To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the sexual misconduct exposed in recent months has the slightest role in outstanding work; such cases are about abusing power, never the pursuit of art. What I am suggesting is that repellent behavior plays a key role in our culture.
Some link the unhinged mind to creativity, as if chaotic living might be evidence of a gift. But chaos doesn’t make for great art. Rather, it sells the artist as great.
The wildman is what we devour in artist bios, much as we admire mafiosi on-screen. We who submit to the rules of society, repressing natural selfishness, view outlaws with a shiver of admiration. They enact our fantasies, scoffing at rules, earning respect nonetheless. Nobody relishes a well-behaved artist.
Another advantage to grim personal behavior is that, sadly, it can help production—compelling a spouse to raise the kids, or using those kids to absorb one’s moods, or merely dismissing all who fail to serve one’s interests. Male artists have raged and spewed this way for centuries, grinding their darlings into material. It’s one reason why women have rarely been included among the artistic greats: They were never granted such moral immunity.
Of course, ruthless types blemish the upper ranks of any competitive field, whether it’s politics or academia or business. But in such professions, savage egotists are disdained if their private cruelties are exposed. This has not been so for the cultural world. Its devils become our secular saints.