Life Sentences, Day 117: Good Art/Bad Heart?

January 26th, 2011

If a great artist is a terrible person, should we repudiate the art?

On the Murder Is Everywhere site, novelist Cara Black wrote a piece Monday about the French plan to celebrate something or other relative to the work of the novelist Celine (Louis-Ferdinand Destouches).  Celine is widely thought by the French to be a great writer, and therefore worth celebrating.

He was also a vicious anti-Semite in whose opinion Hitler didn’t go far enough (he referred to Hitler as “a Jew”) and who wrote hellacious pamphlets urging violence against Jews.  He may also have fingered Jews of his acquaintance for the Nazis.  All in all, a reprehensible waste of DNA with the moral judgment of an invertebrate.

But (say the French) he wrote great books and his work is worthy of cultural respect.  Yes or no?  Beth Crowley answered “No” on the site, and I answered “Yes,” and now I’m making the case again here.

I personally can’t read Celine at all — and I think only the French would ever have enshrined him in the first place.  (On the other hand, nobody but the French would have sentenced him to jail as a — and I quote — “national disgrace,” even if they later commuted the sentence.)  But my personal tastes aside, I think great art is worthy of respect no matter who created it.

I think that art, in a sense, exists independent of the person who produced it.  Picasso was a misogynist of the first order; Caravaggio was probably a murderer. There are dozens of examples of first-class work produced by perfectly dreadful people.  Does that invalidate their art?  I don’t think it can.  There’s not enough great art around to toss any of it because you dislike the person who produced it.

And then there are the facts that moral standards change. The Nazis banned all Jewish art, thereby depriving themselves of a great deal of enjoyment.  Oscar Wilde’s works came in for criticism after he was convicted of sodomy.  Were the melodies of Mendelssohn or the wit of “The Importance of Being Earnest” any less superb because the men who produced them were declared morally and societally out of bounds?

In The Recognitions, the artist/forger Wyatt Gwyon, the novel’s primary character, says, “The Artist is just the rubble who follows his work around.”  That’s sort of the way I feel.

I’d love to know what you think.

17 Responses to “Life Sentences, Day 117: Good Art/Bad Heart?”

  1. EverettK Says:

    I had my response all ready about 1/3 of the way through, and then you proceeded to very thoroughly make my arguments for me, leaving me with nothing to do but agree with you. You know how that pains me.

    Kind of an inverse example: the worship many folks today (and in the past, for that matter) heap upon celebrities, whether they have any talent or not, whether they’re good people or not, just because they’re famous (which you’ve written derogatorily about before). We should not unduly admire the creator because of his/her work, nor should we unduly castigate the work because of its creator.

    As long as the two ARE two separate things, that is, which they aren’t always.

  2. EverettK Says:

    I guess I should modify my previous response with this thought:

    Some artists can be separated from their work: writers, actors, etc.

    Some can’t be so easily separated from their work: Mother Theresa and other social workers, who ARE their work, in essence.

    So somtimes it’s not a black & white situation.

  3. Dana King Says:

    You’re right, but I still don’t that I’d want to provide support to any artist I found personally repugnant. While his art stands alone, he still basks in the implied acceptance of its glory.

    I like much of Wagner’s music, and I don’t hesitate to listen to it and buy it, mainly because Wagner’s dead. Were he alive, and using my money to live a comfortable life in spite of his morally bankrupt behavior and attitudes, I’d be happy to let him starve,

  4. suzanna aguayo Says:

    Hi, Tim

    I agree that good art stands on its own and should not be ignored because the artist is a bad seed.

    Sometimes an interesting life story makes the work that much more interesting.

    My husband had an art history professor who drew his students in by talking about the less than ideal behavior of the artists they studied.

  5. Beth Says:

    Celine used his talent to write books for which the French believed he should be honored.

