Creativity vs morals

Do we, and should we, extend “special licence” to those outstanding people, in particular our creative geniuses, who contribute in an extraordinary way to their field of interest but are nevertheless actually deeply flawed people.

Of course, we are all flawed in some way, to some degree. For better or worse. But what if that flaw is extreme, or in our eyes unacceptable?

What makes a great artist or writer? Is it solely their great work that we should acknowledge, or should the perceived flaw affect our assessment of their work and contributions?

Let me give you some examples. There are many lauded literary artists who were staunchly anti-semitic: Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Patricia Highsmith. William Golding (Lord of the Flies) in his unpublished memoir Men and Women (which Golding wrote for his wife) details his attempted rape of a 15-year-old girl.

Paul Gauguin, a French post-impressionist artist, towards the end of his life in French Polynesia took three native brides, aged 13 and 14, infecting them and many other local girls with syphilis.

Richard Wagner, a German composer who introduced new ideas in harmony, melodic process and operatic structure, was controversial in part because of his anti-semitic views. Likewise Chopin, Liszt and Mussorgsky held similar anti-semitic views.

And more recently: Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin knowingly carried on a “relationship” with a 14-year-old girl (a “baby groupie”) when he was 29. And then there was the disturbing police raid video of Michael Jackson’s Neverland ranch which revealed the extent of Jackson’s pornography collection and pictures of naked young boys.

Lastly I mention Eric Gill, an English sculptor, typeface designer and printmaker. His statue Prospero and Ariel (pictured) adorns the BBC’s Broadcasting House and the Creation of Adam is in the lobby of the European HQ of the United Nations in Geneva. Gill created some of the most popular devotional art of his era, such as the Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral.

However, he is a controversial figure, with his well-known religious views (a Catholic convert) and subject matter generally viewed as being at odds with his sexual behaviour, including his erotic art and sexual abuse of his daughters.

Gill recorded in his diary (reported in Fiona MacCarthy’s biography) that he regularly had sex with two of his daughters, his sisters and even the family dog.

It appears that in the past, as a society we have been quick and willing to overlook and ignore major personality flaws. And in large part, we have been ignorant of our geniuses’ flaws. But now we are often better informed. Should we judge? Who are we to judge? But if not, who does? 

27 July 2018