Michelangelo was a truly wretched person. Smelly (literally), paranoid, argumentative, rude and money-mad, he was not the man who would become your beloved uncle. Other painters who were not the nicest of men include (and this is just the cream of a very long list) the murderer Caravaggio, the murderer Wainewright, the absent husband-father Gaugin, the deranged Van Gough. (In fact, recent inquiries indicate that perhaps it was Gaugin that slashed away Van Gough’s ear…) Picasso was a philanderer and possible collaborator, and not the most generous of men, and Fra' Filippo Lippi broke his priestly vows and fathered a son (the mother was his model for the Virgin). And so it goes.
Before too many composers start snickering at their paint-stained colleagues, there is the monstrously bullying anti-Semite Wagner and moody and unpleasant Beethoven. Conductor Herbert von Karajan and pianist Ellie Ney were card-carrying Nazis.
Writers do not fare much better. Ernest Hemmingway was a bully, drunkard and a wretched husband and father. (There was a collective sigh of relief from all who knew him once he committed suicide.) Coleridge and De Quincey were drug addicts. Poe was a drunkard and snob. Bernard Shaw was an early supporter of Mussolini and Pound favored Hitler.
And need I remind you that President Abraham Lincoln was shot by … an actor?
Pop culture fares no better. Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise are crackers to different degrees. O.J. Simpson murdered his wife. (Sue me, big fellah.) L. Ron Hubbard managed to con several generations out of millions of dollars (now billions) with an invented religion. (A business model which still attracts your correspondent…) Rock stars are notorious for drug use, and rapp singers are equally famous for the rap sheets detailing their crimes. (Rapp ‘music’ is indeed a remarkable cultural commodity – it is the first time in history that music was created largely by criminals for criminals.) Mark Wahlberg started out as a cheap hood responsible for one crime victim losing an eye. (At least he only had to see half of Walhberg’s movies…)
And what about the families of artists…? Are they under scrutiny, too? Harry Connick Sr., father of Sinatra simulacrum Harry Connick Jr., spent more than a decade willfully trying to execute a man his office knew was innocent. Does that mean we should dislike Harry Jr. and his music?
However, it is important to remember that without the above we would not have the Sistine Ceiling, the Ring Cycle, The Sun Also Rises, The Rhime of the Ancient Mariner, The Raven, and Pygmalion among other masterpieces.
So if the question is, what do artists owe us as human beings, then the short answer is – nothing. No artist owes the human community more (or less) than is required of any other human being. Of course, it’s always delightful when one’s artistic heroes turn out to be big-hearted and generous of nature. It’s nice to know that G. K. Chesterton was a lovely man or that Charles Dickens was warm and good natured, for instance. But neither man was a saint – they were human beings, flawed and all the more interesting for it.
However, the real question is not whether or not artists owe humanity more or less than anyone else, but rather should they be treated (or considered) any differently? And here the answer is short and unambiguous – no.
Artists may be above convention, but certainly never above the law. Nor does an artist automatically get a pass simply because he is dedicated to making art. Hemmingway was a wretched father and husband who happened to write several interesting novels – I’m not sure that the children he crippled emotionally were particularly enamored of his prose. And I doubt that John Thompson, the man almost murdered by Connick, Sr. and his office, is going to a Harry Connick, Jr. concert anytime soon. As an artist Michelangelo could not be touched – as a human being, no one wanted to touch him. And measured by any yardstick other than aesthetic achievement Wagner was a vile and abominable human being.
But once we know of the (sometimes horrific) failings of artists, what is the proper reaction of people who regularly engage with the arts? That is perhaps the most interesting and most key question. For example, I have always been able to enjoy Wagner’s music, but I was born decades after the Holocaust and the anti-Semitism of fin de siècle Germany is not particularly relevant to my life. However – I understand and appreciate the Wagner ban in Israel.
Michelangelo’s shortcomings as a person were so personal – and are now so distant – so to mean nothing to me as I contemplate his unparalleled artistic achievement. None of Caravaggio’s crimes are evident to me on the canvas and Fra Lippi’s indiscretions now strike me as more amusing than sinful. However, the very things that made Hemmingway a loathsome human being are there on the pages of his work for all to see: the posturing, the bullying, the macho-minded idiocy. And I certainly have a harder time taking Shaw seriously as an intellectual when I see that he was beglamoured by an unlettered thug like Mussolini.
So, the cut-off point for the aesthete and the bad-boy (or bad-girl) artist must be purely a personal one. Do we forgive them for their lives? I am not prepared to say that art (and artists) are too removed from morality for this to be a valid question – it’s perhaps a primary question. For myself, I’d never pay money for any work that would in some way fill the pockets of Gibson, Cruise, Walhberg or Connick – you may feel differently.
I would be interested to learn from my readers where they stand on this question. Does the art erase the bad behavior of an artist? And if so, why?