Dear Princess ‘Ishka,
There are at least two reasons why I don’t talk often about art. The first is that I have never had a true interest in the discipline of aesthetics, and that makes me even less of an expert than what I am on an average with respect to other topics. The second is that I love to contemplate art with my poor knowledge of art history, rather than necessarily try to find a meaning to it. Still, as you have probably by now noticed, I like to explore the paradoxical nature of certain phenomena and, in this sense, “art” offers me the perfect field for today’s little inquiry.
In particular, I will focus on the following question: Should we enjoy the work of an artist, even if we know she is a horrible person?
Few months ago, after the Weinstein’s scandal, the wildfire of allegations for sexual harassment and violence has been spreading and has reached many men in powerful positions. Probably, the most rumored of the “targets” of such allegations has been the actor Kevin Spacey. Many people consider him an extraordinary good actor, and his exclusion from House of Cards’ last season – the tv series of which he has played the leading character so far, has caused outrage.
According to the allegations, Spacey has been involved in several cases of moral misconduct. If this picture is correct, we might conclude that Spacey has been an extraordinary good actor over a considerable amount of time, while being a sexual harasser. Our dilemma is ready: are we justified in enjoining his movies, if we believe that he has been a sexual harasser?
Apart from watching a couple of episodes of House of Cards almost a year ago – without understanding much of what was going on, I really don’t have any knowledge of the actor’s ability – I can’t judge actors in general, for the record. To put myself in Spacey’s fans shoes, I will refer to an example, which has been more familiar to me, but still presents the same dilemma.
In 2009, the singer Chris Brown was taken to trial with the accusation of domestic violence against his girlfriend at the time Rihanna. When the photos of Rihanna’s bruises were released, my repulsion for Chris Brown mounted to the point that I couldn’t hear or read his name anymore. Every time I could recognize even the least of his background vocals at the radio, I automatically changed station. Chris Brown was to me a dead man.
Was I justified not to listen to a singer, who is considered by who-knows-how-many-people a music genius, just because he beat up to death another human being, insofar as she is a woman?
There are two perspectives, which we should consider when confronted with such cases. The first is the historical one. According to the historical perspective, the events in a person’s life are a sequence of interlocked facts. A person is the direct and indirect cause of her doings and can be directly or indirectly influenced by external happenings in being what she is.
This perspective is just descriptive of a person’s psychology and history, but it doesn’t allow to ascribe justification. It is impossible to say that “because she is aggressive-genial-depressed-…, she is justified in doing immoral/artistic things”. The historical perspective simply links events: person X is depressed and depression is linked to her doing immoral and/or artistic things, for instance. This doesn’t mean X is justified in doing those things.
The second perspective is the evaluative one. From this point of view, we have the faculty to “stop time” and judge. We stop time at the moment when Chris Brown is singing and we judge his performance as an extraordinary one. We stop time at the moment where he raises his hands over his girlfriend and we judge his action as loathsome.
For this time, I must surrender to skepticism. Chris Brown, Kevin Spacey, Caravaggio, Woody Allen, etc. are unified human beings, hence we can’t detach the two perspectives or separate our feelings for them insofar as they are artists rather than immoral individuals. We shouldn’t endorse the activity of a horrible person but, at the same time, we can’t deny that that horrible person has done very valuable things.
However, there is something that differentiates Caravaggio from the other men I’ve mentioned. Caravaggio died a murderer in 1610. And he belongs without doubt to the most restricted club of the greatest painters ever. It is the time that has passed that allows us to adopt the historical perspective and detach the evaluative ones from one another. That is, if ever there is a value to the other above mentioned men, only future history will tell. And future history will do justice to their triumphs as well as their baseness. Or will just forget.