I have long been fascinated by the question of whether it is possible to separate the art from the artist. The history of the world is full of people who have contributed works of art, statesmanship, beauty, even humanitarianism while simultaneously possessing great blackness in their hearts.
There are numerous examples. Thomas Jefferson penned the American Declaration of Independence while owning slaves. He is generally believed to have treated the slaves on his plantation with some measure of respect, though I wonder if it is possible to truly respect an individual one owns.
Richard Wagner, a blatant anti-Semitic, composed the opera Lohengren. Most of us don’t know this opera, but most of us are very familiar with a passage from the opera played at weddings since the mid 1800’s. It’s called Wedding March, The Bridal Chorus, or simply, Here Comes the Bride.
How many artisans, writers, musicians in our history have produced works of beauty while committing reprehensible acts? Do those acts invalidate whatever goodness their creators may have fashioned?
What can be said about a person who appreciates the art of someone whose name elicits images of the most loathsome, gruesome, unfathomable atrocities against over 16 million people?
What can be said about a person who appreciates a film that captures elegant, graceful athletes, despite the director’s friendship with that madman? Leni Riefenstahl was quoted in 1937 by a Detroit reporter as saying: "To me, Hitler is the greatest man who ever lived. He truly is without fault, so simple and at the same time possessed of masculine strength.”
The same person who finds some of Hitler’s pastoral paintings to be beautiful also finds some of Riefenstahl’s Olympic footage graceful, some of Jefferson’s words inspiring, some of Wagner’s music brilliant.
Shall we turn our backs on the Declaration of Independence because its primary author was an active participant in slavery? Shall we stop our ears and run from every wedding when we hear strains of music written by an anti-Semitic? Shall we avert our eyes when seeing a beautiful watercolor brought into being by a mass murder?
We could, I suppose, take upon ourselves the burden of researching the politics of each person, historical or contemporary, with whom we have any measure of contact. In doing such research I am confident we will find many heroes who have behaved with some measure of despicable behavior as well as many antiheroes who have occasionally behaved admirably.
Can Jefferson’s apparent benign treatment of his slaves compare with Hitler’s atrocities to people who he felt were inferior to him? One immediately rushes in and exclaims, “Why, of course not!”
I wonder. If a Jeffersonian slave sat down with an inmate of Dachau and compared notes, which one could lay claim to having endured the most horrific treatment? Would you be willing to trade places for one year with either person?
My initial bias says, “Oh, undoubtedly I would take up residence at Monticello. After all, he treated his slaves relatively well.” But I am blind to the realities of that slave. I cannot invision with intimate clarity what it would be like to live in a world where an individual has power to reassign me to circumstances away from my family, or even to restrict me from legally marrying the person of my choice.
Oh. That’s right. As a lesbian, I am restricted from legally marrying the person of my choice. Ah. Well, that’s just a small restriction after all, isn’t it.
Am I ignorant and unsympathetic to others because I honor a very small piece of brightness in an otherwise decayed and depraved life? Perhaps. I don’t think so, but I don’t know. I do know that if I demand from others who engage in behaviors that I find ignorant and unsympathetic to me that I will soon tire from my demands.
I don’t have time for such demands. I have time to appreciate beauty wherever I find it. Sometimes it is in the open air, fresh, clear, universally applauded. And sometimes it is under a rock, soiled by the sins of its creator.