Can we separate Art from Life?
‘To value a piece of work does not require us to applaud its creator.” (Ashleigh Wilson, On Artists, MUP, 2019)
Or does it?
Do we have to love the artist to love the work? Think of Pablo Picasso, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen. All can be judged as having questionable morals. If, like me, you’ve always enjoyed movies such as Allen’s “Manhattan”, ‘Annie Hall”, or” Crimes and Misdemeanours”, are you still a fan after knowing the allegations towards him of sexual and moral misconduct? Having hung prints of Picasso’s over the fireplace for years, do we take them down after hearing Hannah Gadsby denouncing him as a man who mistreated women, driving one of his wives to suicide?
Hans Heysen, one of Australia’s most famed landscape artists, held prestigious exhibitions before the second World War. During the war he was interned because of his German origins, and galleries removed his paintings. He had since been reinstated. But surely the works removed had the same artistic value both before and after the war?
Should not a work of art, be it literature, music or visual art, be judged on its own merit, not the reputation of its author? Perhaps Elena Ferrante, the author of the Neapolitan Novels, was wise to publish under a false name, and to separate her identity from her works.
Olivia Laing in her article Separating Art from Life (The Guardian, October 2018) writes:
‘Demanding that artists be moral paragons ignores that art arises out of troubled and damaged lives, that the two things are intimately connected. This is why it matters to us: because it wrestles with dark elements, because it confronts and alchemizes the rage and shame and grief that none of us, no matter how well we live, can hope to avoid.’
Assia Wevill, the woman whose affair with Hughes was one of the precursors to Plath’s suicide and who later killed herself, was not someone who opened her life to scrutiny or public judgment, but a human engaged in a situation that cannot possibly be understood by anyone, save its participants, and who is still paying for it posthumously by way of public humiliation decades later.
There’s no excuse for treating ordinary citizens like this, but aren’t artists asking for it, exposing and betraying, skewering loves and enemies alike in print? Take Robert Lowell, one of the pioneers of confessional writing. His decision to confront his own agonising struggle with mental illness in Life Studies inspired both Hughes and Plath to make their work more personal, which in turn sowed the seeds for our own culture of self-revelation, the perpetual announcing aria of everything we do and think.
There are no easy answers to these questions, writes Ashleigh Wilson in “On Artists”. The debate is packed with inconsistencies that are difficult, if not impossible, to resolve. In the end, each of us makes his or her own decisions. But let me ask you: if we discovered that Shakespeare was a child-beater and a misogynist, would his plays have the same power to enthrall through the ages?
What do you think?