It’s Okay To Enjoy Art Created By An Asshole

As long as you don’t ignore the truth.


Here’s a question I struggle with: How should we react when we learn an ugly truth about an artist’s personal life?

Woody Allen is accused of molesting his daughter. Michael Jackson hosted sleepovers with small boys. Bill Cosby’s a rapist. Roald Dahl was an anti-Semite. The list goes on: There’s Mark Wahlberg, Chris Brown, R. Kelly.

So, do we have a moral obligation to boycott a creator who’s criminal or racist?

The beloved author

Roald Dahl | (Ronald Dumont/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Philosophically juggling the many sins of the aforementioned artists would produce a rambling, cluttered argument. To avoid that, let’s focus on one: Roald Dahl.

Why? For one thing, his crime isn’t a matter of debate. There’s no he-said she-said, as is the case with others who’ve been hit with probably true but ultimately unproven allegations. Nope, Dahl was an anti-Semite — and proud of it. If you don’t believe me, just consider the fact that he actually said:

I am certainly anti-Israel, and I have become anti-Semitic.

He also referred to WWII as “the good old Hitler and Himmler times” and said that “even a stinker like Hitler didn’t pick on them [the Jews] for no reason.” Bearing that out-and-proud bigotry in mind, let’s approach the man’s oeuvre and decide whether his personal views should draw a curtain over his work.

The beloved work

If you’re like me, you grew up reading and re-reading tattered copies of Dahl’s work. Oompa Loompas, Spiker and Sponge, the loathsome Ms. Trunchbull — these and more lie fondly in our cultural consciousness. Dahl’s books have sold more than 200 million copies, spawned nine movies and coined words so popular that the OED is on board (see scrumdiddlyumptious, for example).

Because his work is so popular (and its audience so unwilling to surrender it), a troubling pattern has emerged even among responsible outlets to sweep Dahl’s racism under the rug. When the New York Times published a totally uncritical obituary of the writer in 1990, Abe Fox, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, replied with a letter to the editor.

Your obituary on the British writer Roald Dahl (Nov. 24) omits an important aspect of the subject’s life. Mr. Dahl, well known for his children’s books, as well as writings dealing with the dark, bizarre side of human nature, such as “Tales of the Unexpected,” had his own dark and unexpected side: he was a blatant and admitted anti-Semite … Praise for Mr. Dahl as a writer must not obscure the fact that he was also a bigot.

Notice that Fox doesn’t demand praise be done away with entirely; he simply believes that praise for Dahl’s (admittedly great) writing must not obscure his bigotry.

Appreciating the good, acknowledging the bad

Quite right, Mr. Fox. It’s up to the audience — whether critic or consumer — to decry an artist’s sins, but it’s not necessary for them to write off the art itself. The net positive that good art offers to society far outweighs the net positive of a righteous boycott.

In other words, I can’t identify anything good that comes of chucking “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” in the trash. But I can readily identify the bad that comes from an irresponsible, gushing obituary from the New York Times about a self-declared anti-Semite. It robs the victims (in this case, the Jewish community) of a voice, of acknowledgement, of the sense that they’re not invisible.

Instead of the prevailing cultural decision to choose the art and ignore the sin, why don’t we agree on Door № 3? We don’t have to totally ignore either. We can listen to “Ayo” while keeping a dialogue open about domestic abuse. We can appreciate that Cliff Huxtable is funny while still recognizing the reprehensible sexual behavior of his portrayer. We can read “The BFG” with the knowledge that, yeah, unfortunately its author was a batty old Jew-hater.

But wait, what about the money?

Some might argue that enjoying Chris Brown’s music or Bill Cosby’s comedy rewards bad behavior. My answer? Let the legal system administer punishment — that’s what it’s there for.

The truth is: Most of these artists are rich beyond belief, and declining to buy your niece “Matilda” because you have a moral hangup about Dahl’s anti-Semitism hurts your niece more than it hurts Dahl.