Art and Terrible People

Art and Terrible People

This has nothing to do with my writing, or with any other authors I personally know; it’s just a topic that’s been in the news and occasionally on my mind.

What’s the proper response to art (whether it’s a book, a movie, a symphony or a pop song or anything else) that’s created by someone who’s (by whatever definition) a horrible person, a criminal, or even by general acclamation, a monster?

The latest accusations against Woody Allen are the immediate reason that I’m thinking about this, but it’s a topic that I come back to every so often, and certainly not limited either to Allen, or to movies.  There are countless examples of pop singers who have committed crimes ranging from domestic abuse all the way up to murder, and it’s hardly a modern phenomenon.  Going back a century and a half, my favorite composer (Richard Wagner) was a pretty awful human being, an anti-semite, and on and on (whole books – heck, whole bookshelves! – have been written on the subject).

Where does that leave us, as the audience for the art of these rotten people?  Should I throw away my DVD of “Midnight in Paris” because Woody Allen is possibly a child molester?  I don’t know the answer.  Should I turn off the TV when “Chinatown” comes on, even though it is a great film, because Roman Polanski is not only a rapist, but completely unapologetic about it?  And what about the people who defend them, or even attack their victims publicly?  What to think about them?

If a friend or co-worker did what Allen is accused of, or what Polanski did, I – and most people, I think/hope – would want nothing to do with them on a personal level.  But that doesn’t answer the question.  Should we boycott/ignore/shun the art of people who we condemn for their acts?

To put some distance to the question, consider a ridiculous hypothetical.  If it was discovered, with incontrovertible proof, that, days after completing the Mona Lisa, Leonardo murdered his model for the painting with his own bare hands, what would we, here in 2013, do?

Would the painting be any less of an artistic triumph?  Should it be removed from the Louvre?  Should it be destroyed?  Or is several hundred years’ distance enough to ignore (or excuse away) the sins of the creator and enjoy the work for itself?  And if so, is the passage of enough time the only consideration?  What exactly is the statute of limitations on great art created by evil people?

As I said, I don’t know the answer – and I don’t know if there is “an” answer.  But it’s a question worth thinking about…

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One Reply to “Art and Terrible People”

  1. I can separate the art from its creator. Whoever Woody Allen is as a person, he’s a brilliant filmmaker.

    Using an example close to (my) home: Hanging on my wall is a wonderful portrait of my husband painted by his former daughter-in-law. Soon after completing the work, that talented young woman ran off with her boss, an act of abandonment that wrecked the marriage of my husband’s son, leaving the boy devastated. I believe her actions damaged my husband’s son for life, undoubtedly contributing to the young man’s early death.

    Yet the painting still hangs on my wall. Its creator was an awful person, a person who hurt my soulmate by hurting his son, but I cherish the portrait of my recently deceased husband. The art is not the artist, and vice versa.

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