Features Australia

Can rotten people create great art?

18 November 2017

9:00 AM

18 November 2017

9:00 AM

Resolving the dichotomy between a work of art, and the artist who created it, has never been more urgent or important than it is today.

Recently, in Hollywood, the crisis of influential people using their power to sexually blackmail aspiring male and female performers has caused us to question not just the predator but the art itself. The exposure of these sexual hunters and gatherers has caused problems for some of the world’s most popular entertainments. An example is the decision to discontinue the production of the American political drama series House of Cards because of accusations of sexual predation by its star, Kevin Spacey. He has also been ousted from a movie, Ridley Scott’s bio-pic of J. Paul Getty, All the Money in the World, which is still in production.

Yet the sexual aggression of the character Spacey portrayed in the House of Cards series, as well as of many characters in other popular programs such as Game of Thrones, is almost mandatory for the audience’s enjoyment.

Not that Spacey is alone in the accusations of sexual impropriety and inappropriate groping. Ben Affleck, Dustin Hoffman, Harvey Weinstein and others have recently been blamed for unconscionable conduct towards young actors. And nor is this a recent phenomenon. The ‘Hollywood Casting Couch’ was a way for young aspiring hopefuls to boost their chances of landing a role, and enabling older producers and directors to plumb the depths of their talent. Which leads to the question… does the immorality of the creators destroy the quality of the artwork they produce?

The potency of modern television, movies, scripts and acting means that the performer often becomes the character in our minds. On the one hand, it’s the actor whose behaviour is contemptible; on the other, we relish despicable behaviour in the character they create. Heaven forbid one of our performing heroes exhibit anything other than the highest moral quality. How many of us want President Trump to behave like the fictional President Josiah Bartlett in The West Wing?

It takes time, even centuries, for amorality to be overlooked. One of the masters of Italian painting, Caravaggio, whose works are incomparable and the pride of museums throughout the world, was a murderer, a public brawler and an escapee from justice, somebody today who would be branded Public Enemy Number One. Yet his paintings are deemed the noblest works of art.


The difference today is the ubiquity of social media. So many of us in cyberspace become moral arbiters, causing the lynch mob mentality to take over.

So should there be a separation between the bad person and the art created? Rolf Harris, the 87-year-old Australian entertainer, painter and convicted paedophile, is languishing in a Stafford prison in England for crimes he committed between 1968 and 1986 against little girls aged from only eight. As a result of his convictions, and unlike Caravaggio’s paintings, dealers and councils have removed Harris’ work from public display. Regardless of the quality of his art, he himself has become artist non grata.

The Weinstein/Spacey et. al. uproar in Hollywood expands the question, ‘can rotten people create great art?’

The reality is that people who are publicly exposed as hideous human beings can and do create great art. The question is whether or not the art should be judged by the moral qualities of the artist.

Richard Wagner’s operas stand tall amongst the greatest works of art created in the 19th Century, yet for decades, orchestras in Israel were forbidden from performing them because of his Nazi associations. He has only recently been introduced into this music-loving nation by the conductor Daniel Barenboim, who says that while Wagner is reprehensible, his music isn’t.

The French painter Edgar Degas and the American poets TS Eliot and Ezra Pound were notorious anti-Semites, yet nobody suggests that their work be expunged from the public record. Pablo Picasso’s work is the pride of great museums of the world and sells for a fortune, yet of the seven women with whom he had relations, two went mad as a result of his misogyny and two committed suicide.

Lord Byron was notorious for his incestuous behaviour, the great French playwright Jean Genet was a thief, and Gustav Flaubert was a paedophile.

The history of the arts is replete with the lives of truly awful people, who have created great art. And because of the passage of time, we’ve put their transgressions aside to rejoice in and profit from their genius. Their works of art, whether in words, music, or on canvass, are the building blocks of our culture.

So today, in an era of snap judgements on Facebook and Twitter where anybody can pose as a knowledgeable critic and where radio shock jocks have become the moral arbiters of social norms, how do we differentiate between the artist and the art?

Judging any art on the criteria of the morality of the artist leads us down a misleading road, because art can only be judged on its aesthetic merit, and not on the virtue or villainy of the artist. Morality simply doesn’t apply to great art. Adolf Hitler’s paintings were ridiculed not because he was evil, but because his art was rotten. While somebody viewing it might think it either wonderful or banal, they’re judging it by the fame of the artist, rather than the art.

This dichotomy is created by the art itself. Art is ennobling, inspiring, refining and educative. Great art brings out the very best in us, and cultivates our nobility. So we expect that, as we listen to, or read or view great art, the creator’s life is reflected in the art and that the art has morally improved both us and the artist. This, of course, is patently not the case.

And because some people can’t separate the art from the artist, my wife forces me to use earphones when I listen to Wagner.

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