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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Does bad behavior trump genius in art?

Or vice versa? A story is told about the conductor Daniel Barenboim, who decided to conduct a piece from Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” in Israel, despite the widely acknowledged fact that Wagner was a despicable human being, a renowned anti-Semite and a favorite of the Nazis. Speaking of his decision, which elicited loud and long protests, Mr. Barenboim said, “Wagner was a disagreeable person, but he did not compose one note of anti-Semitic music.” So, for the conductor, the quality of the music trumped the composer’s behavior.

More recently, those of us who love Woody Allen’s work have been dismayed by accusations that he sexually molested Dylan Farrow, his adopted daughter, when she was 7 years old. The charges, and Allen’s response, were published in The New York Times. No one can know where the truth lies, and of course Allen has the presumption of innocence, but the controversy stirs the pot. If it were true — if he were guilty of such reprehensible behavior — would it diminish his stature in Hollywood? (Not that Hollywood is the epicenter of morality.) Would we go to his movies, read his essays in The New Yorker with the same joy? Would we begin watching movies like “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex” with a new perspective?

Especially with the Academy Awards coming up, it’s so very nice and tidy when the winning artist is also a stellar human being, but that’s only a wish. The list of great artists, even widely acclaimed geniuses, who are also repellent human beings seems to grow. Should it matter who holds the pen or the paintbrush?

Picasso was a notorious misogynist. Of his many wives, two went mad and two committed suicide. Yet there is “Guernica.” Hemingway’s own son wrote to him that over the course of the writer’s life he destroyed five people — a bad business. But that was in addition to creating “A Farewell to Arms” and “The Old Man and the Sea” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

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