'Annah, the Javanese Woman' by Paul Gauguin (Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty)

Can bad people be good artists?

The moral standards of creative giants


How should the moral crimes of an artist affect the way we view his or her art? The answer to that question used to be very simple: not at all. The art is one thing, the artist another — and the personal failings of artists are utterly irrelevant to assessing the qualities of their work, which has an autonomous existence independent of its creator. The person who created a particular work of art might be malign, vicious, cruel, even evil. But their work can still be sublime. And it cannot be rendered un-sublime because the artist was or is morally despicable.

The Catholic Church, which was for several hundred years by far the biggest patron of art and artists in western Europe, took essentially that position.

Pope Urban VIII’s attitude to Gianlorenzo Bernini is a typical example. Bernini was the most successful sculptor in Rome in the 1630s, and would later become its most successful architect. But in 1638, he discovered that his mistress — a married woman named Costanza Bonarelli — had also started having an illicit sexual relationship with Luigi Bernini, his younger brother.

Gianlorenzo’s reaction was to order one of his servants to slash Costanza Bonarelli’s face with a razor. Gianlorenzo himself went after his brother. Brandishing his sword and shouting his intention to kill Luigi, he chased him into the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, where he would have murdered him had he been able to find him. Their mother was so horrified at Gianlorenzo’s conduct that she wrote to the Pope excoriating his crimes and insisting that he be punished by being exiled from Rome, which would have effectively ended his career.

Did the Pope respond by refusing to employ Bernini on the grounds that his crimes made him utterly unsuitable for work on Christian projects? Did he punish him for his attempt at fratricide, or even just for his fornication? He did not. Instead, he sent Luigi into exile. He also had Costanza Bonarelli imprisoned for adultery. The servant who cut up her face was briefly jailed. But nothing at all happened to Gianlorenzo. He was left to continue working undisturbed for the church. In a letter to his mother, Urban VIII explained why. Bernini was “a rare man, of sublime talent, born by divine disposition . . . to bring light to this age.”

It is striking that no one has suggested eliminating any of Harvey Weinstein’s work as a film producer

The Pope’s belief that the quality of Bernini’s art was so high that his crimes should be ignored is the inverse of today’s conviction that the sins of the artist should not only be punished: they should also lead to the rejection of their art. There is a widespread sense that when artists have committed serious crimes, they inevitably infect the work they have created, polluting it and the people who look at it. According to this approach, in order properly to condemn the crimes of the artist, it is necessary also to condemn, perhaps even to destroy, their work.

The idea that an artist’s life and his work are inextricably entwined in that way is a strangely seductive one. But how sensible is it? Less than it initially appears to be. For one thing, if the crimes of an artist can make his work criminal, or at least decrease its artistic value, then, by the same reasoning, morally good artists ought to make better works of art than morally bad ones. But no one believes this: no one seriously maintains that if Fra Angelico is a better painter than Gauguin or Picasso, it is simply because Fra Angelico was a morally better person.

For another, while we don’t know enough about the lives of artists in the distant past to be able to make a judgment about their moral qualities, what we do know is often sufficient to condemn them as criminal. The artists Phidias, Apollodoros and Praxiteles created some of the most marvellous sculptures in the ancient world. They also certainly owned slaves. But does anyone seriously maintain that because their creators were slaveowners, we should not view the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, the bronze Boxer at Rest in Rome, or the Hermes at Olympia — or indeed almost anything from the ancient world, since it is almost certain it was created for or by someone who owned slaves?

To pose that question is to answer it with a resounding No. Yet it does not altogether dispose of the idea that an artist’s crimes can diminish the artistic value of their work, rather in the way that discovering that a sum of money offered as a gift was stolen or obtained by fraud can make a morally decent person feel, at the very least, decidedly uneasy about accepting it. It was presumably a version of that thought which persuaded the film director Ridley Scott to cut all scenes containing the actor Kevin Spacey from the movie All the Money in the World once allegations surfaced in the media that Spacey had used his star power to harass and intimidate young men into having sex with him. Let’s grant that Spacey, as an actor, counts as an artist. The reaction to eliminate him clearly had an element of hysteria about it. I take it that no one is suggesting that it is now morally wrong to watch any film or TV show that Spacey has ever acted in —although that would be the logical extension of thinking that it was necessary to obliterate Spacey from All the Money in the World because he had been accused of abuse.

Self-portrait of Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty)

While it is a good bet that Harvey Weinstein will never work again in Hollywood, it is striking that no one has suggested taking the same steps to eliminate at least some of his work as a film producer. Yet his deeply unpleasant methods for coercing compliance to his sexual demands from actresses and assistants are now notorious, and were practised for longer, and in a more abusive fashion, than Spacey’s.

Whatever the inconsistencies of the way the movie business responds to the moral failings of its actors, producers and directors, outside Hollywood the question of whether art created by criminally violent, exploitative or abusive artists should be exhibited retains its urgency. 

