The editors of the New York Times are thinking about character, too, today, in their case with respect to artists:
It’s an age-old question, and it re-emerges with the revelations about sexual predations that men with power inflicted on women and, in some instances, other men: Can we appreciate art even if it was created by someone who behaved deplorably?
The actor Kevin Spacey is accused of sexually assaulting boys and young men. The political writer Mark Halperin faces allegations of past sexual misconduct with women under his authority at work. Similar accusations have been made against the actor Dustin Hoffman, who has apologized for bad behavior.
As a result, the following has happened: Netflix shut down the Spacey star vehicle “House of Cards” and shelved a film called “Gore,” which was in postproduction and in which Mr. Spacey plays the writer Gore Vidal. HBO scrapped a planned mini-series and Penguin Press a book on the 2016 presidential election, which Mr. Halperin had written with his collaborator of recent years, John Heilemann. And suggestions have been made in print and pixels that Mr. Hoffman’s films, past and present, should be boycotted.
No doubt, the corporate suits at Netflix, HBO and Penguin decided it was simply bad business to proceed with those projects, given how toxic the men are right now. That’s understandable. But isn’t it also reasonable to ask what ultimately should be the fate of these works (and not just because deep-sixing them hurts many others who also had a hand in creating them)?
Caravaggio was a murderous thug. Ezra Pound was a pro-fascist and pro-Nazi anti-Semite. Virginia Woolf had an anti-Semitic streak of her own. T. S. Eliot out-and-out hated Jews. Picasso treated the women in his life abysmally; two killed themselves. Norman Mailer stabbed his wife. Walt Whitman likened the “intellect and caliber” of blacks to that of “so many baboons.” William Golding tried to rape a 15-year-old girl. The list could go on.
At the very least I think that knowing about the characters of these individuals should force a re-evaluation of their art.
However, there’s a serious difference between today and five hundred years ago or a century ago or even fifty years ago. Today for reasons that elude me we take artists’ political views seriously. A couple of decades ago ball players were just ball players, actors actors and singers singers. If you knew about their politics it was unusual and they certainly weren’t considered bellwethers. Now they are.
Shouldn’t their characters be taken into account in evaluating their political views as well?
I think I’ve mentioned it before but among my many mental quirks is, as I characterize it, that the personalities of performers come across the proscenium at me. That’s why there are certain film actors I can’t bear to watch on the screen, notably Marilyn Monroe. She’s just too damaged. I readily acknowledge that she gave some great performances, for example in Bus Stop and The Misfits. They’re simply too painful to watch.