Do great artists live by a different moral code than the rest of us? Do their profound achievements make their personal failings forgivable?
These twin questions have regularly resurfaced over the past few months, most recently with the arrest of film director Roman Polanski. They also provided an undercurrent to the saturation coverage of Michael Jackson, following the pop star's sudden death this summer.
And they improbably arose in Los Angeles, when a member of county board of supervisors belatedly discovered Richard Wagner was an anti-Semite and asked the Los Angeles Opera to cancel its long-planned production of his Ring Cycle. The troupe, noting that the cycle of four operas is generally considered one of the most monumental artistic achievements of all time, politely declined.
The Polanski and Jackson cases are particularly troubling, since both involve underage sex. Jackson was accused but not convicted of molesting 12- and 13-year-old boys; Polanski fled the United States after pleading guilty to drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl. These are offenses that, as the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson pointed out, can't honestly be dismissed as inconsequential under any reasonable set of ethical guidelines.
And yet, a group of eminent filmmakers including Martin Scorsese, Pedro Almodovar and Woody Allen quickly came to his defense, signing a petition expressing "stupefaction" with the arrest. A number of European cultural leaders expressed outrage, suggesting a creative genius shouldn't be treated in such a way. As French film critic Agnes Poirier told the Guardian of London: "We are prepared to forgive artists a lot more than we are prepared to forgive ordinary mortals."
Jackson's continuing popularity suggests she is right, and the reasons are clear enough. Great artists touch us in deep places, expressing feelings that in some cases we didn't even realize we had. This creates a sort of fusion with their fans, an intense sense of identification that allows no room for nuance.
Allen — another member of the creative-geniuses-with-questionable-sexual-mores club — poked holes in this exalted view of artists in his 1994 film Bullets Over Broadway. In this buoyantly brilliant comedy, a nice-guy playwright (John Cusack) discovers his artistic talents pale alongside those of a thuggish gangster (Chazz Palminteri). The message couldn't be clearer: Artistry has nothing whatsoever to do with conventional moral character. In fact, there may even be an inverse relationship between the two.
Why might that be? The late psychologist Colin Martindale, who did some of the most insightful research into the nature of creativity, proposed that creativity is related to disinhibition. This makes intuitive sense: An inhibited person is unlikely to be a creative thinker. On the other hand, someone who discovers that a lack of inhibition pays off in terms of creative output may be unable or unwilling to adjust to the behavioral constraints society demands.
The seminal psychologist Carl Jung painted a dark portrait of the artistic personality in his 1933 bookModern Man in Search of a Soul. He wrote that, with few exceptions, "a person must pay dearly for the divine gift of the creative fire."
"It is as though each of us were endowed at birth with a certain capital of energy," Jung states. "The strongest force in our makeup will seize and all but monopolize this energy, leaving so little over that nothing of value can come of it. In this way, the creative force can drain the human impulses to such a degree that the personal ego must develop all sorts of bad qualities."
He goes on to describe artists as being akin to "neglected children," displaying an "invincible egocentrism" and "remaining all their lives infantile." Sound at all familiar?
Of course, there are many successful artists who manage to maintain a healthy social and family life. I know a few personally. And there are significant background specifics to all the cases mentioned here, including Jackson's reportedly abusive father and, in Polanski's case, the anything-goes atmosphere of 1970s Hollywood.
Still, it's worth remembering that — to paraphrase Keats, the subject of a current film biography — art is concerned with truth and beauty, not morality. Polanski's Chinatown, Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors and, for that matter, Wagner's Ring ask profound ethical questions but provide no clear-cut answers. Great artists are often connoisseurs of the murkiness of morality. Are we really surprised when they transgress?