The Bruce Gilden video we linked to the other day has brought up a lot of comments, including a fair number that are strongly positive and a fair number that are strongly negative. It brings up an issue that I found myself wrestling with again just the other day: What do you do about good work done by a**holes?
I'm personally pretty much the opposite of Bruce Gilden. I'm shy, non-confrontational, and overly considerate of others. Some of you might remember a brief essay I wrote a while back about a picture I didn't take but should have. (An important experience for me because it marked the end of any thoughts of becoming a photojournalist). My best pictures of people have been done on vacation at various lakes, simply because I'm with family and friends and everyone expects me to be running around with a camera: I have permission, something I've long ago identified as necessary in order for me to be creative. So this isn't really about that.
The reason the issue came up a few days ago is that I was putting together the "Book of the Year" nominations, and a few people recommended a book called Oxbow Archive by a photographer named Joel Sternfeld.
Little story about that.
When I was a high school photography teacher back in the '80s, a student of mine graduated and went off to a small college in New York—my memory is that it wasn't exactly Upstate, but rather an hour or two outside Manhattan. Joel Sternfeld was her new photo teacher there. I knew of him—his first book had just been published, I'd bought it, and I was enthusiastic about it. I thought it would be neat to meet him; she asked, he said fine, and she set it up—a lunch date at the college. I made the drive, re-acquainted with my former student, then went with her to the appointed place at the appointed time.
And he stood us up. He was there—in a studio just down the hall—but big Mr. College Photo Teacher was evidently just too important a personage to meet with little Mr. High School Photo Teacher.
What a jerk. I don't so much mind getting dissed; I do mind driving ten hours to get dissed.
And I would never have done to one of my students what he did to her, for another thing. She apologized to me over and over. Like it was her fault. Later, I sold that guy's book, and simply haven't paid much attention to him since. There are other photographers all over the place who aren't a**holes—why should I pay attention to one who is?
There's no correspondence between artistic accomplishment and human decency, unfortunately. We somehow expect there to be, and we might wish it were so, but I've been in this field long enough to know that there are some artists who are just the salt of the Earth—thoughtful, wise, generous, humble, full of soul—who just haven't got quite enough talent, and there are other people whose work just soars despite the fact that they're arrogant jag-offs who cheat on their wives and emotionally stunt their children.
I had another experience, this one with a major museum curator to whom I got an introduction from a mutual friend. I traveled to New York to meet him. I went into the situation forewarned—don't meet with him after lunchtime, I'd been told—so I made our appointment for 11:00 a.m. But after I'd waited for half an hour he sent word that he was too busy, and would I mind coming back at 2:00?
What choice do you have? You come back at 2:00 or you don't come back at 2:00. But sure enough, at 2:00 he was drunk, just as I was warned he would be. The meeting, as you might expect, did not go well.
In that case there was a silver lining, because I had just written an essay about the guy, and it was a little too fawning. As soon as I got home from our meeting I wrote a new middle section to the essay that acknowledged some of his weaknesses. It made it a much stronger piece, I think. So at least I got something out of the experience.
Over the years I've turned these lessons into a rule: Never meet your heroes. I think it was Joan Didion who said she doesn't understand why people want to meet her, because "they get the best of me on the printed page." Generally speaking, you get the best of an artist through his or her work. The work is not just a portal to the artist, who holds even greater riches in reserve, waiting for you; the work is it, the work is the thing. The lesson is to engage with the work, and take it on its own terms. Asking for virtue in addition is asking for too much.
So is Bruce Gilden a genius or an a**hole? I don't know him, so I don't know. As readers debated the question in the comments, however, my thought was, why not both? They're not mutually exclusive. Maybe that's not the way we want the world to be, but that's the way the world is.
Featured Comment by John Bates: "I recommend a fantastic book: The No A**hole Rule, written by a Robert Sutton from Stanford. It's a series of case studies examining the impact of a**holes in the workplace, and he comes to the conclusion that even the best performing a**holes are not worth the associated overhead. He points to example after example of situations in which the overall performance of an organization is improved after removing star a**holes. No a**hole is indispensable."
Featured Comment by Robin Dreyer: "This has always been an interesting issue to me. I want to like and admire people for their qualities as people, but the truth is that deeply flawed people can make great art that brings richness, insight, even spirituality into the lives of others. Miles Davis, Picasso, etc. I think I've finally decided that once the work is floated into the world it has a life of its own. Not meeting heroes is probably a good idea, although, as others have pointed out, your heroes might be people that you could learn something from being around, especially in a teaching context. I will also say that when I was younger I went to some trouble to meet John Cage and he was generous, kind, and a genius. Sometimes it's not disappointing. But Joan Didion has a point; what we are looking for in trying to meet someone whose work we admire may be the things they have already given us."
Featured Comment by John Denniston: "All this reminds me of that old saying, 'Almost everyone would like to have a van Gogh in their living room but nobody would want van Gogh in their living room.'"