Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Artists, Motives, and Morality

After reading an excellent post, at ART and ARCHITECTURE, mainly, about Oscar Wilde's involvement in France's notorious Dreyfus Affair, I decided to re-post this entry from August  2009. I have long been intrigued by our relationship with artists and by our expectations about them as moral (or otherwise) people.

In 1991, when Woody Allen began a relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of Mia Farrow (his long-time romantic partner), the media erupted with commentary for and against his morality. Some said that they would never again patronize any of his films; others made a special case for him because "artists are different," and we overlook transgressions because of what their art gives to us.

An even more heated debate about artists, their morality, and their contributions to the world, arose when Roman Polanski was arrested in 2009, decades after fleeing to avoid sentencing in a case of having forced sex with a minor - to which he had pled guilty. The same arguments circulated.

Hels' post about Oscar Wilde discusses two books about Wilde's involvement in the Dreyfus Affair, particularly about his motives, and it reminded me of this question about artists that surfaces again and again.

Here is the original post:

In October 1984, I saw an exhibit of Hitler's watercolours at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.

I then knew nothing about Hitler as an artist and was shocked by the fact that he painted anything at all. The paintings were decent, some better than decent, and some were quite pretty, especially those of great architecture in landscape settings.

I would forget for a time that the paintings were done by Hitler and simply appreciate them; then with a mental start, I would remember whose work it was and feel guilty for enjoying it. At times, I was dual-minded, a critic watching myself enjoying the art of an evil madman.

It was one of those odd moments that stay with a person always.

Spiegel Online International has Ulrike Knofel's interview with German art historian Birgit Schwarz: "The Fuhrer's Obsession with Art."

Schwarz is an expert on Hitler's relationship with art and sees Hitler's obsession with art as part of his view of himself as a genius, and vice versa. She further connects his political and racial evils with his belief in himself as a genius - an idea of genius from the 19th century:
We define a genius on the basis of his talent. At the time, talent was not the main focus. A genius had to have a strong personality. He was a larger-than-life talent who was permitted to do anything, including evil things. The genius has outstanding ideas, and they must be implemented, even if they are completely amoral. Hitler admired the work of dour philosophers like Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche.
Unlike many other historians and biographers who see the artist almost as footnote to the monster, Schwarz sees Hitler's ideas about himself as an artist as fundamental to his persona and actions as Der Fuhrer.

Schwarz has written "Geniewahn: Hitler und die Kunst" (Delusions of Genius: Hitler and Art) about these connections.


The connections between artists and morality, between what society expects of us mere mortals as differentiated from what it expects, at times, from artists is a complex and fascinating question. Hels' post has added another dimension and another artist to my "collection."


Judie said...

ChrisJ, a most interesting post indeed. I have seen some of Hitler's work, and it just doesn't seem to jive with the personality we are familiar with.

ChrisJ said...


Exactly; it was a very odd experience.

Hels said...

Your questions last time were spot on. Are art and the morality of the artist intertwined? Independent? Should one purchase or in any way support the work of someone who is deemed immoral? Or are we merely purchasing something not related to morality at all?

One of my best examples is Emil Nolde, a powerful Expressive artist in Germany. He voluntarily joined the Nazi party in the 1920s, long before he HAD to, and was presumably a committed believer in Nazi ideology. [Membership didn't save his career ha ha].

Since we don't know Nolde's motives, we can only guess that for him, art and the morality of the artist were probably totally independent. But for me, the consumer, his art and morality were deeply entangled.

ChrisJ said...


I'm also interested in works, like Beowulf, which are anonymous. We like or don't like based completely on the work itself. Conceivably, one might have to do a radical change once information possibly came to light.

Nick said...

An intriguing question that extends into the broader issue of biography, which finds its way into aesthetic experience.

Would Keats' 'Autumn' have the same poignancy if we didn't understand that he was already in the late stages of consumption?

ChrisJ said...


Biography does play a part, but I believe the poem would have the same poignancy without our knowledge of his condition. Very likely that his illness gave him the poignancy to express autumn as he did, but I don't think we need to know about his circumstances to feel that poignancy. The poem does that by itself.

Ciss B said...

I agree with Judie that this was an interesting post. I think there are degrees of genius and some seems to dip too far into what I feel is almost on the insane side of genius and those are the ones who focus on their rights and center more on their genius rather than sharing their gifts with the world. They also tend to sometimes be the most frightening in their affect on the world and the people around them. That to me are those who step out of the realm of artistic genius and into the edge (or further) of real insanity and to excuse them is wrong in my opinion.

ChrisJ said...


Interesting take on it; I agree that there is a line which sometimes is crossed.