Tuesday, 21 November 2017

How to Love the Art While Loathing the Artist

I have been giving some thought over the past few months about the relationship the artist has to his/her art. Or more specifically, can we look at the art of people who have abhorrent views or have done abhorrent things with any sort of critical eye? In light of the myriad of sexual abuse allegations that have flooded forward lately from all walks of life and from all sides of the ideological spectrum, I have been asking myself if it is possible to love the art while loathing the artist.

When I was a kid, our family car was a Ford LTD station wagon. You know the type? Cream-coloured with faux paneling on the doors. A truly iconic '70s suburbia ride. While my grandfather was extraordinarily vocal in his opposition to ever purchasing a German-made automobile, there was never any resistance to the very American-made Ford my dad bought. There is no doubt in my mind that zero heeds were given by my family to founder Henry Ford's well-documented and prolific anti-semitic views that informed many of Hitler's own writings and still resonate with many hate-filled and bigoted people today. That Ford station wagon was simply the right car at the right time for our family and the disturbing history of its founding father never entered into the decision making.

In high school, I fell in love with the writings of T.S. Eliot. I still think that The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is one of the most beautiful poems ever written. It wasn't until many years later that I was exposed to his rampant anti-Semitism and his unrepentant Holocaust affections. I am stuck in a quandary. Must I now view Prufrock through a different and far uglier lens? Does the same hold for The Merchant of Venice or anything Roald Dahl ever wrote? Will I be able to read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to my grandchild knowing that its author probably would have hated the child it was being read to?

I offered this question on my Facebook page yesterday and the discussion was challenging and fascinating. I hope that my friends won't mind if I use a few of their thoughts.

One friend offered the following:
"Art is an extension of the artist-a magnifying glass put to some aspect of their interior world. We can't create in a vacuum - experiences colour every aspect of our lives. the positives and the negatives are inseparable parts of a whole. It is an uncomfortable experience - it creates dissonance. And it certainly makes us think about the work. It is provoking --- not a bad result for an artist."

I happen to agree with her point that art is often about making us uncomfortable. Moving past our comfort zones is what allows us to accept differing points of view and new experiences. It is the artist's job to make us think and to make us feel. Those feelings aren't always fluffy and happy. Sometimes they are ugly and challenging. But what happens when we discover an aspect of the artist that is continually reflected in the art? Woody Allen's seminal film Manhattan comes to mind.

Manhattan was the very first R-rated film I saw. My cousin who was already eighteen bought the tickets for us and I quietly snuck into the theatre. I remember thinking at the time that Mariel Hemingway's teenage Tracy was probably younger than I was and here was a forty-something and more-than lecherous Woody getting it on with a kid. It bothered me then and I was perplexed at the accolades that rained down on the movie. Neither Soon-Yi Previn nor Dylan Farrow was even a part of the conversation about Allen then, but I cannot look at this film using the same gravitas scale knowing now what I do about its director. And don't even get me started about Roman Polanski.

Another friend said this:
"I do believe that it is sometimes impossible to separate the artist from the art, depending on what the intention of the art is. E.g. Richard Wagner, the 19th century composer and consummate anti-Semite, deliberately used some of his music as anti-Jewish polemic. I do not listen to his music." 
She continued.
"On the other hand, it may be somewhat less problematic to enjoy art (visual, musical, etc.) that is not imbued with the ugliness of its creator's hateful behaviours. Woody Allen's movies come to mind, but I don't particularly want to put one cent into the pocket of haters or depraved people. I think we struggle so much with this because, over the centuries, some truly horrible people have created some truly remarkable art." 
The financial argument is an intriguing one. Enriching people who have knowingly and openly engaged in disgusting behaviour should be anathema. Has Mel Gibson ever done proper tshuvah (penance) for his anti-Semitism and his ugly treatment of women? And yet, time seems to have healed Hollywood's disdain for him. He was nominated for several Oscars last year and is currently starring in one of the hits of the holiday season. His reclamation seems complete, but what of his victims? I don't see million dollar paydays coming their way. Does the answer lie in the distance we have from the misdeeds? Will Kevin Spacey or Louis C.K. lay low enough for a few years and bounce back like Mel? Will Hollywood or the entertainment consumer afford them the opportunity because of their gifts? Can I look at a Picasso painting today with a different eye, even knowing what a shit he was to women because it all happened outside my gaze and I can in no way enrich him?

We are witnessing a revolution and in my view, it is long overdue. No longer are victims of abuse remaining silent and abusers are being called out for their behaviour. Powerful people in powerful places who have violated their positions for far too long are experiencing a reckoning. But as my lovely young cousin pointed out, what is happening now "feels weirdly specific who and what the outrage machine decides is ok or not ok." Bill Cosby will die a broken man but Johnny Depp is still out there grinding. But their art remains as tangible evidence of their talent and gifts and it cannot and should not vanish. Caravaggio was a miserable human being but his works are on display at the Louvre. Perhaps the answers to these complicated questions lie within what each of us is willing to tolerate. Where is my breaking point and how does it affect me in the here and now? Only each of us individually can answer that.

I believe that I need to hear a measure of true apology and true retribution. It can't be enough to simply say "I'm sorry without hesitation or reservation" but it is a good start. Has Woody or Roman or Mel ever tried even that much? Not to my recollection. But there needs to be more. Much more. There needs to be tangible action taken to alleviate the hurt and suffering and pain. I'm not certain what form that might take, but it certainly isn't shuffling off to rehab for a week and then back to business as usual. Maybe it comes in the form of mentoring programs for young victims who have been damaged by these people. Maybe it comes in other ways of giving back to the community. Maybe it comes with just staying out of the public eye.

I know that for me personally, there are certain individuals who will never be able to be redeemed. Their abusive behaviour is baked into their DNA and their art is forever lost to me. Some have been caught up in the tidal wave of shit hitting the fan and were negligent and behaved poorly once or twice. They may be worthy of salvaging if their future actions earn them that right and my trust.

Until then, as another friend said, "we struggle."

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