I’ve read a lot lately about morality in art. You might have seen the same kind of thing, especially with the current wave of allegations against senior figures in the entertainment industry. Corruption, crime and immorality should be shunned and cast out wherever it is found. The issue of how this affects art has been around for much longer though: it’s the question of to what degree should we modify our views about a work of art (including a performance) based upon what we know about the morality of the artist/performer?
Sylvia Plath was allegedly a racist; Woody Allen a pedophile; C. S. Lewis possibly homo-phobic. The list, once you begin, is probably endless. Most great artists have had personal lives full of some form of wickedness, some of it conscious and depraved, some of it driven by unconscious promptings. To what degree should any of that affect the way we view their art?
There are a number of ways of looking at this. One is to recognise that the connection between a work of art and the person who created it is something that has gained strength only over the last couple of centuries - prior to that, the public weren’t generally that interested in who wrote or painted or devised something: they were more interested in the thing itself and what it told us about the world around them. Broadly speaking, with the Romantic Movement in the early 19th century, there grew up a ‘cult of personality’ and a tendency to inspect the life of the artist as a kind of ‘key’ to the work. As art replaced religion as a way of seeing meaning in the world, it tended to look inwardly at itself and its making by individuals rather than outwardly at the universe around it, if you like. Art became the source of meaning; artists became gods.
But another way is to simply confront a more honest truth. If we are to like or dislike art based on our moral view of its maker, then where do we draw the line? Should we not eat a cake if we do not agree with the views of its baker? Should we not live in a house if we discover its architect was a criminal? Should we refuse to drive a car, or use a laptop, or drink a coffee, if those responsible for the creation of those things are revealed to be in some way immoral?
It’s partly because art in its many manifestations has become so important to us as a way of discerning meaning in the world that we would very much like its creators to be somehow ‘holy’ and not tainted with human flaws. But I fear that if we were to use creator morality as a guide to selecting what art we would engage with, then our range would be very limited. Which human being in the world has not sinned? Who among the world’s great artists is pure enough?
To have any kind of meaning at all in our lives from art, I think it is probably time to get used to the flavour of the world. Here the sweetest light is blended with the bitterest dark; here we cannot separate cleanly the creator from the created. When it comes to art, we have to have our cake and eat whatever comes with it.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said in The Gulag Archipelago ‘If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?’