done in the past. A great many people cannot respect the founding fathers of the United States because many of them owned slaves and were thus hypocritical about seeking the rights and freedoms of all, to say nothing of their behavior towards America’s indigenous people or their views about women or other matters. Indeed, the belief that people cannot respect those whose views and perspectives are judged as retrograde in some fashion has greatly harmed our ability to respect people with different beliefs here and now, with rather catastrophic results when it comes to our own unity as a society and our own internal harmony.
What is generally missing when we look down upon the people of the past (or those people of the present we view as being beneath contempt) is self-knowledge. To say that we cannot respect other people and their deeds, including their art and other achievements, because they are monsters is to believe that we can stand in judgement of them as monsters. We may say that we are not rapists, we are not murderers, we are not kidnappers, and look down on others from the viewpoint of superiority. Yet if we have self-knowledge, we will have no grounds to look down on others. Do we wish harm on our rivals and enemies, even if it is only for the offense of being too slow of a driver on the road or holding different political beliefs? Do we long to use such authority as we possess to speak and do evil to others, to deny them their rights as human beings and to seek to prevent them from being heard by those who approve of them? A great many of those who fancy themselves open-minded and tolerant individuals show no tolerance at all to those who think or believe differently to themselves. Hypocrisy is rife among us because we judge others for that which we are guilty of ourselves. We grant ourselves justifications for our behavior that we deny to those whose sins and faults we judge despite having those same faults ourselves in abundance.
The biggest problem with our view of the art of monsters is that our abhorrence of the monsters whose art we wish to cancel and which we abhor is not tempered by our awareness that we are ourselves monsters as well. One of the greatest certainties of contemporary existence is that we behave in ways that will be abhorred by future generations. They will look at our bloodthirsty political rhetoric, at our hypocrisy of claiming to seek life and peace while slaying the innocent unborn and will cast scorn on our corrupt decadence. We, of course, will not be there to defend ourselves from the contempt that future generations heap towards us, just as previous generations cannot defend themselves from our own piercing of their sanctimonious and self-serving hypocrisies. We will be judged by the verdict of history without being able to sway the judges with our pleadings of the burdens that we were under or a desire to have our blind spots viewed with charity. But it will be all the worse for us because we were not charitable to others, and so will have no grounds to seek mercy for ourselves. It is only when we stare into the abyss within and face the sort of monsters that we could very easily be or become given the right circumstances that we can be fit to judge others for their monstrosity, because our judgment will be tempered by mercy knowing ourselves capable of being viewed as monsters ourselves by others. It is not merely that art is created by monsters, but that it is appreciated and judged by monsters as well. For which of us is without sin in the darkest recesses of our dark hearts and polluted minds?