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Archive for November 4th, 2011

Should you – or can you – appreciate works by an artist whose morals or actions you find objectionable?  Today, the question returned to haunt me when a colleague rightly pointed out that a public statement I made about a writer minimized his cruelty and immorality by equating it with shortcomings well within the human norm. That wasn’t the first time the issue or art and morality had come up, and I’m sure that it won’t be the last.

If you consider yourself a person of conscience, the question has no easy answer. In many cases, evoking the cultural relativism of past times just doesn’t provide an excuse. By the standards of any time, Samuel Pepys was a sexual predator. In all likelihood, Byron was, too, although the removal of evidence by his friends allows some people to believe otherwise. Mozart was a brutal egomaniac, Dali a sadist, and Ezra Pound a Fascist sympathizer. Even as seemingly an amiable eccentric as William Blake subjected his wife to poverty and kept her subjugated to his art,insisting that she color in his prints and waking her in the middle of the night to keep him company. The truth is, artists are so far outside the social norms in general that, once you start reading their biographies, many will be found morally lacking.

At times, the exceptions stand out all the more because of their rarity. For example, William Morris was true enough to his ideals of equality that he never divorced his wife, although knowing she was carrying on an affair with Dante Gabriel Rossetti. John Keats also appears to have been a thoroughly decent man, although cynics might question how much poverty and illness simply deprived him of opportunities to offend.

I suspect that how you answer such questions depends on your priorities. If you are only concerned with artistic achievement, then everything else that an artist does is irrelevant. What matters is the art, and the fact that Leni Riefenstahl’s films were propaganda for the Third Reich is irrelevant compared to her cinematic technique.

The trouble with this position is that, if you admire someone for one reason, you often want to admire them in other ways. Unless you are very careful, sooner or later you find yourself making excuses for their behavior, simply because you like their art.

Yet holding artists to the strictest ethics and morality is no easier. For one thing, the artists of which you approve will make a very short list. For another, the question seems a slippery slope. Do you reject Charles Dickens because of his utter inability to portray women as human? Raymond Chandler or Brendan Behan for their alcoholism?  Where do you draw the line for the minor offenders against morality?:When, if any time, do you make an exception?

Just as importantly, there is something crass and insensitive about insisting that art meet other standards as well, perhaps because that is a common practice of totalitarianism. The problem is not so much that at least some arts – especially writing – can have a moral content, as the difficulty of imposing morality upon art without reducing it to the triteness of modern Catholic Holy Cards.

In theory, as George Orwell suggests, it should be possible to hold two separate beliefs — first, that someone is a skilled artist, and, second, that they were reprehensible human beings – but the practice is more difficult. It seems to involve endlessly jumping back and forth between the two extremes, and therefore is likely to satisfy no one. Instead of offering clarity, Orwell’s solution actually invites us to practice double-think – that is, thinking two contradictory thoughts at the same time, a habit that Orwell pointed out is a handicap to clear thinking.

I suspect, however, that is exactly what the majority of us do. We get swept away by the perspective or the choreography, only to start guiltily at enjoying the efforts of someone we disapprove. At other times, we start out disapproving and find ourselves tapping our fingers to the music despite ourselves, or having a memorable phrase lodge in our minds against our sternest judgments. For most of us, the answers don’t come easily or offer much satisfaction when we face the complexity of the situations in which we try to apply them.

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