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Appalling men and great art

Written By: - Date published: 1:32 pm, November 27th, 2017 - 49 comments
Categories: Abuse of power, art, Deep stuff, film, Media, music - Tags:

Great to see more and more bad men being taken down with sex scandals, more damaged women standing up for themselves and each other.

It’s like a little bit of a catchup for all of the times women were shamed out of the film industry.

But can appalling people make great art?

Caravaggio                        – Murderer

Painter Edgar Degas        – Anti-Jewish

See: Linda Nochlin, “Degas and the Dreyfus Affair: Portrait of the Artist as Anti-Semite”, in Norman L. Kleebatt, ed., The Dreyfus Affairs: Art, Truth, and Justice, (Berekely, Calif., 1987).

Poet TS Eliot                      – Anti-Jewish

Poet Ezra Pound             – Anti-Jewish, Fascist

Pablo Picasso                  – Of his seven relationships with women, two went mad as a result of his misogyny and two committed suicide

Poet Lord Byron              – Incest

Playwright Jean Genet     – Thief

Opera composer Richard Wagner              – Anti-Jewish

Don’t even talk to me about Gustav Flaubert. Or the Medicis and their Renaissance patronage of art. OMG.

Multiple film directors in the 1970s            – Cruelty to animals particularly horses

The Los Angeles suburb of Hollywood has turned movies into the greatest art form of the twentieth century, but it would be hard to describe it as a high island of moral virtue.

What’s worse, sex crime is the driver of the artistic imagination in a great percentage of films, and of course in most detective fiction. More broadly, the transgressive imagination and how it feeds, reproduces, and amplifies sex and crime as thrilling fun, remains the core engine of our popular culture.

(I’m not proposing Don Burke of Burke’s Backyard fame as high art, and he’s probably not going to work in that industry again after this)

Would these men have made great work if their great crimes had been exposed? In summary mostly they got away with it and mostly people knew about it.

I’m hoping at some point there will be some criminal charges successfully prosecuted and sentenced on one of the big sex scandals going through the U.S. entertainment industry. This surge now going through the U.S. is continuous with that ongoing through Britain with its great Police investigation Operation Yewtree and the further ongoing independent inquiry into child sexual abuse.

Otherwise without real charges sticking in a criminal court it is going to run a high risk of going the same way as the inchoate Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements and simply be a passing faded echo of the great liberative struggles of the 1970s and early 1980s.

Until then, the cultural machine of all kinds of people good and bad making great things for us grinds on, bloodied but unbowed.

49 comments on “Appalling men and great art”

  1. One Anonymous Bloke 1

    Would these men have made great work if their great crimes had been exposed?

    No, someone else would have.

    • Phil 1.1

      EXACTLY

      How many great artists/creators/performers have we lost before their best work because they were victims of abuse within their industry or profession?

      I’ll wager it’s many many many more people than the number of ‘great men’ who abused them.

  2. It’s all subjective. Even the crimes that they supposedly did are subjective, let alone some value in their art.

  3. Andre 3

    I’m often struck by how frequently those who achieve great things also inflict great damage to those close to them. Not just in art, but across all fields of human endeavour. I suspect top-end achievers that that are also mentally healthy and well-balanced are the exception, not the rule. I suppose the drive needed for that top-level achievement is inherently unbalancing.

    But yeah, hopefully more exposure of the damage these people do will push at least some of them to find some way to release their demons that doesn’t involve harming others.

    • One Anonymous Bloke 3.1

      how frequently those who achieve great things also inflict great damage to those close to them.

      I wonder how frequent it actually is, given the amplification that excess public interest provides. There’s nothing newsworthy about quiet stable genius, and there’s nothing individual about the quality of a movie, or theatre production: they’re team efforts.

      • Andre 3.1.1

        I had grandparents that were at the very top of their field. Stories about how they treated my dad and aunt growing up make me relieved I was the next generation after. That stuff doesn’t appear in google searches about them.

        I have acquaintances that have worked with Nobel prizewinners. The stories about private personal behaviour are somewhat unpleasant, even though their public reputations are fairly good.

        The only field where I’ve interacted with top-of-the-world achievers was sporting, and that contact was somewhat limited (due to my lack of talent in that sport). But even so, the majority of them I quickly learned I wanted to keep well clear of them, and it was only a small minority I enjoyed hanging out with.

        To be sure, none of the private stories I’ve heard come close to rising to the level of Weinstein or Spacey or Trump etc, but they’re still enough I’m relieved it’s stories I’m hearing, not something I’m experiencing.

        Probably “inflict great damage” is a crap way to put it. But my (very limited) experience of top achievers agrees with the stories I’ve heard – most of them are not nice to be around.

