It is becoming increasingly difficult to preserve our love for our beloved works of art while their creators are daily exposed as sexual predators. Is it possible to resolve the dilemma?
Artists are crude human beings with brutish tendencies. Art is not of this world. Should art be made to pay for artists’ sins?
At the end of The Great Dictator comes a marvellous speech. “The soul of man has been given wings, and at last he is beginning to fly. He is flying into the rainbow — into the light of hope, into the future, the glorious future that belongs to you, to me, and to all of us,” says Charlie Chaplin in character as a Jewish barber who just happens to look like Adenoid Hynkel, the dictator of a nation resembling Germany of the Nazi-era. By all counts The Great Dictator is a fantastic piece of satire. It fulfils the needs of the comedy genre while simultaneously speaking truth to power. That Chaplin could do this when the United States was not yet a participant in the Second World War speaks to his great genius. But, he wasn’t a great man.
He married Lita Grey when she was 16 years old and divorced her when she was 18, all so he could avoid a statutory rape charge. Chaplin was 36 when he married her. Three of his four wives were below the age of 18. Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert was allegedly based on Chaplin. In the post-Weinstein era, it feels hard to separate great work from their creators, though we manage to do so for many artists.
Caravaggio is known for his Baroque work and incorporation of chiaroscuro more than the murder he committed. Picasso’s many mistresses were treated shabbily by him and he is still celebrated as the founder of the Cubist movement. Wagner was an anti-Semitic racist who found himself a huge fan in Hitler, so much so that performance of his operas in Israel still faces protests. More recently, Dustin Hoffman, who along with Robert Redford inspired me to become a journalist through All the President’s Men, turned out to be not only a fine actor, but a serial sexual predator himself. His actions were appalling and six victims have come forward. On the one hand, there are these allegations, and on the other, there are his performances in Kramer vs. Kramer, Rain Man and The Graduate.
To an extent, we find ourselves unable to make this distinction not because of the art itself, but because of everything else that we know. While the consumption of art is an individual incident, the celebration or castigation of the creator is a social event. The way we consume art has a performative aspect to it, now more than ever, with the democratised nature of our communication. And in this performance is encoded an acceptance that we like something that needs to be liked, because by itself that work of art needs or deserves celebrating.