talent ≠ character

In the wake of the John Galliano incident, I spent way too much time procrastinating regarding my own writing by reading comments about JG and getting depressed. First, it shouldn’t, but it surprised me how many people were willing to overlook and make excuses for his ugly remarks or not understand how he could hold those views in light of his talent. Seriously?

That’s like saying, “You make pretty dresses (books, music, art, etc) so you must be all pretty inside too.”

Then there were those who eviscerated Mel Gibson and somehow thought this was different. Um, no. Whatever your political, sexual or faith orientation, a bigot is a bigot. Blaming it on his inebriation? Mental illness? Come on. Try lack of character. Lack of good character. Just because someone writes great music or novels or designs or acts well, doesn’t mean anything about what kind of person they are. I’m not sure how this fairy tale took root in our culture (lots of blame to go around including the Romantics to Hollywood movies), but it’s demonstrably wrong. Coco Chanel: compelling rags to riches story, iconic designs and she was not only a Nazi sympathizer but collaborator and notorious anti-Semite. Wagner, another anti-Semite, yet his music has endured. Others are blogging about this and noting the difference between the art and the artist.

And I’m not alone in thinking about what Woody Allen said: “People worship talent and it’s so ridiculous. Talent is something you’re born with, like Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] is born tall. That’s why so many talented people are sh*theels.”                         …and then he married his step-daughter.

So once again, talent does not equal good character. Fame does not equal good character.

It is, however, a worthwhile endeavor to improve your own character as your improve your writing (or other art) because you do not have to be an unhappy, miserable jerk to create something wonderful and worthwhile…or controversial. Truly controversial, not merely shocking. I know plenty of now-sober writers whose decision to set aside the bottle or needle has no doubt extended their years to work, improved the quality of their life and relationships, and given them the clarity we all need to create art that creates connection.

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4 thoughts on “talent ≠ character

  1. Your post reminded me of Ingmar Bergman’s movie, “Persona.”

    In case you haven’t seen it, it’s about a live-in psychiatric nurse that cares for a famous actress who went catatonic during a performance of her latest play.
    The two women retire to a seaside home that the actress owns, because her doctors felt the isolation, coupled with her nurse’s constant care, would help bring her back.
    The actress is functional in every way, she just has this mental block that keeps her from speaking.
    Throughout the film, Liv Ullman (who plays the actress) most express the entirety of her character through body language — body language alone.
    There is very little in the way of overt violence, but much psychological grief dished out, with the nurse at the receiving end, obviously. The actress is cold and aloof and often abusive.

    At one point, when things are coming to a head, the nurse tells the actress, “I used to think that a great artist also had to be a great person. Now I realize it is not so.”

    We’re all good & bad, and we’re all perfectible.
    While I don’t want to exculpate anyone, artists deal with lots of unwelcome pressure, especially the high-flyers. Some are centered and stable, their egos secure. Others are corruptible, in a manner of speaking. They may be very good at something or other, but they’re still human, they can still fail.

    If life has taught me anything, it’s that people often hold silly opinions for silly reasons. When they air such opinions, yes, they will often sound petty and cruel.

    What does this say about art, art of any kind? That it is cathartic and transcendent, but not necessarily moral. Not the way we would like it to be. Talent doesn’t make you a good person and, unfortunately, you can be very talented yet live without a conscience.

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