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The great and fallen artists

Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew. wikipedia Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew. wikipedia

A New York Times Op-Ed recently asked, “Is It Time Gauguin Got Canceled?” It raised this question of banishing Gauguin because the artist slept with young girls in Tahiti and called the natives “savages.”

Let’s look at a few more artists and writers before looking for an answer.

American authors Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner were alcoholics and adulterers. Roald Dahl, who created such children’s classics as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda, was a womanizer and an anti-Semite. Of the seven significant women in misogynist Pablo Picasso’s life, “two committed suicide and two went mad.” 

Artists from other centuries behaved little better — and in some cases, far worse. Italian painter Caravaggio was a murderer and a drunk who may have been murdered in turn. Renaissance goldsmith and sculptor Benvenuto Cellini had a fierce temper, practiced revenge, and killed several people. Richard Wagner is as famous today for his anti-Semitism as for his music. Of Jewish descent, Karl Marx was also anti-Semitic, mistreated his family, and allowed himself to be supported by others, all the while calling for a worker’s paradise. Rousseau wrote books on educating children while putting four, possibly five, of his offspring at birth into orphanages with horrific death rates. 

Female artists have behaved better, but not all of them escape this roll call. Anne Sexton, Jean Rhys, and Carson McCullers were abusive alcoholics. Ayn Rand openly cheated on her husband. As a teenager, now well-known crime novelist Anne Perry beat her mother to death with a brick. Mary Wollstonecraft entered into a liaison with poet Percy Shelley, bore his illegitimate child, and married him after his wife committed suicide. 

So now some questions: Can we enjoy the paintings of Paul Gauguin knowing that he engaged in sex with women and under-aged girls in Tahiti, and so helped spread syphilis throughout that island? Can we admire the canvases of Caravaggio or the exquisite sculptures of Cellini knowing that they often behaved detestably? Can we treasure the prose of Hemingway, a drunk and a braggart who often bullied friends and foe alike? Must we condemn writers like Laura Ingalls Wilder of Little House fame for her prejudices against Indians or Pamela Travers for her now politically incorrect depictions of other cultures in her Mary Poppins books? 

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How do we separate the artist from the art?

That’s neither easy to do nor an easy question to answer, especially today when we demand that our public figures — politicians, athletes, celebrities — be saints. We require, for example, sexual rectitude in the workplace and public square, even while our society gorges itself on pornography. 

Perhaps we might start with our view of human nature. Do we believe, as some do, that humanity can be tweaked into perfection, or do we believe in the fallen nature of human beings? If the latter, it is much easier to forgive that besotted writer for his love of gin or that female painter for her promiscuity. If we accept the fallen nature idea of humanity, we might not want to buddy up with a Leo Tolstoy or invite Scott Fitzgerald to supper, but we can appreciate their writing. We might condemn pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti for some of his habits and practices — he died a drug abuser and an alcoholic, and had for years carried on a sexual relationship with one of his models — yet we can still take pleasure in his paintings. 

If we forget that artists are also human beings, as susceptible to moral failures as the rest of us, we do them and ourselves a great disservice. 

Moreover, the work created by such artists may derive in part from their own sense of personal shortcomings and their attempts to overcome those weaknesses through their art. In For Whom The Bell Tolls, the main character, Robert Jordan, is a better man than Hemingway ever was. In The Great Gatsby the narrator, Nick Carraway, has admirable qualities lacking in his creator, Leo Tolstoy. Malcolm Lowry’s Under The Volcano features as its main character an alcoholic, which Lowry was as well, but we sense in his fictional creation a nobility lacking in Lowry’s own character. 

This driving force, to make the creation better and more beautiful than the creator, may be one motivation behind all the arts.

Finally, we might keep in mind that artists — writers, painters, sculptors, musicians — are different than politicians, preachers, and some celebrities. The politician who enjoins the rest of us to endure austerity while he himself is engaging in graft, the preacher who inveighs against sin while boozing it up and seeking sexual pleasures outside of his marriage, the teacher who seduces a student entrusted to her care: these and others are breaking their bonds with the unspoken oath they took when they entered their professions. 

The artist takes no such oath — not in regard to the personal life. The true artist makes a vow to truth and beauty. That personal life may be as messy as it gets, but that oath binds the artist to the work.

Let’s conclude with this observation from Gregory Wolfe’s Beauty Will Save The World, a title taken from Dostoevsky. In Chapter 4, Wolfe writes: “It is a curious fact that the artist who produced the most compelling and accessible version of Christian humanism in the twentieth century was a multiply married, luxury-loving, alcoholic atheist by the name of Robert Bolt.” 

Robert Bolt wrote the play, “A Man For All Seasons,” and the screenplay for the movie. Here he tells the story of Sir Thomas More, his resistance to Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, and his subsequent execution for refusing to approve that marriage and the break from Roman Catholicism. The atheist Bolt paints More as a Christian and humanist who deserves our admiration.

Like Robert Bolt, artists who pursue truth and beauty strive to deliver a message that makes us more fully human. Indeed, here is the measuring stick separating great art from mediocre or bad art. The former adds to our sense of humanity, the latter leaves us untouched or even diminishes our personhood. 

We can revere the art — a poem, a painting, a symphony — without requiring its creator be a saint.

(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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