What if I told you that one of my favourite writers was a misogynist? One of my favourite musicians a racist? One of my favourite artists a murderer?
These are questions I’ve been struggling with in the wake of scandals involving film producer Harvey Weinstein and actor Kevin Spacey, who this week addressed rumours he sexually propositioned a 14-year-old. Filming has been suspended on the sixth and final season of House of Cards, in which Spacey plays a ruthless president. I’ve been considering whether, if the final season goes ahead, it would be acceptable to watch it, and whether it is still possible to enjoy Spacey in the earlier series of one of Netflix’s most successful original programmes.
When it comes to moral transgressions, is it possible to separate the artist from the art; and should we try? Does it depend on how extreme the ethical boundaries breached are (rape, murder?) or is it the quality of the art that matters, or how closely connected with a particular work the transgressor might be? Do we allow for archaic bad behaviour, mitigate for different times? If we cease to allow artists to continue working after exposure, should we also stop appreciating their oeuvre?
After the true monstrosity of Weinstein’s behaviour was made public, I was pleased to see that he had been tossed into the trash. Good, I thought. May he never work again. But I am furious that while Weinstein has been summarily condemned, Roman Polanski – who raped a 13-year-old, let us not forget – has continued to work and won an Academy Award as recently as 2003. Woody Allen was investigated for the sexual abuse of his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow. Farrow has written a detailed open letter to the New York Times on her experiences. The issue with Allen, however, is apparently the decreasing quality of his films rather than the fact he may have abused Farrow (and married his former partner’s adoptive daughter).
If the punishment for Weinstein is that he never works again, should I no longer appreciate the films he produced early on in his career, such as Pulp Fiction? Perhaps it’s OK; he just funded those films, he was not a key creative. But this wouldn’t hold true for Allen’s films. Should I never mention that Polanski’s The Pianist is a very beautiful film, or that Rosemary’s Baby was influential?
Wondering whether it makes a difference if the artist’s morals and personality are entwined in their work, I ask David Carr, professor of ethics and education at the University of Birmingham. He tells me that while some schools of thought maintain that art is never moral, merely aesthetic, many artworks do have a moral element. “Much art, and especially narrative art, clearly has such a purpose,” he says. He suggests a Kandinsky abstract painting has no moral purpose, and asks, if artists we enjoy claim no moral content or purpose to their work: “Why can we not enjoy it without worrying whether they were good or bad people?”
This is something I find myself agreeing with. It is much easier to take a stand against a morally dubious work of art than the artist. Although works that, in Carr’s words, make a “profound moral statement”, such as Picasso’s Spanish civil war painting Guernica, make it more difficult not to scrutinise the artist’s life and values.
Picasso existed in a time and place when attitudes were different. Perhaps we should regard artists as products of their times, but then a part of me thinks that nothing ever changed when good people did nothing. Ezra Pound is a favourite poet of mine, but a racist. Alfred Hitchcock, whose early films I admire, is an acknowledged abuser of women. At the extreme end is my uncomfortable love of neoclassical architecture or in the Italian, classicismo. On a trip last year to Leros in the Dodecanese I was fascinated by the Mussolini-era port of Lakki. Zigzag roofs. Sweeping curves on an old cinema. But this is the art that fascism was literally built on. It’s why no coffee table books are dedicated to Albert Speer.
How we respond personally to the character and the context of any given artist also plays a part. Kenneth Halliwell was included in Tate Modern’s recent Queer Art exhibition, but there’s the small biographical detail that he bludgeoned his lover, the playwright Joe Orton, to death. Orton, however, is often painted as the more troublesome character. Ted Hughes, who undoubtedly was a serial adulterer, is reviled because of the popularity of his wife, fellow poet Sylvia Plath.
In the past, much awkwardness around the behaviour of artists, usually male, has gone unaddressed. But in times of greater cultural awareness and sensitivity, curators, arts bodies and festival organisers are changing tack. The Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft addressed head-on the incestuous rape and bestial practices of printmaker Eric Gill as part of an exhibition of his work.
The arts are not the only sphere in which such dilemmas arise.
The answers are never simple and I have to admit to finding myself still ambivalent. Why am I happy to praise the film Manchester By the Sea, even though its star Casey Affleck was accused of sexual harassment? Nothing was proved, and yet I was impressed with the look of disgust on Brie Larson’s face when she presented Affleck with his Oscar for that film.
Clearly there is a difference between continuing to support an individual’s livelihood and appreciating their past work (especially if they’re dead). If the work is historic we can view it critically without actively supporting or enabling a dubious character. There’s also the consideration that if we cease to appreciate all historic art by badly behaved creators – well, would we be left with any art at all?
The best solution I can come up with in regard to contemporary transgressors, following the example of most judicial systems, is to take remorse into account. Would I support Spacey’s work in the future? Perhaps, if he is truly remorseful and proves this to be the case. Given that his response to the allegations so far has been wholly inadequate, exacerbating the hurt for the person who made them, and that he also managed to stab the entire LGBT community in the back at the same time with his cynical coming out, well, no, I am not inclined to forgive him. It’s good that at least one president – even if a fictional one – has suffered for his predatory behaviour.
Hannah Jane Parkinson is a Guardian columnist
This article was amended on 17 November to remove reference to Ched Evans. His conviction for rape was quashed in 2016 and at a retrial he was subsequently found unanimously not guilty of rape by the jury. This was stated in the piece. It was further amended on 1 November 2021 to correctly refer to Mia Farrow as Woody Allen’s former partner, rather than his former wife.