Eric Gill was an unambiguously disgusting paedophile who had sex with his daughters when they were in their early teens. As a consequence, there have been several calls for Gill’s sculptures of the Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral to be taken down and even destroyed, on the grounds that, as one campaigner for survivors of sexual abuse has said, “The very hands that carved the Stations were the hands that abused.”

Which is true. But why should that mean that it is wrong to exhibit the work? Gill’s Stations of the Cross are not a representation of paedophilia. They do not contain or transmit the crimes of its creator. That the hands which created the sculptures were those of a paedophile is strictly irrelevant to assessing the value of the work.

But this is not the generally accepted view, as the National Gallery’s current exhibition devoted to Gauguin’s portraits demonstrates. The show reflects the current unease about the artist’s crimes seeping into his work. 

The exhibition comes with a health warning from the exhibitors: Gauguin was “brilliant but dangerous” — dangerous enough for several of his most celebrated portraits to be conspicuous by their absence from the show. Annah the Javanese, for instance, is not exhibited. It is one of the best examples of Gauguin’s art of portraiture — far better than some of the mediocre pieces in the show. So why is it not there? Perhaps the picture’s owner’s wouldn’t lend it. But you get the sense that the real reason Annah isn’t exhibited is that the show’s organisers thought the picture too dangerous. Unlike almost all the other portraits in the exhibition, whose subjects are decently clothed and in appropriately modest poses, Annah is naked. Her pose is explicitly erotic, and it challenges the viewer to respond in kind. Annah was also 13 at the time when Gauguin painted her. He took her as his mistress when she was the same age.

There is no question that today Gauguin would be classed as a paedophile for what he did to Annah. That could have been enough to persuade the National Gallery to keep her portrait out. They may have thought that Annah was a particularly gross example of Gauguin’s moral and sexual crimes infecting his art, and would offend many people, especially women. They may have also thought that Gauguin is a powerful enough artist to mean that his crimes can affect us in ethically unacceptable ways. Annah might, for example, generate lustful thoughts in the men who view it. Since what we are looking at is the image of a 13-year-old, the effect of the picture might be to turn its male viewers into potential paedophiles.

Artist Graham Ovenden: A judge ordered some of his work to be destroyed

If that were the effect that the painting had on men who see it, it might be a reason for not exhibiting it. But does it have that effect? Must it? Most men are perfectly capable of looking at Annah and admiring Gauguin’s skill in capturing the beauty and the defiance, as well as the allure, of its sitter, while having no thought at all of having sex with a 13-year-old. Others may be prompted to paedophiliac thoughts. But does their response provide a justification for censoring the picture? If it did, there would be a justification for censoring any work which might generate an unsavoury response in someone. And that would ensure that there would be almost no art at all which could be safely placed before the general public. It would be the end of art in museum and galleries, and a return to the situation where the only people who could enjoy original masterpieces would be those who could afford to buy them. 

If the aim is to diminish paedophilia, not exhibiting works of art such as Annah would clearly be a somewhat pointless gesture since images of the painting are available in a hundred art books and on the internet. Still, if Annah and other similar works of art, not just by Gauguin but by a myriad of other artists, are in fact pieces of child pornography, then it would be perfectly intelligible for a gallery not to wish to exhibit them, and to take a stand against doing so. It would also make sense for the rest of us not to want to see them.

So it needs to be explicitly stated: Annah the Javanese is not a piece of child pornography, even though Gauguin was (at least in the eyes of the law) a paedophile. An artist’s crimes, and criminal predilections, can be reflected in his art but they do not have to be, and it does not follow that because the artist was a paedophile, his art, when it depicts children or young teenagers, must encourage or endorse paedophilia. 

But there are no hard and fast rules for determining when the creations of a paedophile artist have that effect and when they do not. It can only be ascertained by good sense and good judgment operating on each individual case — and that is what frequently makes it so difficult to determine when we are being confronted by pornography rather than art.

The difficulties are well illustrated by the “art” of the painter and photographer Graham Ovenden. Ovenden insists he is an artist. He is also a convicted paedophile, who was imprisoned for 27 months by the Appeal Court in 2013 on charges of indecency against children. 

It is not the law that threatens to diminish the works of art that can be viewed; it is the effect of vehement opinions expressed in the media

Judge Elizabeth Rosco, sitting in Hammersmith magistrates court in 2015, ordered the destruction of works by and belonging to Ovenden on the basis that, whether or not they were art, she thought they were child pornography: Ovenden’s images made the children “appear sexually provocative”, she ruled. “[They] evoke poses by adult women that are intended to be sexually alluring.”