  4. Appreciation of art is about what you like. If you can’t like something until you’ve conducted an examination of its creator’s ethics and prejudices, it’s you that’s broken, not the art.

    • One Anonymous Bloke 4.1

      When you like a certain artist’s work, and then discover their ethics and prejudices, it’s normal for that to affect how you feel about their work.

      • In Vino 4.1.1

        I disagree. I liked certain pieces of music after I listened to them a few times, and still like them just as much despite learning later on that the composer had attributes I did not admire. The music remains an independent work for me.
        Regardless of whether it was composed by a genocidal homophobic paedophilic right-wing leper.

        • One Anonymous Bloke 4.1.1.1

          I didn’t say it was ubiquitous, I said it’s “normal”. For what it’s worth I think your position falls into the “normal” range of reactions too.

          I see Rolf Harris artworks have dropped in value.

    • McFlock 4.2

      Yeah, but the context of the art expands our appreciation of it, and includes the factors that influenced its creator.

      Jacques Louis David being the classic example – started as a chocolate box-style painter for the French nobility, foments revolution with works like Oath of the Horatii, promises to stand by Robespierre but is sick that day (lol), does a humble self portrait to get his arse out of jail, paints Marat as a revolutionary JC in his sacrifice, and ends up painting one of the most famous and fawning pictures of Napoleon. A massive cock, but with great big brass balls (which were not permitted to be buried in France).

      Another example is Louis CK – his film that got nuked included him doing an act of which he was accused in real life. Sort of changes the experience of the scene.

      Or Roman Polanski or Oliver Stone (The Pianist and Platoon respectively). The knowledge of what they experienced feeding in to their work does add another level to the movie, I think. But then there’s the other context of Polanski…

      • Shona 4.2.1

        Polanski admitted his crime and pleaded guilty and was convicted ,he served his time albeit at a weekend holiday camp style prison for nearly 2 years. Good behaviour had that sentence commuted until the due date. ( like a probationary period) At 11 pm of the day his sentence lapsed an elected county judge known to be a racist and an anti semite chose to recall him and make him carry out the rest of his sentence at a medium security jail, no leave. The USA justice system is shit and it sucks big time. It is so effing corrupt. His victim was sexually experienced offered to him by her mother( she should have been prosecuted) and has never blamed him for anything.I don’t blame Polanski for bolting. Polanski is a genius his childhood was a nightmare of surviving the Warsaw ghetto and eventually getting to the USA to pursue his undoubted greatness. The film industry would be much much less without his directorial vision.Only Kubrick comes close.

        • McFlock 4.2.1.1

          Didn’t his 13yo victim sue him?

        • Lara 4.2.1.2

          “His victim was sexually experienced”

          should be:

          “his 13 year old victim was already abused”

          There. Fixed it for you.

          FFS

          13 year olds are CHILDREN. Adults having sex with children? Pedophiles.

          And you don’t have to have that 13 year old grow up and publicly state they were abused to believe it’s abuse. FFS.

          • Shona 4.2.1.2.1

            In the doco I saw and base my opinion on the victim herself claimed to be 15 at the time. Who do you believe?She has never claimed to have been traumatized . Her mother is the abuser and the pimp.Many of have us have experienced sexual abuse and continued to be happy functioning people. Abuse is not the end of the world.It is how you deal with it that matters not the fact that it happened.

            • McFlock 4.2.1.2.1.1

              Given that the victim was 13 at the time of the offending, you probably should watch more than one doco before adopting a firm position.

            • Lara 4.2.1.2.1.2

              “Abuse is not the end of the world.It is how you deal with it that matters not the fact that it happened.”

              Way to go to minimise the effect of sexual abuse of kids.

              Nope. Not bloody buying it Shona. No, it’s not the end of the world as you so blithely put it. But it’s a very big deal.

              Saying “it’s how you deal with it” puts the onus on victims of abuse to just get over it. It’s like saying that the trauma and ongoing issues they’re dealing with are their fault, they just somehow choose to not deal with it the right way.

              I was abused at 13. I’m a happy and highly functioning person, but I still deal with the effects of abuse decades later.

      • Psycho Milt 4.2.2

        Yeah, those are good examples. None of the things I’ve read about David would lead you to the conclusion he was a top bloke, but I like his paintings. I laughed a lot at Louis CK’s comedy, particularly the stand-up – it would be hypocritical to now pretend that it wasn’t funny. And I’ve enjoyed various Polanski movies, which didn’t somehow become bad movies by virtue of me finding out Polanski did some bad stuff.

