Private lives and public art

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The image presented at the start of this article was painted in 1913. It belongs to the tradition of western art of Madonna and Child compositions, and while it’s nothing special, it’s also not bad. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it hanging in a church, especially alongside the schlocky Jesus paintings by Harry Anderson that I was subjected to in the days of my youth. That would depend on the artist’s name being concealed, since the work in question was done by Adolf Hitler a year or so before he joined the German Army and got pulled out of the counterfactual into the history that we know.

His paintings vary in quality, some are what I’d expect from someone in the early days of his work, while others display a measure of skill and aesthetic appeal that would make them something I’d consider putting on my own wall — again, keeping the name of the artist obscured.

And therein lies the point here. How are we to treat the intellectual property generated by bad people? I raise this question as reports of sexual misconduct — ranging from harassment to rape — are bringing down one famous man after another. Do we have to throw out the work of Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose, or Garrison Keillor, or is there a way to preserve the good that they did, even as we reject the men themselves?

As a teacher of literature and amateur critic, I subscribe to the New Criticism school, focusing on primarily on the text, leaving matters that I regard as extraneous to others. Whatever was going on in the author’s life is beyond the pale unless someone can demonstrate its influence on the writing, and I couldn’t care less about whatever the author meant the text to say. Indeed, asking such a question is called the Intentional Fallacy.

But that is a tough standard to ask everyone to follow. It’s difficult for me when I don’t like the person of a particular artist. As Peter Jackson said in an interview with Charlie Rose — yes, Charlie Rose — he didn’t want to cast Tom Cruise as Aragorn because he worried about the audience seeing Cruise rather than the character. I don’t like Cruise — it’s his acting, not his religion or his relationships — so I appreciate Jackson’s choice, even while having to admit that it’s unfortunate that people watching have trouble separating the story from real life. Viggo Mortensen is a fine actor and was perfect for the role, anyway.

If we insist on throwing away the work of morally repulsive people, we will lose a lot of our intellectual inheritance. Lord Acton’s saying about the corrupting influence of power was made about the popes of the Renaissance, but I’m unwilling to give up the art that was paid for by the profits of their greed. Werner von Braun was complicit in the enslavement and murder of many who built his rockets in the Second World War. Would the world have been better by rejecting his knowledge and staying out of space? Thomas Jefferson also enslaved his fellow human beings. Must we give up the University of Virginia and the independence of the United States in response?

The reality of human nature is that we’re all a mixture of characteristics whose moral qualities are often unclear in a given time. Unless we’re willing to purge the vast majority of the achievements of our species, we have to accept a measure of impurity. How we deal with offenders is subject for another article, but we shouldn’t dispose of intellectual treasures in the pursuit of justice — unless we’re ready to give up on civilization as a whole. After all, who among us is without sin?

For more of my writing, including my modern English version of one of Chaucer’s gifts to humanity, The Parliament of Fowls, go here.

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Gee, Camp, what were you thinking? Supports gay rights, #2a, #1a, science, and other seemingly incongruous things. Books available on Amazon.

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