Evil artists.

Charles McGrath considers the historical relationship between unethical character and artistic genius, introducing a distinction to explain why the two are consistent:

In the case of the artist, badness or goodness is a moral quality or judgment; in the case of his art goodness and badness are terms of aesthetic merit, to which morality does not apply. The conductor Daniel Barenboim, a Jew, is a champion of Wagner’s music, for example, and has made a point of playing it in Israel, where it is hardly welcome. His defense is that while Wagner may have been reprehensible, his music is not. Barenboim likes to say that Wagner did not compose a single note that is anti-Semitic. And the disconnect between art and morality goes further than that: not only can a “bad” person write a good novel or paint a good picture, but a good picture or a good novel can depict a very bad thing. Think of Picasso’s Guernica or Nabokov’s Lolita , an exceptionally good novel about the sexual abuse of a minor, described in a way that makes the protagonist seem almost sympathetic.

This seems right to me. But can we not make a case for a person’s (at least partial) goodness on the basis of the art they create? If so, the latter part of McGrath’s distinction creates some feedback affecting character judgements too. And then the interesting question is whether a creatively brilliant but ethically suspect person can ever be deemed ‘good’, all things considered. Is moral character a necessary condition for overall goodness, so anyone who is ethically bad can only be praised insofar as we isolate one aspect of his personality? Or can artistic achievement be so awesome that the fact its creator committed adultery makes little difference to our opinion of him? The latter thought sounds very Nietzschean to me. And I, of course, have sympathy with the former position.

McGrath also notes the nature of Hemingway’s life story, though, to demonstrate how in some cases there could be a trade-off: great art requires a licence to be unethical. And that leads to a fascinating question:

In November 1952, just after his 21st birthday, Gregory, the youngest (and arguably most talented) of Hemingway’s three children, wrote to his father: “When it’s all added up, papa, it will be: he wrote a few good stories, had a novel and fresh approach to reality and he destroyed five persons — Hadley, Pauline, Marty [Martha Gelhorn, Hemingway’s third wife], Patrick and possibly myself. Which do you think is the most important, your self-centered shit, the stories or the people?” There is no possibly about it: Gregory, the most damaged of all the Hemingway offspring, died, an alcoholic transvestite, in the Miami-Dade Women’s Detention Center. Its anger aside, the letter is noteworthy for raising a troubling and probably unanswerable question about the art-life connection: how many stories, however good, are worth the pain and unhappiness of others?

Hat tip: Big Think.


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