Thursday, September 20, 2007
I just heard a debate on Woman's Hour about whether art should be condemned on the basis of the artist's life. Here is the background story. Eric Gill seems to be the big problem. Gill, a catholic, sculpted the Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral. But he indulged in paedophilia, bestiality and who nows what else? The first point to make here is that it's the paedophilia that matters. If Gill had merely had sex with animals or indulged in any other gross perversion, I suspect the issue would not have come up. Indeed, in the case of Caravaggio, a murderer, it very seldom comes up. But paedophilia is our age's one great blasphemy and, even beyond the grave, paedophiles must be persecuted. But the idea of censoring art in response to the crimes - any crimes - of the artist is noxious and absurd. Orwell once asked if we would think any differently about Shakespeare if it was revealed he assaulted little girls on trains. The answer is that our feelings about Shakespeare the playwright should be unaffected. Unfortunately the thought process behind this seems to be too subtle for those people who just love banning things. Of course the art and the life interact, but this does not compromise the autonomy of the art. I have just been reading Emily Dickinson. It is essential to know something about the life if the poems are to be fully understood. But the poems still stand alone to be judged as poetry; it is, after all the poems and only the poems that make us wonder about the life. The whole point about art is that it transcends the artist; that's why and how it works, that's why we can understand great art that is centuries or millennia old. But the contemporary imagination is affronted by anything that transcends the contemporary. It is affronted, in particular, by beauty.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 9:32 am