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Tuesday 22 September 2015

Art and Artist?

I read the below article, "Our Woody Allen Problem" a few days ago in "Psychology Today". It is interesting that others have pondered the cognitive dissonance we seem to face when we don't agree with the morality of the artist, but we are a fan of their work. I think a huge amount of latitude needs to be applied. If I was to go through all the films, novels, plays, songs, installations, sculptures, paintings, poems etc. etc. and make an assessment of the key artists involved against my own morals, ethics or even personal philosophy, there would be no one left.

This has been a problem for me since childhood. Growing up in a culture that it has often been fashionable to persecute, traditional circus, it became all-too-common to discover that some icon or other opposed what my family did for a living. Not only did I have to make a decision to either separate the individual from what they produced, but I was often at war with my tastes when a certain prejudicial or gross insult to my people suddenly appeared in a favourite programme, book or other work. 
Looking at the example presented in the Woody Allen  article - and I appreciate this isn't the entire thrust of the psychological argument -  the problem here is that the morality of the artist's life casts a troublesome shadow over the themes of his work. Indeed, this was the same issue I encountered when a gross distortion was made about my people. It ended up leading me to question the validity of a certain individual's work. Even in the realm of fantasy and fiction were they a farce?

Arguably a far larger problem has occurred with Bill Cosby's work since his multiple historic sexual assault allegations. The fact that Cosby has gone on record admitting that he used Quaaludes for sex and even President Barak Obama felt the need to imply the extent of Cosby's guilt, makes it seem virtually impossible for anyone but the man's most hard-core fans to look upon on the man the same way again. The problem here is that whatever the outcome, the concept of the old school and wholesome Cosby life is shattered and this illusion was something he brought into just about every medium he touched. Even his brilliant adult stand-up had a firm grounding in the tales of his family life, and Cosby's moral lessons - not to mention his ability to mention sex without vulgarity - were part of the parcel. Cosby always provided me with a refreshing contrast to the majority of my favourite comics who often did little to stand on the edges of prudery. Even Groucho Marx, who Cosby adored and worked hard to keep in front of a changing audience to the extent that he played the straight man in their onscreen work, used innuendo and made rakishness part of his persona. I recently saw an internet meme showing two decades apart photos of Cosby. One was the picture of the jolly 1980s middle-American Dr Huxtable he created for "The Cosby Show" and the other was the clearly deeply worried and troubled bald man we have seen photographed today. One poster responded with knee-jerk pathos - "It's sad". They were immediately shot down: "It's sad what these women have been put through for so long!". We are often shamed by such remarks. We feel selfish to bemoan the thought of losing Cosby's art when we should really be feeling anger towards yet another example of a celebrity abusing their position of power and influence. 

A diagram of cognitive dissonance theory. Diss...
A diagram of cognitive dissonance theory. Dissonance reduction can be accomplished in various ways, broadly including the addition of more, consonant elements, or else changing the existing elements. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, the likes of Gary Glitter, Jimmy Savile, Rolf Harris and many others became institutions that made up the fabric of our childhood culture and their demonization does have some effect on us all. Managing the paedophilic Glitter was the easiest. He represented glam rock, which could be marginalized like any other music trend or deviation. I never liked his image or his music. I know several people who worked with him and few of them spoke highly of the man before he was first publically accused of his various crimes. However, something doesn't quite sit right with me when decisions have been made to completely remove him from works that have been created to celebrate the history of glam rock. Savile's legacy is a little bit more difficult. Besides once writing a letter to a show that almost put him in a Santa Claus demi-god position for children, "Jim'll Fix It", Saville did not have a particularly large obvious influence over my tastes.  However, he is currently recognized with the paradoxical distinction of being one of the UK’s most prolific charity fundraisers and prolific sexual predators. It should be noted that the prestige he gained from being the former aided him to commit the crimes of the latter. 

Rolf Harris appeared in many different forms throughout my childhood. The most memorable of these for my particular generation was probably “Rolf Harris’s Cartoon Time”. The show was one of those early evening programmes that became part of many a child’s television watching ritual. We loved the eccentric way he hummed and chatted to us - a method he had perfected whilst rehearsing to a doorknob! - as the various Warner Brothers cartoons took shape on his drawing board to the tap and squeak of his thick felt pens. My love for Looney Tunes long outlasted my interest in Harris’s cosy little show, but it was still a happy memory of a certain period of my life and provides a bitter taste in my mouth think of what was occurring in the lives of Harris’s victims at that time.  