        • McFlock 4.2.2.1

          Bad movies and comedy? Nope, not necessarily.
          Uncomfortably close to real life offending? yep. That skews the perception of the art, and art is all about perception.

          Watching The Jazz Singer without knowing the context of the makeup probably makes it a better movie.

  5. McFlock 5

    It is a recurring sadness to me that my favourite film, Casablanca, was directed by Michael Curtiz (whose filming of Noah’s Ark drowned three actors and injured dozens of others just 15 years earlier).

    But at least he, and Byron for that matter (who also tried to purchase/”marry” a 12y.o. Greek girl, if I recall correctly), died well before I was born. I’m not contributing to their income by watching or reading their work.

    The more recent ones… bugger.

  6. rhinocrates 6

    It touches on what Robert Hughes called the “Therapeutic Fallacy” of art – ie., that art is supposed to be uplifting, good for you etc. It in argument put forward by fundamentalist Christians to suppress any radical statement or critique of social norms as they wished them to be determined. I tend to think of art as being cathartic or critical instead.

    I’m likewise rather uncomfortable with an ad hominem being applied to a work of art. Few artists, and virtually none from other times and cultures will meet our bourgeois western standards of morally good behaviour.

    I don’t mean that as a free pass for bad behaviour by any person – expose and condemn the behaviour of of bad people pour encourager les autres by all means, but engage with art on its own terms – I’m with Oscar Wilde on that one.

  7. rhinocrates 7

    There’s this discussion between Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said on Wagner. Both agree that Wagner was an appalling man – and he would have hated them respectively as a Jew and a Palestinian – but both love Wagner’s music.

    Scroll down to the last third for direct discussion, but earlier on they point out that art exists to be interpreted – in static form by the observer and in performance by the performers and the audience together.

    https://www.west-eastern-divan.org/news/wagner-ideology-barenboim-said-in-conversation/

  8. adam 8

    Just wondering why you used anti-jewish Ad? The term seems a tad underdone in particular when you talk about wagnar who was solidly anti-semitic in action and thought. He and pound, both engaged in anti-semitism, as it relates to propaganda and promotion of violence against religious, cultural or ethnic jews.

  9. Bill 9

    Appalling people can do great things, and great people can do appalling things (be it in the arts or sciences of whatever).

    And sure, once called out or exposed as appalling, the “great person” may no longer be considered “great” (or at least not as great) and their appalling things remain. Hmm.

    So people can be both great and appalling depending on the time of their lives, or events in their lives we look at, and the things they’ve done remain great or appalling…assuming that what constitutes “great” and “appalling” is universally accepted – which isn’t the case.

    There are people. There are things. We make of it all what we will.

  10. Morrissey 10

    Byron could have run for the ACT Party.

  11. Cinny 11

    With Art I’ve this outlook, if it makes you feel something, whether it be love, disgust, fear, amazement etc it is art. Art should make you feel, if it doesn’t it is not art.

    Art is a form of expression, perhaps art is the only way SOME artists can communicate, maybe some are unable to have a conversation.

    Then there is ego, that sense of entitlement that destroys lives… the don’t you know who I am??!! Now spread your legs or whatever (sorry to be crass but I’m sure you know where I’m coming from).
    Combine ego with manipulation and power, then people cross the line, add a bit of talent and fame in there and many blind eyes are turned and it sucks. The twisted artists should be held accountable just like anyone else, just because they are an amazing artist does not mean they are allowed to get away with being an arsehole.

    That being said, by crikey there are some freaks out there. Good post, I didn’t know there were that many weirdo artists, thanks for the info.

    Went to a Pablo Picasso exhibition in Sydney a number of years back it was amazing, just because he was a perve doesn’t change the fact he was a great artist. But if he leveraged his talent to manipulate others then he is a nasty person, but is still a great artist and his nastiness should not be hidden away just because he is a great artist.

    My favourite artwork is that of Erte

  12. Macro 12

    Talking of Sex Scandals…
    Perhaps the greatest Non Sex Scandal was John Ruskin and his marriage to Effie Gray.

    • Cinny 12.1

      Macro, just did the google, that was a really interesting story.

      • Macro 12.1.1

        Yes Poor Effie – Actually there is a really good movie written and part directed by Emma Thompson on “Effie” If you get a chance to watch it, its well worth the time. We were in UK earlier this year and visited many art galleries and inthe lake district where Ruskin’s house – just down the road from Beatrix Potter’s and Arthur Ransom’s. Saw a lot of Ruskin and Mallais’ work.

        • Cinny 12.1.1.1

          Cheers Macro, have been looking for good film to watch, will have to check it out.

