De Profundis

The recent arrest of the film director Roman Polanski has caused much outrage around the world in a neat succession of shock and countershock. First came the shock that such an acclaimed director could be treated so ignominiously as to be arrested for a crime committed many years ago, then came the countershock that so many people, including an impressive A-List of film celebrities could be seriously suggesting that a child rapist should be let off just because of his artistic successes. The details of the case are highly complex and most of the indignation either way seems to be grounded on a very thin knowledge of the facts, but amongst all the noise it would seem relevant to consider the question why anyone might think that artists should be treated differently than the rest of us. The truth is that they often have, for better or for worse, including the case of Jean Genet, where in France in 1949 a presidential pardon for a potential life sentence was pronounced specifically for artistic reasons. Without in any way specifically commenting on the case of Polanski, here are some reflections on this logic that sounds so strange to many.

Artists are of course no different to anyone else, and just as likely to be sinful or unpleasant characters. In fact, many might say that artists are more likely to be self obsessed, narcissistic or otherwise difficult, perhaps because of the intense focus and individual vision it takes to become an artist and produce works of art. But the relationship between artist and his work in our minds is complex: do we value the work enough to be indifferent to the personality that produced it, or even to give special treatment to such a person in order that they are able to produce more, ignoring our otherwise strongly held moral and egalitarian principles? Is the work affected by the personality of its creator in a qualitative way, i.e. does the work of a criminal artist itself have criminal traits? Furthermore, as we value art in all its guises, particularly in the way it reflects and digests life and society, we therefore value the artistic personality, and to a degree must allow it to immerse itself in all facets of life – even, or especially, the less savoury ones. A genuine understanding of the human spirit must include knowledge of its weaknesses, a knowledge that often implies experience of these weaknesses.

The question whether it would have been better if Caravaggio had been jailed or executed for his various severe crimes, which included injuring police officers and manslaughter, or whether we are fortunate that he escaped and painted his masterpieces, is a tricky one indeed and can only be answered with some courage either way. There are similar examples in all fields of art – should Frank Sinatra have been jailed and discredited for the help he received from the Mafia? We face an unenviable choice: we either cease to enjoy works by these artists and ignore them out of principle or we say a quiet word of thanks to whatever unprincipled society or moment of chance that allowed them to escape justice and produce their fruits for us to savour. It is not merely a matter for personal enjoyment: these works sometimes had colossal impact and influence on later generations – art without Caravaggio may well have looked quite different; can we really regret that he was able to continue painting? It is easy to answer for the 17th century, but whatever we answer there we must carry over to our own times, without the hypocrisy of accepting how things worked out then but shying away from the same choice now.

The assumption is often made that art has some sort of moral healing power, that it can ennoble or improve us in some way. Nowadays one more often comes across this idea in opposition: the point that in many situations art has spectacularly failed to morally improve people, whether it is Stalin or the Commandant of Auschwitz, is used to argue against any moral value in higher art. Nevertheless, it shows that the underlying assumption of moral force in art is widespread. Parallel to this runs the idea that the artist has a special moral obligation to be of good character. Wagner’s shortcomings as a character are often held against him, possibly because he broadcast them quite so drastically and effectively, possibly because they concerned matters that were later to cause such devastation. He was hardly alone in being morally culpable: Carlo Gesualdo murdered his wife and her lover before embarking on his fifth and sixth books of astonishing Madrigals, but very few people will refuse to listen to them on those grounds. The murder of two people is at least as heinous as the dissemination of anti-Semitic writings at a time when such was commonplace.

Attached to Wagner’s culpability however is the implication that the quality of his music is somehow affected by these failings. Just as we often feel that music is communicative by nature and reflects the thoughts and feelings of the composer, so Wagner’s music is often believed to communicate those unpleasant characteristics that made Wagner such an unpleasant person. Similarly, musicians who remained in Germany during the Third Reich and were either Nazis or allowed themselves to some degree to be used by the Nazis were criticised, and in many cases actually banned from performing after the war: although meant as a punishment for perceived wrong-doing, there was always an implication of artistic weakness or betrayal. Celebrated, or infamous, cases of this are those of the conductors Wilhelm Furtwängler and Willem Mengelberg or the pianist Walter Gieseking. The criticism itself is of course fair enough, but the implication that their performances lack moral strength is curious given what failings we are willing to accept in musicians of the more distant past, and is an attitude that seems to focus on a particular set of political faults, leaving more domestic, or less publicised faults behind. It is an attitude that seems to relate only to 20th century misdeeds, particularly to those in connection with fascist regimes. Interestingly, the same opprobrium is rarely applied to painters and writers: we are quite happy with drug addicted womanizing poets, or callous, overambitious and egocentric painters, much more so than with unattractive composers. Just think of a description of Beethoven that portrayed him as a selfish, rude, arrogant career composer who abused his nephew and used all manner of flattery to ease his way to the top. None of it is untrue, but it is not how we prefer to think of him.

Why must we mix up the personality of the artist with the value of his creation? Is it the fear that without an underlying moral value art becomes merely a plaything, a sophisticated toy? Or is it perhaps an acknowledgement of the great power that art, and music in particular has over us and our subconscious, and a fear of that power being wielded with ill intent?

But the question is more complex still. Having established that we wish artists to produce art, even at a cost to our principles, and that they can still produce divine art even though they are not saints, we must ask further whether it is even particularly desirable for the artist to be a saint?

Art is by its very nature fiction, but it must always be true in order to be valuable. If that is so we must ask whether we can truthfully say much about something which we haven’t experienced. Would Mozart have been as moving, as full of insight in portraying the temptations, failings and pardons of marriage if he had been a more reliable husband himself? Would Baudelaire, or Edgar Allen Poe, have been able to leave us such memorable and extraordinary visions of human frailty if they had not spent a good part of their life in the gutter? Unless we allow for these experiences, we will be left with art that speaks only of the mundane and ordinary, reflecting perhaps a good chunk of everyday life, but ignoring vast swathes of human experience. No matter how much we deplore the filth, violence, betrayal and horror that live around us, hidden or not, we must accept it as reality in order to be true to the reality of the human spirit. Perhaps we should therefore allow the artist to plumb those depths in order to obtain his message about these things that we would prefer to forget? After all, we are happy to award leniency to criminals who pass on information about their colleagues if we judge that information to be of value to us, and we even accept that police officers can infiltrate criminal circles, committing crimes in the process to gain trust, because we value the knowledge that we thereby gain. Could the artist be a canary that we send into the mineshaft of our collective subconscious, hoping that his ability to digest and transform his experiences there will redeem the rest of us?

However much one tosses these ideas around in one’s head, the practical idea of offering dispensation to an artist in the face of a serious misdeed is too fraught with difficulties to contemplate. We all bear our individual responsibilities and must deal with them with all the integrity we can muster, artists or not. The decision to lift one individual to a privileged plane while sending the next to prison is untenable. But we should not blush too much at the thought of it, as it is something that we are happy to offer politicians, soldiers and policemen, and something that fundamentally rests on hypocrisy. So if we are outraged by the idea that Roman Polanski should be treated differently because of his profession, we should spare a thought for those nice Caravaggios in the National Gallery and think how lucky we are that not everyone gets what they deserve!

© Béla Hartmann 2009



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