    He also used his talent to write pamphlets encouraging his compatriots to support the Third Reich before France was occupied. (That was hardly the same as the collaborators who supported the Reich after the Germsns were walking through the streets of Paris). He was an unrepentant anti-Semite and there aren’t two sides of the story when the story is hate speech.

    Teaching history is story-telling, finding the human side of the men and women whose influence shapes our lives centuries after their lives were over. Celine’s support of the Final Solution puts him in the same category as Goebbels. German or French, they were both masters of propaganda, working toward the same goal. There can be no “on the other hand” when speaking about anyone whose words or actions supported the murders of millions.

    I think Picasso and Oscar Wilde would be appalled at being placed in the same category as Celine.

    Moral standards may change, but God help us all if society loses its ability to be horrified by evil.

  6. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    Dana took the words right out of my head. Wagner’s music is not who he is, but it is sometimes hard to forget what he stood for. But alas, a lot of people of the 19th and 20th century were riding a very common train, and yet they wrote and composed some of the most beautiful art there is. I’ve heard talk about T.S. Eliot, and others. So, all I can do is agree. I would like to think their art came from a deeper, more universal place.

  7. Gary Says:

    Whatever one thinks of Wagner’s work – and I think some of his music is rather heavy-handed – he was undeniably a genius, and his work had a huge influence on Western music. But as a person he wasn’t particularly nice: philandering, anti-Semitic, and so on. Although a biography I once read somewhat overstated the case for the nasty Wagner, it did make your point:

    With all that genius inside him struggling to get out, it isn’t surprising he didn’t have time to be human.

  8. EverettK Says:

    Beth: I think that you’re still confusing the issue of the artist and their work. I agree with you that an artist should not be honored and remembered in glory if they were a [choose your favorite derogatory epithet]. BUT… if their work is a masterpiece that has NOTHING to do with their [favorite derogatory epithet activity], is the work not a masterpiece just because of who created it?

    If To Kill A Mockingbird had been written by a mysogynistic, homophobic serial killer, would the novel not still be a valuable masterpiece about race relations? (Sure, not likely to happen, but I’m trying to make a point about the separation of art and artist.)

    I understand where you’re coming from. I can’t enjoy the music of Cat Stevens like I used to, after he said publicly about Salman Rushdie: “He must be killed. The Qur’an makes it clear – if someone defames the prophet, then he must die.” I do still listen to it sometimes, and still enjoy it, but not as much, because always in the back of my mind is the memory of that statement. But that only changed MY experiencing of the music. It didn’t change the music itself, and nowhere in his music (that I’m aware of) does he recommend the killing of anyone, just the reverse, most of his music is about peace and love.

  9. Phil Hanson Says:

    To judge art solely on the basis of the artist’s character is to have precious little art to judge.

  10. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    This discussion is so interesting that I’m reluctant to break in on it.

    I COMPLETELY take Dana’s point about not subsidizing the lives of artists whom you find loathsome. It would be easier for me than it would for some of you to forgo Wagner completely, but I agree that, were he alive and even assuming I loved him, I wouldn’t pass any shekels his way.

    And similarly, although I hate and have always hated Cat Stevens, even pre-conversion, I wouldn’t give him a nickel.

    But art is long and life is short, and when the artist is dead, the art remains. I don’t understand how we strike a blow for anything by denying ourselves the pleasure and the solace of a work of art. I think great art is a unique and scarce resource, and I don’t know what we gain by rejecting it because we hate what its creator stood for.

    The great examples of this, to me, are Homer, Shakespeare, and the great cathedrals. Homer may actually be a group noun for a passel of poets who celebrated war and bloodshed, but my life would be much poorer without the two great Homeric poems. Shakespeare is a cipher, a consciousness so multifaceted that people argue almost every point of his personality, but he left behind what I think is the greatest human monument in Western history. It just makes no difference whatsoever who he was. And the cathedrals were built by an organization that burned heretics, persecuted the Cathars and the Jews, wallowed in corruption, and concealed knowledge of the ancient world by burying it in the Vatican library, but does that mean I can’t be breathless at the beauty of Reims or Mt. St. Michel? They exist independently of the church now; their beauty is their own.

