Why We Still Enjoy Art By Assholes

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Kanye West, Quentin Tarantino, Mel Gibson, and Ernest Hemingway are just a few names of artists who have been portrayed as not the easiest people to get along with…hell, they’ve been described as straight up assholes. So why is that West is still able to draw thousands to his shows, Tarantino gets raving reviews on his films, Gibson still has fans swooning over him, and Hemingway is commonly taught in high school literature courses?

Why do we still appreciate these assholes? Perhaps we give them a break because we think the work they produce is worthy of it. Maybe we’re somewhat attracted to a seedy character. Whatever it is, it sure happens often. I mean, Johnny Depp was caught on film being an anger-fueled asshole to his then-wife, but people are still obsessed with him! Why is that?

It’s evident that even after we hear that an artist is being a complete douchebag (pardon my French) we still give them a chance—at least most of us do that, perhaps even unknowingly. For instance, let’s relate the very serious situation of abused women staying with their abuser—this situation is obviously of a much heavier gravity, but it has parallels.

Dr. Craig Malkin, a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School, told Time that a person being abused tends to focus on the positive and attaches him or herself onto waiting for that next positive. “There’s a psychological effect like gambling—the moments of tenderness and intimacy are unpredictable, but they are so intense and fulfilling that the victim winds up staying in the hopes that a moment like that will happen again,” the interview reads.

To translate into this discussion, what it means is that you enjoy the person’s art so much, that even though the artist is a grade-A dick, the reward of the artwork itself is so great that you just keep coming back. Which points us towards another question–why do we enjoy art so much that we allow ourselves to be pushed around by a jerk?

Well, if we really want to get deep into it, we should talk about escapism and dopamine.

Escapism is a technique people use to escape a stressful or depressing situation. It’s commonly related to watching television and entertainment. For example, imagine you just had a very rough day at work and you go home and turn on the TV. When you put on your favorite show or movie, you’re able to disconnect yourself from the shitty situation you just had to go through and escape from your troubles for that fleeting moment. This can also pertain to going to the theater, seeing a comedy show, a concert, going to the pub, or going to an art gallery. So you come back to the art to escape reality—thus the reward is greater than the abuse from the asshole artist.

Speaking of reward, dopamine is the chemical in your brain that rewards you when you do something it likes. It’s released when you eat, have sex, use drugs, spend time with someone you love, anything that makes you feel happiness–that happiness is dopamine being released. The more dopamine being released means the bigger your brain is rewarding you. When viewing art that you enjoy, dopamine is being released.

So this means the feeling of enjoyment you get when watching that Tarantino film, or seeing Johnny Depp winking, or listening to one of Kanye’s songs (or one of his entertainingly absurd soundbites), is your brain rewarding you for doing something good–thus, again, that reward is more powerful than the abuse from the jerk of an artist.

“Eventually there’s sort of this wearing down for people on the receiving end of the abuse where they continue to tolerate more and over time feel less entitled to safety,” Dr. Malkin says about abusive relationships in the Time article. So perhaps we are exposed so much to art that we’ve simply just been worn down.

Think about it–we are constantly viewing art these days with social media and technology. Entertainment is in a portable device that we can view anytime, anywhere, in the palm of our hand. With such an overload of visuals, perhaps when we see something with the purpose of being art and when it’s portrayed that way, we appreciate it no matter what.

Dr. Malkin also explains in Time that the abused sometimes take blame on themselves. People tend to be their own harshest critic. So, perhaps when we’re viewing art and we think, “the artist is a total ass, but damn, this is a masterpiece,” we’re letting his rude behavior slide because we too consider ourselves an ass.

Art is a biased outlet. No one can fully understand what the artist was feeling when creating his or her work. No one can peer upon a work of art and not have their personal traits play into how it’s taken in. Art is complicated that way–it’s a totally unique experience for everyone involved. And with the new presidential term soon coming into affect, maybe being able to handle an asshole isn’t such a bad talent to possess.