Yes – Annabel Steele
Picture this: A talented heart surgeon, having used his scientific knowledge and skills to save thousands of lives, is suddenly found guilty of a terrible crime. Would it make sense to reject and isolate each of each of his former patients, in order to ensure the discontinuing of a bad man’s legacy? No, that would be absurd. There is far more value to be found in his work than legacy. While the man might have had a negative impact on those around him, his work was incredibly important. Transfer this situation onto an artist. Suddenly, it is impossible to recognise any value in their creations apart from a legacy which is now undeserved. Can we really be so shallow in our appreciation of art that all its value is removed once respect for the creator is lost? Art and the artist might be inseparable; but our appreciation of art and our appreciation of the artist do not have to be.
My favourite painter of all time is Egon Schiele, an Austrian expressionist painter who was obsessed with exploring the human body in a deeply psychological way. While his work tends to revolve around a limited colour palette, his personal life was vividly splattered with all sorts of hues, light and dark. He was notorious for poor treatment of the women in his life, and he took overwhelming advantage of living in an era when prostitution and pornography were explored obsessively. In short, he wasn’t a particularly wonderful man. But his art is something else. It’s raw, graphic and genuinely stunning; the only time I have ever removed my headphones in an art gallery was at my first Schiele exhibition. I couldn’t listen to music – I couldn’t focus on anything at all except the paintings in front of me. Biographical excerpts were painted all over the walls, exposing his personal misbehaviours, but it didn’t affect my experience: The link between the perceived and the perceiver is all that matters during the consumption of art. No other person could have created what Schiele created: His public artistic output was a result of his licentious private life. I can, and will, criticise the artist for his unhealthy relationship with women. But I don’t have a photograph of Egon Schiele on my bedroom wall; I have a copy of his Seated Male Nude. I don’t need to condone the way Schiele lived his life in order to appreciate what he made while he was living it.
Just as we cannot control the opinions and actions of artists, so we cannot control the opinions of art consumers. But, as consumers, our sense of morality should help us to recognise when an artist’s “badness” has spilt over into his art. D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is a cinematic marvel, technically ground-breaking and evidently made by a highly skilled artist. But its entire message, and the purpose for its creation, is so drenched in racist messages and intentions that, for a consumer with any vague sense of morality, it becomes impossible to enjoy. The opinions which made Griffith a fundamentally terrible person are woven into the fabric of his creations, thus making them dangerous. But T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock doesn’t contain a word of the anti-Semitism for which he is so notorious. It is earth-shatteringly gorgeous, a poetic masterpiece, my favourite collection of words in the entire world. Does my adoration of the poem make me complicit in Eliot’s anti-Semitism? No, it makes me a student of English and a lover of literature. And I couldn’t be either of those things if I didn’t let myself enjoy good art by bad people.
We’re never going to settle on one concrete “purpose” of art, if it has a purpose at all. It’s naturally divisive because it appeals to the individual consumer and his/her senses and emotions, rather than relying on unequivocal facts for validation. But so much of the value of artistic media lies in its subjectivity: Art is the only means of viewing things from someone else’s perspective. If we begin to limit whose perspective we want to see the world from, things get a bit problematic. According to the philosophical principles on which several theodicies are built, evil must exist in order for us to measure the goodness of things. If we only let ourselves enjoy art created by ‘good people’, our perspective begins to shrink drastically. It is inexplicably important to experience the world through the eyes or ears of misogynists like Jack Kerouac, of paedophiles like Ovenden, of sexual assaulters like Woody Allen, of murderers like Caravaggio, of anti-Semites like Wagner, because this is the scope of human life, and art explores human life in all its nakedness, from the pure and beautiful to the beaten, bruised and downright ugly.
No – Georgia Louise Luckhurst
There are certain things that we’re taught not to discuss over a meal – generally, money and bodily functions of any kind. In the Luckhurst household, there’s an additional contender for most controversial – and therefore most heavily censored – dinnertime conversation: four-time Oscar winner and beloved filmmaker, writer and comedian, Woody Allen.
My father is a fan of Woody Allen’s work, as are many people the world over. He is familiar with his oeuvre in a way that I’m not. I freely admit to having enjoyed one of the few Allen films I’ve seen, 2011’s Midnight in Paris (though this may have more to do with my thing for Owen Wilson). But my lesser familiarity with the immense body of work for which Allen is renowned has little to do with laziness as much as conscious avoidance: I’m not interested. The sexual assault allegations against Woody Allen are serious, and I personally have faith in them. But even where allegations are yet to be definitively proven, I feel uncomfortable about watching film after film about older men seeking to intellectually enlighten a far younger and beautiful female counterpart because what is incontestably true about Woody Allen is that he married his adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, who is thirty-five years his junior. That feels creepy to me.
The difficulty I have personally with Woody Allen is that his sexual and romantic preferences are so demonstrably a part of his art. For that reason, I can’t extricate my discomfort about allegations concerning his personal life from the themes of his films. Allen’s personality is so enmeshed in his artistic output that I am confronted by my own reservations every time. My father can continue to enjoy Woody Allen’s films, and he does. Some would argue that that speaks to his ability to separate artist from art; to accept that one can appreciate a cultural product, its aesthetics and style, without necessarily condoning the values it espouses or those of its creator. I’m unconvinced by that line of argument, because I believe that it’s impossible to separate art from its maker. There is no art without a person, without their devotion to a vision, their specific inspirations, and the individual experiences that led them to create. To separate a piece of art from its maker is to render it entirely devoid of context. You may not need context to enjoy something – but what makes something art, a level above entertainment, is that it stands up to interpretation, analysis, criticism, and thorough-consideration, too.
Arguably, we can still enjoy work produced by an artist who has committed wrongdoing, but we ought to ask whether our enjoyment is also morally coded. Is your enjoyment financially benefiting someone who has committed a crime? Harvey Weinstein’s once-colossal sway in Hollywood means that you will almost certainly have seen, and enjoyed, a film with which he was directly involved in the course of your life. None of us were to know how we were lining Weinstein’s pockets, and how he would use that money and influence to allegedly assault and manipulate women. But in the light of those claims, would any of us feel comfortable supporting projects on which Weinstein worked? Projects that would provide him with the monetary means to bolster his power and enable his wrongdoing? I sincerely hope not. When we support such a person, financially or otherwise, we contribute to a cacophony of voices that suggest condemnable behaviours are in fact acceptable. Their success, popularity, and fandom empowers them to commit wrongs in plain sight. It is for this reason that a star such as Kevin Spacey, currently plagued by accusations of sexual assault against underage male victims, is able to operate according to their own twisted ethical code, unchallenged for so long.
I say this as a former devotee of Spacey; as someone who watched House of Cards avidly and considered Frank Underwood to be one of the most perfectly crafted television performances of all time. Regardless, I am unwilling to support Kevin Spacey’s career any further. I know how common it is for female victims of sexual assault to be discredited and by supporting the accused I lend my tacit support to that line of attack. I don’t want Spacey’s young male accusers to be silenced in a similar way.
Ultimately, it is up to the individual whether or not they feel comfortable enjoying an artist’s work after a wrongdoing has been exposed. All I ask is that we remember the moral shading of our own enjoyment – which is never, much as we might like to think it is, ethically inert