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
Published in February 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
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 of child sex abuse), Roman Polanski (convicted of raping a teenager) or Alfred Hitchcock (who tormented the actor Tippi Hedren on the set of The Birds) might not endure?
In recent months, our collective opposition has forced the institutions that have harboured at least some of these men into action. The deposition of Harvey Weinstein from his own production company, and the dismissal of literary editor and mogul Leon Wieseltier from the New Republic are no small victories—one hopes there are many more to come. But it is easier to sack a producer or a journalist than to deny the deep attachments we have to artists who make the works that matter to us. How do you reconcile yourself to the films you love, the Louis CK sketches that still make you laugh, the Casey Affleck performance you still believe deserves an Oscar? (Affleck has denied harrassing two female colleagues while filming 2010’s I’m Still Here.) In other words, how do we square our moral discomfort with our aesthetic judgment?
When Kate Winslet was asked about working with Allen on their 2017 film Wonder Wheel, she replied: “Having thought it all through, you put it to one side and just work with the person. Woody Allen is an incredible director.” In this pragmatism, she isn’t alone. According to a YouGov poll, nearly 40 per cent of American filmgoers said that an accusation of sexual assault against an actor wouldn’t deter them from watching their films. For others, it proves an intractable problem, with Greta Gerwig and Mira Sorvino both releasing recent statements expressing regret at having worked with Allen, and announcing they wouldn’t do so again. Even so, Gerwig admitted, “I grew up on his movies, and they have informed me as an artist.” As Sorvino acknowledged, it is “difficult to sever ties and denounce your heroes.”
This dilemma reaches beyond decisions about which actors we censure and whose films we defend. It poses deeper questions, inviting us to reflect on our relationship to art and to think harder about what we take to be its purpose or responsibilities—if any.
This is part of a much older discussion about the nature of aesthetic judgment. When the German philosopher Immanuel Kant described the conditions by which we evaluate the beauty of “an object or a kind of representation” in his aesthetic treatise of 1790, The Critique of Judgement, he stipulated the essential quality of “disinterestedness.” Disinterestedness is the attitude that permits us to assess work without the influence of an internal agenda or external interference—a requirement, in other words, that we understand a work of art purely on its own terms, unmarred by historical precedent, biographical detail, political, social or moral implication. If Kant were alive today, he would argue that only the work matters—not the men behind it, or their deeds.
Is it ever really possible for objects of beauty not to be spoiled by the dirty hands that made them? The late 19th-century aesthetic movement exalted the exceptionalism of art, insisting that paintings, plays and music must not be bent to the service of Christian moralising, ideology or other didactic ends. But “art for art’s sake” often feels as glib as it sounds—as though it were easy to understand an artwork on just its own terms.
We are not obliged to devalue works of art we once admired
So what should we do? My own sense is that we are not obliged to devalue works of art we once admired in view of the acts of horror or violence involved in their creation. Often we cannot help our attachment to the paintings we love and the films we adore, no matter what we might discover about the people who make them. This is the deep, penetrative power of art that distinguishes it from all other kinds of human production. All of us know the power of the painting that opens up some hitherto unthought truth, the song that pierces, the sculpture in whose presence we feel humbled. That we have no resistance to these works is in itself a mark of their greatness. But morality is the gadfly that insistently troubles beauty. It’s what makes this current debate more than a storm in a Hollywood teacup.
Philosophers themselves have been depressingly bad at dealing with their own version of this problem. In the 18th century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the thinker behind the social contract, compelled his mistress to abandon all five of their newborn babies at the Foundling Hospital in Paris. In 1933, the existential philosopher Martin Heidegger joined the Nazi Party, demoting Jewish colleagues and recording anti-Semitic remarks in his Black Notebooks. (Heidegger’s affair with his pupil Hannah Arendt has shades of more recent scandals about the sexualised relationships between senior academics and their research students.) In 1980, the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser strangled his wife Hélène in a fit of depression, and spent the rest of his life interned in various clinics. Yet would anyone exclude Rousseau, Heidegger or Althusser from the canon of European philosophy?
Why is it, though, that philosophical ideas can be so cleanly extracted from sometimes troubling origins? Rousseau, who both refused to rear his own children and wrote extensively on the education of young people, presents only as a striking case of logical contradiction: the validity of his views seems unaffected by the fact that he didn’t live up to them. But when it comes to art, that feels more like straightforward hypocrisy. Philosophers often claim for themselves a thoughtful objectivity—but in culture it is so much harder, as Yeats wrote, “to know the dancer from the dance.”
