On Friday night I sat down to watch American Beauty again. It’s a really good movie, but I was curious to see how I would respond to it in light of the sexual harassment accusations levelled at its star, Kevin Spacey.
It’s always an interesting question, even if a little cliche these days: can you separate the art from the artist?
By inclination, I prefer to view – or respond – to art purely. The reason for that is that so much of our response to art is personal and individual. That’s not to belittle the inspiration for the art, it’s just recognition that once it leaves the artists hands we are free to respond to the art as our nature dictates. That’s unique to every one of us because we have different eyes and ears, each of us brings different histories and perspectives to the encounter, we appreciate it differently. Art by its nature is subjective.
By itself, that’s a purist take on something which is not nearly as simple as that. While our responses are our own, some art does not lend itself so easily to a personal interpretation, and in reality, there are occasions when knowledge of the artist must inform our reaction to his art.
Take, for a broad example, a painting by that well-known, would-be artist, Adolf Hitler. If you look at it purely as art it’s mediocre. He seems an accomplished draftsman, but there’s no inspiration or insight. But then who looks at a Hitler painting for its artistry? That piece of ‘art’ is no more than novelty. In fact it is the artist who gives meaning to the art, and the result is banal, if not disturbing.
But then you have someone like Wagner, a well-known anti-semite, but who was the composer of dozens of much loved operatic tunes. I’m not a particular fan of Wagner, but I can’t help but be roused occasionally when I hear something of his in passing, and it never occurs to me in listening that he wasn’t a particularly nice man.
These are, as I say, very broad examples to demonstrate very broad principles. What they do is illustrate the point that there is no clear-cut, unambiguous answer to this question. Our reaction to this question is as individual as our reaction to the art itself. As such, I can only speak for myself.
I love artists, and some artists more than others. I’ll binge on particular artists, which is recognition that there is something in that artist that resonates with me as a consumer of his art. There is a connect of sorts, of which the art is the interface. I cannot deny the primacy of the artist, but equally I know that when I engage with a piece of art it is an intimate thing, just me and it in the same room, the same headspace as such, the artist elsewhere, tapping his foot perhaps anticipating my reaction. I am unaware of that. I am unaware of him. It’s just me and the art, and the worlds the art opens up in me when it’s truly great.
It only ever becomes a thing when I walk out of that room. I become conscious. I may stop to analyse what I was so busy feeling. I might wonder and question. My mind will go to the artist. I’ll reflect on them, their personality, their history, I’ll wonder what they were trying to say, and will ponder their life’s work. (I can get very caught up – I’m on Wikipedia at the drop of a hat). That’s the time when I might reflect upon my reflection, but it’s after the fact. The experience, more or less, is untouched.
What it can do is raise interesting questions. There are a lot of dubious characters who have created great art. The question to me is not if I should support that art, but rather how can the mind that conceived of such greatness also be capable of such wickedness? It’s not a moral question, but a scientific one. Is it because, or in spite of? What occurred in their life to make it so? What does it mean?
I think one of the things you understand is that there are few, true absolutes. Creating great art does not make a man great. Doing something wicked does not necessarily mean the man is wicked. There is a world in between, complex and rich and often contradictory, as human nature is. We don’t run on straight lines. We’re not programmed, nor are we even rational much of the time. We are mysteries, and contained in that mystery is both greatness and frailty. (I’m not a believer in ‘evil’, as I think it much to simplistic, two-dimensional an excuse to explain away things we don’t understand and are fearful of facing. I think what we think of as evil is human frailty, much corrupted, to the point sometimes that very little human remains.)
It’s one of the things that troubles me through this epidemic of sexual-harassment accusations. I’m shocked and horrified to realise that these practices were so widespread, angry that there wasn’t someone brave enough to do anything about it, and sad that there wasn’t somewhere for these victims to go where they could have felt safe. This has been allowed, enabled even, because no-one wanted to deal with it, and because those in power were happy to believe it was normal. In the moral outrage these allegations have provoked some of the loudest voices are those organisations that for years likely knew and turned a blind eye. They blow with the prevailing morality, and are hypocrites.
At the same time, I’m troubled because, as I write this, of the litany of accusations announced day after day none as yet have been proved in a court of law. I’m not saying they’re wrong. I’m certain that the majority of accusations are true, and that ultimately the courts will mete out some long-delayed justice. Equally, I’m sure some are fabrications or exaggerations. Regardless, trial by media is rampant, and everyone accused is seen as guilty until proven innocent. I understand the anger and outrage fuelled by years of oppression, but this is not how a lawful society works. There are whole destinies threatened.
In the media hysteria attending these accusations the alleged villains are being painted in lurid, shocking terms. It’s how the media works, and more and more it’s how society reacts, in purely binary terms. It’s crude and unsophisticated, and most importantly, it’s false. A man like Weinstein, for years using his power to prey on those more vulnerable (allegedly), is easily portrayed as a monster. Kevin Spacey (who has lost his job and been written out of another movie on the strength of the accusations brought against him) is painted as a deviant of some sort (because his alleged victims are male?).
If these accusations are found to be true then I hope that the alleged perpetrators are punished in accordance with their crime. No more, no less. We take on these things as if they are absolute values, when they are not. Nor is art. A man may do terrible things and still create sublime art, and that’s the way of human nature. One does not pre-suppose, or negate, the other. Nor are they such polar opposites as we tend to view them in the bi-polar world we have become.
Ultimately it comes down to individual choice whether your appreciation of art is tainted by knowledge of the artist, and that will be more difficult with some artists and fields of art. It’s not easy, but nor should it be absolute.
For me, having watched American Beauty again Friday, I still think it’s a great movie, and indisputably a great performance. And I still like Lester Burnham.