Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The private lives of artists

When it comes to literature for adults, we've mostly stopped judging a work by its author's personal morality. Why should we hold children's writers to a stricter standard?
Margaret Talbot, The New Yorker, July 11 & 18, 2005

Margaret Talbot wrote the above lines in an article about the late British writer Roald Dahl. Dahl is best known for his children's books (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, etc.), although I first learned his name from the delicious short stories he wrote for adults found in the collections Kiss Kiss and Someone Like You.

The gist of Talbot's article is that while children love Dahl's stories, their parents tend to be less enthralled. This has something to do with the fact that adults in general and parents in particular often look foolish in these stories, but it may also be because Dahl was something less than a saint. He was, she writes, "a complicated, domineering, and sometimes disagreeable man." Worse, he was known to be abusive to his staff and to have made anti-Semitic comments on more than one occasion. Talbot's conclusion: We should judge the stories using a different standard than we judge the man.

Separating someone's work and private behavior has always been a challenge for employers. Now the NFL has decided a player's record of domestic violence should be cause for league discipline, even though for years abuse of wives, girlfriends and children was kept separate from players' business on the playing field. Many employers must make decisions like this from time to time.

In the case of writers and other artists, the matter becomes a little trickier. In one sense, the publishers, recording companies, movie studios, art galleries or whatever might be considered the "employer," yet it more often comes down to the consumer. Do you refuse to pay to see a Mel Gibson movie because you object to his racists rants when he's drunk or refuse to buy one of Barbra Streisand's albums because you object to her political rants when she's sober? It's up to you, but most of us don't worry much about it. I happen to admire both Gibson's acting and Streisand's singing, whatever I may think of their personal behavior or beliefs.

Unfortunately people in the creative arts often seem to believe the moral standards that apply to others do not apply to them. Perhaps it's because they can get away with it, while most people working ordinary jobs cannot. The public even expects rock stars to be rowdy and to do illegal drugs and movie stars to have serial marriages, with lots of affairs on the side.

I watched a rerun of a Gunsmoke episode the other evening in which a photographer comes to Dodge City to capture the authentic West on film, even if that means staging holdups and gunfights for his camera. After he arranges to have an old saddle tramp murdered and scalped to look like a victim of an Indian raid, he tells Marshal Dillion his art is worth far more than the life of one worthless old man. Matt Dillion, of course, thinks differently.

Most times the choice is not so clear cut. Writers like Roald Dahl, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound or whomever may not have been among the best people on the planet, but they did good work, and we can admire their work without necessarily admiring the private lives of those who created it. This is not to say, however, that there may be times, as when Marshall Dillion and the NFL drew lines in the sand, when we must simply say, "No, that is simply something I cannot accept."

No comments:

Post a Comment