In the wake of the Weinstein scandal, once-admired male writers, actors and filmmakers have been disgraced. Can we still love the work of artists whose behaviour we loathe?by Shahidha Bari / January 22, 2018 / Leave a comment
Benvenuto Cellini’s bronze sculpture of Perseus, made in 1548, shows the hero trampling nonchalantly over the sprawling corpse of a decapitated Medusa, brandishing a blade in one hand and dangling her head from the other. Women are used to getting a bad deal in Greek mythology, of course—just as they are in life, some might say. The stories recently collated on Twitter under the “MeToo” hashtag attest to a long and collective experience of violence and harassment. For some, the high-profile defenestration of serial abusers and harassers—initiated by the Harvey Weinstein case, and made visible in the all-black dresses and “Time’s Up” badges worn recently at the Golden Globes—constitutes a turning point in our attitudes to art and male abuse of power. But we should remember that history tells a different story: art endures, while the misdemeanours of men are easily forgotten.
Take Cellini, for instance. For over 400 years, his triumphant Perseus with the Head of Medusa has been displayed in all its glory in the Piazza della Signoria, adjacent to the Uffizi gallery in Florence. The sculpture is Cellini’s brilliant expression of a reckless indifference to violence; recklessly indifferent is a good way to describe the artist, too. In 1557, Cellini was found guilty of sodomy, having slept with his young male assistant, and throughout his life he faced multiple accusations of non-consensual sex—one in relation to a woman and at least three others relating to boys. A notorious brawler with a violent temper, the artist was implicated in three counts of murder, one of which he recorded with great relish in his much-admired autobiography. Yet posterity has been kind, remembering him as a master goldsmith, accomplished musician and an exuberant soldier—the model Renaissance man.
As we agonise over how to judge the terrible men who make beautiful works of art, we should recall that our collective memories have been selective and our moral judgments muted. Scholars have cheerfully recast Cellini’s sexual history as the expression of a virile masculinity or an artistically transgressive eroticism, retelling this history of thuggery as a colourful footnote to a creative life. And if Cellini can be so easily immortalised, why should we think that our current outrage should have any effect on the long-term life of a work of art? Why would we think that the films made by Woody Allen (accused…