Asking artists to take a look at the ‘man in the mirror’

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By Aidan Thompson, Director of Strategic Initiatives
The Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues, University of Birmingham

Can an artist produce ‘good’ art and not be a ‘good’ person? Does it matter whether they are ‘good’ or not? Are the definitions of ‘good’ even comparable? And who gets to determine what ‘good’ means?

Definitions of ‘art’ date back to classical periods, with Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates all differing on their approaches to art. However, there has generally been an accepted consensus that art is the product of creative activities that express an artist’s imaginative, technical, or conceptual ideas.

Art is subjective, at least in terms of the audience experience. Such experience is often referred to as an ‘aesthetic experience’. A person may value the plays of Shakespeare and dismiss the music of Mozart, whilst another can prefer reading the works of Chaucer, but would not listen to the Beatles. However, there are accepted, albeit often contested, standards by which a piece of art is accepted as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ that go beyond mere personal taste. Works of art are usually intended to be appreciated for their aesthetic merits, rather than their moral value (see for example Kennick, 1979; Levinson, 1998).

While art critics judge a work of art by its own merits, the audience may be influenced by the artist as a person. The recent examples in music involving allegations of misconduct and mistreatment by Michael Jackson, R. Kelly and Ryan Adams, and the subsequent backlash against such artists by ‘fans’ on social media, in print and radio, create a tension between the values we ascribe to the artist versus those we connect to the artist. If we are to divorce the song from the artist, and impose our own subjective emotions and experiences onto it in the search for a more meaningful connection with the song in question, then it doesn’t necessarily follow that we should be disappointed or angry when we discover that its creator is in some way alleged to be of bad character. Artists are not held to any higher moral standard than any other professional, so why is there such uproar and outcry when there is alleged wrongdoing? And yet we feel ‘let down’ by those who have produced the music of our childhoods, danced to at weddings, or found solace in a shared experience. We connected that song to that artist, and we simply wanted the person to be as beautiful as what they created.

As members of the global community, we have been surrounded by mass art via cinema, television, radio and the internet for decades. The commercialisation of the art of film, music and other art forms, combined with technological developments, means that we are never ‘without’ access to mass art. For most, mass art is the primary source of the ‘aesthetic experience’, that which is ‘pleasurable’ (Budd, 2008: 17) and requires ‘appreciation’ (Carroll, 2012: 165). Whilst the definition of an aesthetic experience is contested, the use of mass art as a means through which one can affect such an experience is largely, until recently, undebated. The mass appeal of popular music, for example, rests on the feelings generated from listening to such songs. Literary critic Adam Bradley claims that the work he undertook for The Poetry of Pop consisted of listening to pop music ‘for hours, really for years, to the detriment of my ears and the betterment of my being.’ (2017: 5).

If the aesthetic experience is limited to the audience’s experience of the piece of art, then it shouldn’t alter when we discover that the artist has fallen short of our moral ideals. However, it does. Pop songs draw us in, and this is why we are left so deflated when we hear of tales of the artist’s wrongdoings. We are left facing our own ‘man in the mirror’, asking ourselves whether we should make a change and stop listening. Maybe we should demand more of our artists, though, and ask them to face themselves in the mirror and make a change for the better.

Bradley, A. (2017) The Poetry of Pop. Yale University Press.
Budd, M. (2008) ‘Aesthetic essence’, in Shusterman, R. & Tomlin, A. (Eds.) Aesthetic Experience. Routledge.
Carroll, N. (2012) ‘Recent Approaches to Aesthetic Experience’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 19th March 2019].
Kennick, W.E. (1979) Art and Philosophy: Readings in Aesthetics. St. Martin’s Press.
Levinson, J. (Ed.) (1998) Aesthetics and Ethics: Essays at the intersection. Cambridge University Press.


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