If anything, these examples from philosophy expose the conceit of a discipline that lacks the facility for critical self-reflection. It is surely one merit of art that it gives us pause, and asks that we examine the artists who have produced the work. We question our relationship to both them and it.
How can we, for instance, admire Picasso’s depiction of women when we know that he was serially unfaithful, once coolly declaring to his mistress, Françoise Gilot, that “women are machines for suffering”? Two former lovers killed themselves and another two suffered mental breakdowns. And yet isn’t it this tangled and complicated sense of women that lies behind his contorted figurations of them? Likewise, we should surely despise Hitchcock for terrorising Hedren, but it is also the case that an underlying, simmering misogyny is part of what The Birds is about. Great art permits complexity; it contains contradictions and hypocrisies. This isn’t to disqualify our disgust at monstrous artists, but to acknowledge that dissonance is part of our experience of art too.
The most powerful artists, writers, actors, musicians
and filmmakers infiltrate our consciousness
The most powerful artists, writers, actors, musicians and filmmakers infiltrate our consciousness, shaping our minds and our cultures in ways beyond our control. In some cases, they do this against our will; even against our knowledge. I think here of the British sculptor, printmaker and designer Eric Gill, whose work was indelibly blemished by the revelations of sexual abuse, paedophilia and bestiality disclosed in Fiona MacCarthy’s 1989 biography. And yet Gill’s work remains in full view, his hand visible in the distinctive typeface that bears his name, his sculptures emblazoned across the BBC’s Broadcasting House in central London.
Only last year, glancing up from a lecture, I suddenly recognised Gill’s familiar hand in the bas-relief panels wrapped around a university building where I had taught for the last eight years. No matter how much we might despise someone’s moral character, we are often closer to them than we might like; sometimes their work is hiding in plain sight. Artistic influence is subtle and deep, and we cannot escape unscathed.
In her biography, MacCarthy identifies a continuity between Gill’s appalling life and the “flesh-and-spirit tensions palpable in his work.” It’s an uncomfortable suggestion; but it makes sense that the people that we are should emerge in the ways we live and the work we do. Last year, the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft’s show about Gill sought to acknowledge this problem, carefully exhibiting drawings of his daughter Petra behind a curtain, and pointedly commissioning sculptor Cathie Pilkington’s installation, A Doll for Petra, to foreground Petra’s experience in the context of her father’s work. Neither justification nor apology, the gesture nonetheless recognised both those who had suffered at Gill’s hands and asserted the agency of female artists too. Enabling the work of brilliant women might prove to be our most effective rejoinder to this long history of the art of bad men.
In his 1908 essay “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming,” Freud speculates that art is the outward disclosure of an inward, unconscious life. The allure of the writer, he explains, is the expression they give to those desires and fantasies in which we all have a share; in reading them, we find relief. It is a crude formulation, but revealing—about the unconscious ways in which art works, the unthinkable secrets it carries. The pleasure of a painting, play or poem can be precisely that it intimates some human darkness about which we are necessarily in denial. Isn’t it naive of us to assume that works which venture into that darkness are only imaginative fictions, not born of real experiences? Haven’t we always known that art is the expression of our darkest souls?
The difficulty with this understanding of the artist is the special status that it grants him, the sleight of hand by which it can serve to legitimise—or facilitate—his behaviour. The image of the troubled artist is a seductive trope. Sometimes, being troubled feels like the index of genius, as though immorality, impropriety, unkindness or even violence, were not acts of grotesque entitlement but the signal of an exceptional artistic character.
But confronted by fresh accounts of abuses of power and exploitation, seemingly every day, this trope has rarely felt so tired. We have every right to insist that it is possible to be a decent person and a brilliant artist. Last year, the 63-year-old Zanzibar-born and Preston-based Lubaina Himid unexpectedly won the Turner Prize, after decades of critical neglect. At least part of her £25,000 prize money, she explained, will go towards commissioning other underfunded artists. Why be a troubled genius when you can be a kind and generous one? It may be that the people best equipped to prove that are those brilliant women—unharassed and unabused—refusing to uncouple beauty and morality, and aspiring to make the kind of art of which we need not be ashamed.