“We’re all like the moon,” quipped Twain. “We each have a dark side.” Despite our luminescence, even the most acclaimed among us has a barren backside. Perhaps this is why public moonings have replaced public floggings as our chastisement of choice.
The recent revelation of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s history of child abuse left many reeling. Apparently, while the late sci-fi icon was creating other worlds, she was pretty much defecating on her own. Bradley’s crimes have, understandably, evoked harsh reactions. While some authors and publishers have vowed to donate any proceeds from Bradley’s books to anti-abuse charities, others like G. Willow Wilson admit that Bradley’s crimes are unforgivable.
I’m speechless about this news re: Marion Zimmer Bradley. I can forgive artists for falling short of their ideals, but not for CHILD ABUSE.
— G. Willow Wilson (@GWillowWilson) June 25, 2014
The responses were similar after the allegations of molestation brought against Woody Allen by his adopted daughter. While some compared Allen to Roman Polansky as some of the smarmiest pervs in show biz, others vowed to never watch another film made by the acclaimed director.
Then there were those who were, shall we say, pragmatic. For instance, earlier this year, in an essay for Slate, novelist and screenwriter Rafael Yglesias defended his decision to work with director Roman Polanski (Polanski pleaded guilty to unlawful sex with a minor in 1977) by concluding
“Working with a rapist is not the same as condoning rape.”
Others would probably disagree.
Granted, these are extreme examples. Nevertheless, the Bradley revelations have broached familiar terrain. Namely, the whole Art v. Artist debate.
What do we do when a really terrible human being makes great art?
At what point does an artist’s behavior taint their art? Is it possible to know that the author, actor, or director of a given piece is a complete jerk, if not a criminal, and still admit they make a darned good product? Do an artist’s crimes, addictions, or eccentricities, diminish their art? What is the appropriate response of the art consumer to such revelations?
For the most part, we appear willing to separate art from the artist. But in the case of Bradley (and Allen and Polansky), that dance seems more difficult.
Celebrity / artist misconduct always resurrects the discussion about character and craft, its connection or the lack thereof. Should we view The Passion of the Christ any different because we know its director has some serious problems? Is The Picture of Dorian Gray tarnished by its author’s excesses? Does Sir Elton’s sexual preference minimize his music? Does Wagner’s anti-Semitism and affairs with chorus girls make his sonatas less beautiful? Can we – should we – divide art from the artist, distinguish what one creates from how one behaves?
Whatever your stance, separating character from craft is a difficult act to perform. Chesterton said, “Art is the signature of man.” As such, the line between the art and the man is indeed fine. Some would even suggest that this notion of “lines” actually blurs the issue. In other words, they import their gauzy, subjective, artistic relativism into the realm of morals. Meaning that judging people is as nebulous as judging art.
Another reason for the disconnect between creator and craft is the fact that art more often, and more easily, transcends the artist than the artist does her work. God once spoke through a jackass and the speaking, though magical, did not transform the beast. Many artists are the equivalent of Balaam’s ass, and their art is far more miraculous for their lowly nature. What surprises us more than that great art is made, is that jackasses like ourselves can make it.
So maybe, in the case of art, a “bad tree” can produce “good fruit.”
Which brings me back to my central contemplation: Can I partake of “good fruit” (in this case, good art) without condoning the “bad tree” (or bad person) that bore it? Or as Rafael Yglesias put it, Is it possible to enjoin the work of a rapist, pervert, drug addict, con man, or anti-Semite, without “condoning” their sin?
Near the end of his life, after being convicted of the offence of “gross indecency” and imprisoned for two years of hard labor, Oscar Wilde penned these words:
“Ah! Happy they whose hearts can break
And peace of pardon win!
How else may man make straight his plan
And cleanse his soul from Sin?
How else but through a broken heart
May Lord Christ enter in?”
An addict and avowed homosexual, Wilde spent his last three years penniless, exiled from society and artistic circles, a broken man. His talent had garnered him greatness. But in the end it was his heart, not his art, that he labored over.
So while we may separate the craftsman from the craft, we must never separate the man from morality. In the case of Marion Zimmer Bradley, her “morality” is of such a heinous nature that no amount of philosophizing can keep it from soiling her art. And therein lies the rub, the divide, the line we must tow at all costs. I can concede that evil chefs can still make tasty meals. But depending on the evil, at some point, consuming those meals might make me an accomplice.