Does the passage of time put everything into perspective? I love the works of Byron and Shelley. I, like many others, was first drawn to them more by the stories of their outrageous lifestyles and their iconic influence than by their literary merit. However, these two great romantic poets, who wrote such beautiful prose about love and friendship, did not have a great record for the way they treated their lovers. Byron, who popularized the type of bold hero that now bears his name, ended his days behaving like any other foppish and privileged celebrity who mistakes his self-righteous ego for the true spirit of revolution. Shelley, who married the daughter of the mother of feminism and a strong liberal philosopher, used the concept of "free love" as a licence to mistreat women. As discussed in two previous posts on here I have written, Shelley's own selfish interests and drives that helped create a lot of misery around him are probably the inspiration for his wife's most famous literary creation: Victor Frankenstein. Both Byron and Shelley's scandals, which helped build up the rock star blueprint that would ensure the iconography of many others to follow, stem from the shattered lives of those who trusted them. At least this is the opinion voiced by the likes of Claire Claremont, Lady Caroline Lamb and William Polidori. These are just the names of the illustrious and the literate, and those who were fiery enough to fight back in some fashion. Similar thoughts could be expressed about the hypocritical libertine, Mozart, and even Oscar Wilde, who used teenage rent boys who were probably forced into their profession by the poverty of the time.
On watching a documentary about the rock history's greatest excesses, I couldn't help but wonder at the double standards we allow and even celebrate in certain icons. One story that really brought this to mind was the story of a competition between glam metal Motley Crue founding members, Nikki Sixx and Tommy Lee. Apparently both were competing to see how long they could go without washing and still get sex off groupies. In the end, Sixx won the bet when one groupie who was giving him oral sex was so overwhelmed by the noxious fumes of his body odour that she threw up on him. It became an amusing anecdote in rock circles and fellow glam metallers, Guns 'n Roses even named one of their albums after it. Some might argue that the groupie in question was a consenting adult and deserved everything that she got for being such a mindless devotee to fame, but it's always easy to judge. Seeing the huge numbers of groupies that various celebrities make their way through, one has to stop and ponder the average age of them all. Furthermore, given the tribal nature in human beings don't those positions of influence have some degree of responsibility?

Whenever one thinks about the separate way we might think of an art and artist, the subject of Richard Dadd is an obvious example. One of my favourite authors, Angela Carter, even wrote  "Come unto these Yellow Sands", a play based on Dadd's life.  Dadd was incarcerated in 1843 in Bethlehem psychiatric hospital, the place most famously dubbed "Bedlam Asylum", and later in Broadmoor Hospital, which has housed a veritable rogues gallery of British killers. Dadd, who was probably a paranoid schizophrenic, had killed his father believing him to be a demon and later took a razor to kill a tourist en route to Paris. His personality had undergone a dramatic and violent change a year previously whilst on an expedition through Europe and into Egypt. However, once Dadd was under care he began producing some of his most famout work. One particular piece, the unfinished masterpiece "The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke", has gone on to inspire many other artists from the rock band Queen to the fantasy author Terry Pratchett. Dadd accompanied the work with a long poem he wrote one year after the artist stopped working on the piece. Amid the brilliant, incredible and intricate details of the picture, which have to be viewed as extensions of Dadd's complicated psyche, there is the almost hidden figure of an apothecary holding a mortar and pestle. This is a portrait of Dadd's murdered father, Robert. Few would call into question Dadd's insanity and therefore might absolve him from his violent acts. Few would condemn those who encouraged Dadd to continue with his work as a type of therapy whilst he lived out his incarcerated life. However, how do we judge ourselves when we celebrate this beautiful work?

The examples I have provided are varied in their severity. I am trying hard not to make comparisons or even suggest an argument. Better writers have discussed how much fame seems to mitigate the crimes of celebrities in the eyes of the public and how historical context turns Alexander into a great conquering visionary and Hitler into the personification of evil. My aim is to ponder the complexity of trying to separate a work from its creator. I don't think anyone will arrive at an easy compromise.

Our Woody Allen Problem

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