    I understand what you mean, Beth. I just don’t agree with it. I loathe Celine as a man and as an artist, but if I loved his work, I would honor it while cheerfully blowing my nose on the memory of the man.

    I think we should be able to appreciate the art and despise what the artist did or said, and speak up about both.

  11. Robb Royer Says:

    Has anyone here actually read Celine? I tried and couldn’t hang. He’s the master of the three dots… I use them myself… but not… as much… as… Celine…

  12. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Very good, Phil — I think you gotta take art where you find it.

    Robb, I’ve tried a couple of times and passed after a few hours. Maybe it’s better in French. (After all, they say Shakespeare is.)

  13. fairyhedgehog Says:

    I think I agree and yet… When I found out that Orson Scott Card speaks out against homosexuals it spoiled my enjoyment of his books. Some of his books seem to me to be about how hard it is to understand other cultures behaviour from the outside and they are still just as good as they were before I found out about his homophobia.

    It seems to me to be easier to ignore the character defects of an artist if he or she is no longer around to remind us of them and there’s no longer the question of supporting someone with whose politics or actions we disagree.

  14. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Yup, it’s different when the artist is alive and orofiting from us. Even so, I think we need to satisfy ourselves that the representations are true, especially in today’s highly charged media environment.

  15. Philip Coggan Says:

    “[A]s a person he wasn’t particularly nice…” That’s standard for the artistic personality type – self-centered narcissisism is a pre-requisite (Discuss).

    Caravaggio a murder? Probably not – probably he wanted to castrate his opponent rather than murder him, but he hit a vein. Not to blame for that. He was, however, probably a pederast.

    Andre Gide definitely was a pederast – he said so, repeatedly. His books are pleas for breadth of spirit and freedom from stultifying acceptance of societal norms. Perhaps he was wrong.

    Yahweh Elohim was guilty of ordering genocide, not once but twice (the Amalakites and the Midianites). That puts him right in there with the Nazis. Yet he wrote the sublimely beautiful meditations of Job, the heart-rending Psalms, and many other works which have uplifted the human spirit for millennia.

    So I guess the end of it all is that we do not (not should not, simply do not) reject the song because of the singer. We make of it what we can, or will.

    Great subject for a novel in there.

  16. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Oh, well, Philip, if all Caravaggio wanted to do was castrate the guy, I guess he’s okay.

    The Yahweh allusion gave me a good laugh. I thought David wrote the psalms, although it was probably the spirit of Yahweh moving through him. It’s not fair to put Yahweh up against mere people, though, since he’s had eternity to become better and worse.

    You gonna write that book?

  17. Larissa Says:

    Wow-what an interesting argument. I love the line about Wagner of whom I have no opinion “with all the genius inside it’s no wonder he didn’t have time to be human”…(paraphrased I know). It’s great-Art and Artists are separate but only slightly-the work that someone creates definitely contains a piece of them. It would be impossible not to weave some of yourself into something you make-which means that to appreciate someone’s art you have to accept the sides of them that were really terrible.

    There was a great quote spoken on NPR yesterday on a black history program that said “Nothing human can be alien to me..” At face value it seems shallow but when you think about it-every emotion, every action committed by another human being is something that we could have been doing ourselves if the cards were laid just a little differently, or if we were confronted in just the right ways…that means all the good and all the evil in one person is probably in the next, what they chose to do with it is their choice but we all have the capacity for practically anything.

    All of this is a bit of a conundrum because yes, you can appreciate someone’s work but hate the person but you can’t do it because you think that their base existence or astounding genius approaches something outside the limits of your own humanity.

    Art is a representation of the artist as much as their actions are representations of the person-perhaps it’s just one of the many sides of a multi-faceted coin (which I’m not sure would still be a coin but I need the convention, darnit (c: )

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