Can An Evil Person Be A Great Artist?

Pianist Stephen Hough lays out a doozy of a question on his blog this weekend: Can An Evil Person Be A Great Artist? and Is there a moral dimension to music?

This is one of my favourite debates, mostly because whenever an issue involving it surfaces like Hitler’s record collection or the NY Phil playing in North Korea last year the moral high ground gets very crowded with people screeching predictable but amusing things.

The following was originally posted as a comment on Stephen’s blog and is reposted here to further the discussion. It’s been tidied slightly for clarity

My thoughts on this issue are simple. Music in and of itself cannot have a moral dimension because a single moral dimension does not exist and also because an object cannot have morality.

Relative morality is an easy out these days with people almost allergic to judging the behaviour of others but the opposite -absolutism- is equally problematic. Even in issues such as murder there are varying opinions on what is wrong and what isn’t. Consider capital punishment is an obvious example.

Music can certainly be used for immoral purposes like torture or manipulation but that doesn’t make innately immoral any more than a steak knife is inherently bad because it is used to kill someone on occasion.

So, that brings us to people. I find it a terrible oversimplification to say that people are either all evil or all good. Even Hitler, our favorite person to demonize, had some redeeming qualities. I seem to remember reading that he was great fun at a party and Eva Braun must have seen something in him. While being a good laugh certainly doesn’t balance out his other more nefarious activities, writing another person off completely, no matter how depraved, doesn’t sit well.

Even if someone could be all evil, or at least 51%, that leaves the question of what is evil? On whose scale do we measure this?

If we allow that criminals are evil, how do we explain art forgers or William Barrington Coupe. In their own way, they are great artists. The forger may not be famous, but mimicking the real thing enough to go undetected by the experts is not just a weekend job.

Not-very-nice people can certainly produce great art. We’ve all heard the stories of tantrums, meanness, prejudice and misogyny, so it is only logical that great artists exist on all parts of the morality Bell curve just as mechanics and barbers do.

And finally, maybe the art quote unquote evil people spend energy creating keeps them from doing additional evil things.

If Hitler had got into art school, who knows how things might have turned out.

What are your thoughts?

1 comment

  1. you

    hitler used to be an artist.

    eva braun saw evil in him. she was evil as well.

    art forgers are not evil, it’s a bad thing to do but not on the scale of hitler.

    ever read phantom of the opera?

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