Many people who have seen the images that Ovenden created would agree with Judge Rosco: his images of children are closer to child pornography than to art. But by no means everyone does, and when the ruling was made there were plenty who protested against it. The basis of their concern was essentially the arbitrariness of the line between art and pornography. One judge will locate it in one place, a different one in another. Which images they will rule as unfit for the rest of us to see depends on that intensely subjective judgment. What will next be defined as child pornography, and so be destined for destruction, rather than art? Will it be Annah the Javanese?

This amounts to the claim that any attempt to distinguish between art and pornography can lead to great art being wrongly categorised as pornography. The claim is correct: it can. But I do not think that it is reasonable to think that sooner or later distinguishing between art and pornography will inevitably lead to the banning of such works as Annah the Javanese. Since the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial, judges in Britain (and in most liberal democracies) have not been inclined to draw the line between the two in a place that would mean works such as Annah would be classified as child pornography and banned from public exhibition.

Today, it is not the law that threatens to diminish the sorts of works of art that can be viewed in public; it is rather the effect of vehement opinions expressed in the media about the choices of gallery and museum curators. 

Curators are understandably reluctant to deal with the attacks they receive for showing (for example) art produced by artists who were abusers or paedophiles. It makes them unwilling to take the risks involved in showing such art. That attitude is much more likely to cause a diminution of the range of art on show than the intervention of the police prompted by a judicial ruling that a given work of art is in reality a piece of obscene pornography.

Artists can of course be guilty of moral failings other than sexual crimes. They can hold repellent political views, for instance. And their having such views leads to exactly the same problems about the extent to which their views pollute their art and pollute us when we are exposed to it. The artist who illustrates those problems most clearly is not a painter or a sculptor but a composer: Richard Wagner.

Richard Wagner: Repellent views, but should his work be banned? (Photo by Imagno/Getty)

Wagner was intensely antisemitic. He had deeply unpleasant views on racial purity and German nationalism which he expressed in articles and pamphlets. Some of his writings undoubtedly incite racial hatred and would be criminal in Britain now. Wagner was eagerly embraced by Hitler and the Nazis for the simple reason that his views on a whole range of topics anticipated theirs.

Many people feel that Wagner’s vile political views permeate much of his music, and make listening to The Ring, for example, a dangerous experience, in the sense that Wagner is so powerful a composer that his music can convert listeners to some of his more outrageous political views without their being fully aware of what is happening to them.

Wagner’s compositions have not been targeted for deliberate censorship by the law in any country, in the way that child pornography has been nearly everywhere. It is not illegal to perform Wagner in Israel. But such is the degree of hostility to, and perhaps the fear of, the composer’s views, that his music is rarely performed there. When, last year, an Israeli radio station played The Twilight of the Gods, the last opera of The Ring cycle, the protests were so strong that the presenter had to apologise on air and promise never to do such a thing again.

It is very difficult to believe that exposure to a Wagner has ever turned someone into a virulent antisemite

It makes perfect sense for someone to feel that they do not want to be associated in any way with music composed by someone with views as repellent as Wagner’s. Everyone has the right not to like, and not to listen to, Wagner’s music. But the insistence that Wagner’s music should not be performed in Israel goes beyond that, to the idea that others should be prevented from listening to it. It seems to derive from the belief that Wagner’s music directly communicates his antisemitism and racism, and could turn listeners into racists and antisemites.

And it is not impossible that Wagner’s music should have that effect: after all, some people maintain that they were converted to Christianity as a result of listening to Bach. So perhaps Wagner’s music could turn some people into antisemites. It obviously does not have that effect on the vast majority of people who listen to it. But if it could have that effect on just a single person, would that be a reason for banning it, or at least restricting its performance?

The answer is No, and for the same reason that the possibility that there are men who might respond to Annah the Javanese as if it were a piece of paedophile porn is not a reason for censoring that picture: if it were a reason, it would ensure that there would be almost no art at all which could be safely placed before the general public. And that is enough to demonstrate that the position is absurd.

While it is not at all hard to believe that Wagner’s music might serve to reinforce the views of someone who was already a convicted antisemite, it is very difficult to believe that exposure to The Ring or any other Wagner opera has ever turned an individual with decent liberal views on race into a virulent antisemite. The issue of the poisonous effect of Wagner’s music would never have arisen had he not written so many articles proclaiming his poisonous political views. The desire to condemn Wagner the man leads many ethically earnest music lovers to the false conclusion that to condemn antisemitism you must condemn not just Wagner the man but also Wagner’s music, because to fail to condemn his music is somehow to endorse his antisemitism. But it is not. And it is simply a confusion to think that it is.

The case of Wagner shows, perhaps more clearly than that of any other artist, not just the possibility but the necessity of separating an artist from his work. Pope Urban VIII was wrong not to punish Bernini for his crimes. But he was right to separate the value of the art from the crimes of the artist, and to insist that bad people could create great art. It is not easy to hold on to that complex truth today. But it would save us all a lot of trouble if we did.

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