On Art and Artists

I recently read about an interesting ethical dilemma. In an article in the New York Times Magazine someone posed the following question: Should he boycott Woody Allen’s films, based on the allegation by Mia Farrow and her daughter Dylan, that Woody sexually abused the child.

A person is of course totally free to stop watching Manhattan or Hannah and her Sisters or any future films by Woody Allen if his distaste for the author’s conduct interferes with his enjoyment of the movies. Personally I would not react this way.

I have read Woody’s refutation of these charges and I tend to believe him. Even if I did not, however, I would not stop watching his films. I think that a work of art takes on a life of its own once it has emerged from the artist’s brain. It then stands or falls on its own merit. Once a chrysalis becomes a butterfly it sheds its previous covering and starts to fly. The creator can only watch its progress from the sidelines.

Juliet Marion Hulme is better known as Anne Perry, the author of two detective series set in Victorian England. I have enjoyed reading them, especially the one featuring Thomas Pitt and his wife Charlotte. Perry emphasizes old-fashioned virtues like honor and loyalty. Hulme, however, was no angel. In 1954 at age 15 she and her friend Pauline Parker brutally murdered Pauline’s mother for which they served 5 years in prison. I did not know this when I started reading the novels but even when I found out about it I continued reading them because I still found them interesting.

Arthur Koestler was a favorite author of mine for many years. I read everything he wrote: novels as well as scientific essays on biology and evolution. He struck a responsive chord in me and I always looked forward to each book he wrote. Well, it turns out that he was not what we would call a “nice human being”. He was accused of sexual depravity and serial rape. When he committed suicide because of an incurable illness, he allowed his much younger and devoted wife to join with him even though she was in perfect health. If he wrote today, I would still read him.

Many French poets like Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud abused alcohol and drugs and led a “dissolute” life. They were called “Les poetes maudits” (Cursed poets). They are taught in school not because of who they were but because of the beauty of their poetry.

Franz Schubert died of syphilis and was said to lead a “depraved” life style. I would never stop listening to his melodic music because of that.

There are many such examples in literature and the arts and I think that we must accept the premise that an exemplary private life is not a requisite for the creation of the masterpieces we all admire.

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9 years ago

Hi, These are interesting thoughts. I suppose Mozart was not the most admirable person, but I’m listing to his piano concertos right now.

Wish I hadn’t learned about Schubert. I only knew he composed obsessively and died young.

Don’t we need people to look up to? Is it only parents, friends, and family — and almost never strangers and celebrities — who can be true role models?

9 years ago

It is funny about role models. Before I knew anything about his life, Koestler was a role model of sorts because I admired his thinking and way of expressing it. I have mostly admired people of ideas.
As far as other role models, Bill Gates would be a good choice. And as you say, parents and friends often qualify.

I am glad I don’t like Wagner’s music because he was one nasty character.

9 years ago

I don’t watch Woody’s films because I don’t like them. I don’t know if he molested Dylan, and no one ever will, Contradictory testimony from Mia Farrow and Woody Allen is enough to make your head explode, neither is credible.

Roman Polanski, however, is a filmmaker I avoid due to his criminal behavior.

Alex Burke
9 years ago

I would never boycott an artist based on his or her personal life. No exceptions.

If you had a brain tumor, would you boycott the best neurosurgeon in the world – by general consensus of his peers and his patients – if you found out he had served ten years in prison for second degree murder?

The only artists I boycott are those whose work I don’t care for, and Mr. Allen is not in that category.

– Alex Burke

Beem Weeks
Beem Weeks
9 years ago

Excellent points, Simone. The work and the creator do indeed become separate upon completion. I think it could be said that most people–creative or not–have secrets they’d prefer remain hidden from the public. Humans are flawed. Many of the writers, musicians, actors, and artists we enjoy are probably the sorts of people we’d prefer to avoid in most circumstances. There’s Woody, and then there’s Woody’s work.