          You and yours would have had a wonderful time over there exploring, that should always happen, what a neighbourhood eh, Beatrix, Ruskin and Ransom, hard case.

  13. greywarshark 13

    Art for the politically interested, the man is – Escher, things going down are going up and around and going there and coming out somewhere over there.

    https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/jun/20/the-impossible-world-of-mc-escher
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M._C._Escher
    http://www.mcescher.com/about/biography/

    And bike art?
    Shared bike dump in China. A good idea ruined by competition?
    https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/nov/25/chinas-bike-share-graveyard-a-monument-to-industrys-arrogance

    • Cinny 13.1

      Escher is incredible. How about those bikes… that’s nuts, that’s reality, insane.
      Must show my girls in the morrow, thanks for sharing those links Grey.

  14. greywarshark 14

    NZ creativity and how there is always someone who knows the price of it but not the real value.
    Edward Bullmore’s art
    http://www.stuff.co.nz/sunday-star-times/latest-edition/6595622/Art-scandal-valuable-works-go-missing

    Have you heard of USA Crumb?
    Interesting cartoon art – Robert Crumb – unusual.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Crumb

    • joe90 14.1

      I was15 when I found Crumb and Fritz the Cat.

      • greywarshark 14.1.1

        I read about his non-standard family life and see how his stuff would be different than the norm for the outliers.

        I think I was trying to express what Space Monkey has in the considered comment below.

  15. vto 15

    This is not surprising and has been noticed with other genders too. For example, there is a significantly larger number of rude and crude women today yet they still manage to punch out all the good and amazing things that women do.

  16. SpaceMonkey 16

    I have come late to this discussion but my thoughts for what they’re worth…

    The creative artist in whatever form they manifest their creative output often plays within a complex web of light and dark, colour and shade and in discovering it the artist frequently has a foot in two camps – one in what we might call the acceptable part of society (a necessary bridge between the artist and the audience) while the other stands firmly in everything else, in whatever form that may take. That everything else is frequently dark and dangerous, pushing against all that society says is right (or wrong), daring the artist to challenge everything from themselves to the world around them.

    To me, the greatest artists have dived the deepest, faced the most intense darkness, and gone to hell and back that they can never have anything like a “normal” life. It is completely understandable to me when some indulge and engage in “abnormal” or immoral behaviours and practices.

    Then again, the exploration of darkness intensifies the light. Love, as the ultimate expression of light, can be more intense and the expression of that emotion in daily life can go both horribly wrong and/or beautifully right.

    And then there are those where coming back to a “normal” society which, when you have enough perspective and have questioned it enough, is obviously so fucked up in its own way, that anything normal is too much. Alcohol, drugs, sex are ready substitutes to ease the pain of living in a real world which you know to be no less an artificial construct than your own imagination or direct experiences from wandering in the dark.

    Am I condoning these behaviours? No. The innocent will always need protection. The challenge for these artists is to leave that darkness behind when they’re not creating. Some can do it, many can’t. They need help just like any other.

    Does this alter the quality of their work. Not to me. Their work stands alone, in its own right. After all, I suspect most creative artists will tell you they don’t feel like they are the ones that created the work in the first place – they were just a channel for something divine, or dreadful.

    “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.”

    Such is the burden of the great artist.

  17. Lara 17

    I’m tired of watching the “great art” of men who are abusers. I’m speaking here of movies.

    Outside of movies to me it really doesn’t matter. I’ll still enjoy Picasso for example.

    But the older I get the more I notice the movies put out by these Hollywood men have shallow depictions of women. The women have to be young and attractive, usually white. There’s often sexual violence and it’s titillating. Ugh. The balance of male vs female actors in these movies is so often towards male. And finding a good movie with a female protagonist? Bloody hard. And when you do get one then invariably she has to be put down either violently or some other way by a man in the movie.

    Also, the older I get the more I notice that when an artist is said to be “edgy” that what they’re usually doing is just promoting the same tired old stereotypes about women and sex. Nope. Not edgy. Edgy would be to challenge stereotypes or overturn them.

    And so I think the attitudes of these men to women and sex comes through in the work they produce. And I’m really bored with watching it. Just another sausage fest.

    Just my 2 cents.

    • greywarshark 17.1

      A woman actor the other day on radio commenting that there are not the roles for older actresses that there are for the older males. Yet I have an old book – In Praise of Older Women. It is interesting as he discusses his life and the people he meets with this outlook.

    • See Phil’s comment at 1.1 re abusive “great men” robbing us of what would have been better art. The shit portrayal of women in Hollywood movies is absolutely an effect of people like Weinstein running things – not so much appalling men making great art, as appalling men turning what might have been great art into shit.

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