Do the moral failings of artists mean we have to reject their art?
A newly published op-ed by Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty is well worth reading for its nuanced response to the current crisis of falling idols in the world of arts and entertainment. Given my personal literary leanings, I find McNulty’s points to be nicely applicable to the case of someone he doesn’t name: H. P. Lovecraft, the moral excoriation of whom has by this point become de rigeur in some wings of the speculative fiction community. Here are some high points of McNulty’s argument, decontextualized from the rich field of specific examples, both classic and contemporary, that he uses to illustrate his point:
I know that an artist is not identical with his or her masterpieces and that few human beings can live up to their greatest achievements. . . .
If a book or play speaks, it does so in a way that transcends the limitations, and imperfections of the author, a more elusive figure than the publishing industry (and identity politics hard-liners) would have us believe. I’m not so much of the school of literary critic Roland Barthes, who famously declared the death of the author, as of the school of Proust, who saw that a writer crystallizes the notion of a multiplicity of identities, the way each of us contains numerous selves, not all of them readily categorizable.
Anyone whose occupation is imagining the lives of others necessarily has a thronging inner world. The artist who creates beauty can contain a fair amount of ugliness. . . .
History is the ultimate arbiter of what endures. Moral verdicts on the author, the raison d’être of many biographies, is a secondary layer that can color the reception of an artist’s oeuvre but cannot nullify work that retains its expressive power. . . .
Some of the shock we’re experiencing right now about all these fallen idols stems from our mythologizing natures. We expect our heroes to be exemplary, yet (as Proust points out) human fallibility may be a necessary ingredient in creativity. Heinous crimes are another matter entirely, but as any reader of biography can attest, genius and pathology aren’t exactly strangers.