In this rather compelling piece, Lorna May argues that we are on a long road to ‘nothing’ should we ignore art because we question the morally reprehensible lives and behaviors of those artists who create the art.
In this current climate it is true that the media and evidently Joe public pushes moral high ground with ever increasing intensity. It seems we are becoming more intolerant or at least are more willing to chastise those ‘others’ whose actions we deem ‘negative’. But in shunning those “despicable” individuals does that mean we should also shun the art? Can we shun another’s art when we all know that as humans we are all inherently flawed with our own questionable dark sides?
Artists contribute to something truly essential and precious to society-that is why we respect and worship them. These ubermenschen stand up high shaping the ideals of beauty, molding our thoughts into dreams and our dreams into thoughts through the medium of fiction bringing us closer to reality. We tend to regard them like Greek gods, divine creatures of a higher intellect: Fortune tellers in white tunics being fed grapes and holy smoke. Even the whole Hollywood idea comes from the gods inhabiting the Mount Olympus. These gods are human-like Dionysus, but they are more than us, as they indulge in earthly pleasures.
But where does art come from?
We simplistically tend to want to view life in black and white. We think of people as being creative or evil, good or bad, rather than recognizing that even the most exceptionally imaginative individuals entertain the capacity of evil, while the most evil have the capacity of creativity or good.
And again, where does art come from?
Great artists tend to live for their art rather than for others. That’s why most of them are strewn with broken marriages or they’ve been neglected and under-appreciated children. These are people who suffer- and they like it. “Suffering” comes from the Latin word “sufferire” that literally means “to endure/to permit/to undergo/to tolerate” pain. After all, art does come from pain. It is the pain of living in a reality that doesn’t belong to you. The pain of being misunderstood and neglected, or the pain of mortality and the acceptance that life is meaningless.
Oscar Wilde said: “We’re all in a gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”. A quote that perfectly resonates that allegory of the cave that artists know so well. But, in order to do the work, one must be selfish. Where is the limit of that selfishness? That’s where the trouble is. Selfishness often leads to monstrosity.
But what is monstrous behavior?
Martha Gellhorn said: “A man must be a very great genius to make up for being such a loathsome human being”, Words steeped within her own experiences. Her boyfriend, Ernest Hemingway said himself: “Hard drinking, hard fighting, hard loving – all for art’s sake”.
His bad behavior evidently inspiring a whole generation to justify the destruction of perfectly good hotels all because they are “creatives”. While a further generation of women (and men at times) swoon at said creative’s feet. This is what monstrous men look like: Elvis Presley-underage flings, Johnny Cash-terrible behavior with women, Frank Sinatra-destructive temper or Pablo Picasso, who treated women abysmally, to the point that two of them killed themselves.
How about what monstrous women look like? They abandon their kids. Always. The female monster is Doris Lessing ditching her children to live a writer’s life in London. Virginia Woolf, who killed herself by drowning in a river, leaving everything behind, including her anti-Semitic ideas. The female monster is Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide by putting her head in the oven in front of her kids-(that’s original at least, we’ll give her that).
In a way, we feel sorry for these people, but more than anything they’re legends in our mind. Selfish bastards, sexy suicidal sirens and drunk misogynists. On my shelf a veritable ensemble of creative, abusive alcoholics-globally adored; Hemingway, Faulkner, Updike and Dickens. Wow!
But no matter the amount of terror Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick inflicted on their actors, they’re nevertheless geniuses.
Talking about filmmakers… There’s a whole anti Woody Allen movement going on. Woody Allen the stand-up comedian, the writer, the actor, the director. And oh, least we forget, the pedophile?
Woody Allen made a swathe of people irate with venomous and seething anger and disgust when he married his adoptive daughter (he has been married to her for 20 years by the way) and later on, for being accused of sexually abusing his natural daughter. Many actors have expressed regret (perhaps it’s the renowned appeasement stunt) that they ever worked with him. Audiences meanwhile have (apparently) refused to keep watching his films. Is that fair?
I remember when I first watched Annie Hall (1977) a love story for people who don’t believe in love. How completely pointless was the on-screen relationship, and how completely worth it? Am I supposed to give that up because Woody Allen has misbehaved? Am I supposed to give up that wonderful world of neurotic women, nihilist writers, quirky Jewish humor, comic psychotherapy and jazz in the air because the man behind it is a presumed monster? All of that jazz is too beautiful to ignore. It must be celebrated. It’s the artist’s art that shouldn’t be neglected. That same art that once it’s out there belongs to everybody. It’s culture, if not just mental masturbation.
We have to enter a conversation with ourselves. Are these accusations true? We tend to believe everything that is written in a magazine, but let’s think about it. Firstly, Woody Allen is Jewish (the war is over, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that Jews aren’t still persecuted). Secondly, he is anti-Hollywood. He’s an independent filmmaker who stays away from the holy hill and doesn’t see the need for superficial attendances award ceremonies. Thirdly, Allen is known for his self-mocking and quirky humor. His films are basically about the absurdity of life. I can confidently say that (in more than 60 films) he managed to make fun of most personality types.
No wonder that he has made a few enemies. I don’t know if those allegations are true. What I do know is that people who dare to say the truth, often end up on a cross like Jesus Christ. Let’s not be quick to judge.
There’s an asshole inside every artist, as well as in every human being.
Shall we ignore Roman Polanski too? The world would be an empty crib without Rosemary’s Baby (1968). In that case, we should also burn the works of some anti-Semitic personalities such as; Wagner, Edgar Degas, Ezra Pound or T.S. Elliot. We should ignore Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s paintings and Ben Jonson plays. Both men with a liking for killing men in ‘noble’ duels. Let’s not even mention Arthur Rimbaud (even though I have) the smuggler, Gustave Flaubert who paid for sex with boys or Lord Byron who did not mind a bit of innocent incest.
Without mentioning the drunkenness, drug-taking, backstabbing, unhealthy sexual behavior, casual adultery and chronic indebtedness of many-
William Burroughs, Sid Vicious, John Galliano, Norman Mailer, Pollock, Michael Jackson, Miles Davis and Phil Spector. They should all have fallen into oblivion. And if I start listing athletes, I’ll never stop.
How about artists that we judge based on their own art? Those ones that have the courage to hold up a mirror to society and show us our most shameful faults. Art can be disturbing, noisy, embarrassing and downright repulsive. Michael Haneke or Lars Von Trier. Their movies are brave in their exploration of the moral cesspits that are inextricably linked to the human condition. I can’t say I’m experiencing pleasure exactly, but I know that I need it.
There’s an asshole inside every artist, as well as in every human being. If we start ignoring good art by bad people, we’ll probably end up with bad art by good people.
Featured image by?//Second image painting Council Of The Gods by Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647)//Fourth image Miles Davis by Lyn Goldsmith//Sixth image Woddy Allen by Keystone Rex