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The beautiful imaginations of monster men

Essay | 12 minute read
Can brilliant art be disconnected from its shamed creator? Judge the art and not the artist, David Lister argues

The most distressing interview I have carried out in my journalistic career was with Jill Craigie, a notable film-maker as well as being the wife of the former Labour leader, Michael Foot. We did not speak about cinema or socialism, but about how she was, many years before, raped by the acclaimed novelist, Arthur Koestler.

A  biography of Koestler by Professor David Cesarani in 1999 had revealed him as a serial rapist and disclosed how one of his victims had been Jill Craigie in 1951. I spoke to Ms Craigie after the publication of the biography, and she described to me in horribly graphic detail, and still in distress at the memory, how he had attacked her, while a guest in her home.

It was difficult to listen to, and it was difficult to digest, not just because of the disgraceful nature of the episode, but because Koestler’s reputation was bound up with his writing, epitomised by the novel, Darkness at Noon, which had had a profound effect on me in my in my teens, exposing as it does the horrors of totalitarianism. How could a man capable of work of such integrity and progressive liberalism also be capable of assaulting and demeaning women? And how should one henceforth regard that and the rest of his novels? It gave room for pause.

But not a very long pause for the students of Edinburgh university, who demanded the removal of a bust of Koestler from the university grounds. Even among literary figures, there was not universal denunciation of Koestler. Astonishingly, the screenwriter, Frederic Raphael, weighed into the debate by saying that Ms Craigie and the writer, Elizabeth Jane Howard, whom Koestler was said to have treated callously (demanding she have an abortion after making her pregnant) ‘were not foolish virgins’.

Both, he says: ‘have a right to their grievances, but both were ambitious and experienced women who liked the company of the powerful and the famous. Both had enough intelligence to read Koestler for a dangerous man. Is it any disparagement to suggest that they might, at the time, have been excited by the risks they were taking?’

Koestler’s novels are still available, but the question remains of how those of us who don’t take Raphael’s view should regard these fictions, knowing the painful truth about their author.

And now some 19 years or so after my interview with Ms Craigie and the unmasking of Koestler, the question of how much we should separate the art from the artist is topical again. Indeed, it might be true to say that it has never been so topical.

Arthur Koestler, 1960 (Photo by Karoly Forgacs/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

The catalyst for the present soul-searching of how or whether to separate art and artists, was not Koestler but the much more recent example of film producer Harvey Weinstein and the avalanche of assault and harassment allegations that followed the revelations about his undeniably appalling actions. Weinstein was sacked from the globally famous production company that he had co-founded with his brother, and stripped of most of the accolades he had gathered, including those from Bafta and the BFI. Next up was Kevin Spacey, film star, Oscar winner and former artistic director of London’s Old Vic. His harassment, and alleged assaults, of young actors resulted in him being sacked from the TV series House of Cards, removed from a film he was in the process of shooting by its director Ridley Scott, denounced by the Old Vic management, and left unlikely to work again.

There are other, numerous examples, that one could cite, but let us consider just one, for it encapsulates perfectly the peril of swift denunciation.

Vicky Featherstone, artistic director of the Royal Court theatre, took a lead after the Spacey furore in calling for higher standards on gender equality in the theatre and an end to harassment. It had also emerged that leading theatre director, and founder of the company, Out of Joint, Max Stafford-Clark was accused by several women of sexual harassment. Ms Featherstone was about to revive a Stafford-Clark directed play, Rita, Sue and Bob Too, in the Royal Court, despite the allegations. After some days she announced she would not be staging it in light of those allegations, and not least because as well as the Stafford-Clark connection there was the added complication that the theme of the play was grooming.

Fast forward a few days more, and the play was back on. Trickily, though its association with Stafford-Clark had seemingly ruled it out, the work had been written by a young, female, working-class playwright (now deceased). In a heartfelt public statement, Ms Featherstone said: ‘As Artistic Director of the Royal Court I know that we are nothing without the voices and trust of our writers. This is the guiding principle on which the theatre was founded and on which it continues to be run. I have therefore been rocked to the core by accusations of censorship and the banning of a working-class female voice. For that reason I have invited the current Out of Joint production of Rita, Sue and Bob Too back to the Royal Court for its run. As a result of this helpful public debate we are now confident that the context with which Andrea Dunbar’s play will be viewed will be an invitation for new conversations.’

And there lies the problem, or one of the problems. Artistic works, with the possible exception of novels, do not involve just one person, but many. And consider other problems, and what a slippery slope it is when one simply removes all vestige of the accused from public view, as has been done with Spacey, for example. Will those who sacked Spacey and removed Weinstein’s honours be as quick to remove honours from Alfred Hitchcock, who was accused of repeated historical sexual harassment in the same week as the Weinstein scandal erupted. One of Hitchcock’s leading ladies, Tippi Hedren, still alive and still kicking, made public statements to that effect.

And what of Roman Polanski, still in possession of an Oscar, still acclaimed, yet guilty of a particularly vile act of rape and sodomy against a 13-year-old girl?

As Spacey contemplates the end of his career, he might wonder with the rest of us at the lack of consistency. The last few months have thrown up so many examples, one is spoilt for choice. But let us take just one more for the moment, one more extremely prominent victim of a social media tempest, the Harry Potter author, JK Rowling.

It was not, of course, for any inappropriate behaviour by her, but for her backing of the casting of the Hollywood star Johnny Depp in the Fantastic Beasts movies, a series of sequels to the Harry Potter films. Depp’s divorce from the actress Amber Heard contained allegations by Ms Heard of domestic abuse. After a series of attacks on her for supporting his casting, Rowling said:  ‘Harry Potter fans had legitimate questions and concerns about our choice to continue with Johnny Depp in the role. The agreements that have been put in place to protect the privacy of two people, both of whom have expressed a desire to get on with their lives, must be respected.’

It’s a rum justification. Had Weinstein or Spacey expressed (as indeed they have) a ‘desire to get on with their lives’, would that have satisfied Ms Rowling?

She is not alone in tying herself in knots. It is not just inconsistency which is disturbing, it is the worryingly Stalinist nature of literally writing people out of the script. Can Spacey’s acting really not be divorced from his character? Perhaps time will heal. It certainly seems to have done in the case of Koestler. The Week magazine ended 2017 with a selection of great letters to The Times over the years. In pride of place was a letter from 1975 by one Arthur Koestler, humorously suggesting PAT to replace VAT. PAT would be Pleasure Added Tax. Perhaps the publishers of The Week had forgotten the Koestler rapist revelation and not realised how horrendously inappropriate a mention of Pleasure Added Tax was in relation to such a person.

So should we read that person’s books? Ironically, they remain as easy to come by as the collected works of Spacey will inevitably become harder to catch. It is ironic because it could be argued that Koestler is more deserving of a total ban than any of those in the current spotlight of infamy.  Koestler’s work is so linked to personal integrity that it becomes that much harder to swallow when you know that its creator lacked any integrity in some of his personal relationships. Spacey’s fictional American president was not a noble human being, quite the reverse, so one does not automatically notice a contradiction between the actor and his character. But with Koestler, the connection between novelist and the work is hard to ignore.

Should this matter, though? Are we really saying that if Spacey’s president had been a do-gooder and statesman, then it would have been so much worse, or conversely that Koestler’s work would be more acceptable if his fictional protagonists had been murderers and deviants rather than noble human beings in search of peace and freedom, while faced with the brutality of Soviet totalitarianism?

It is clearly a ludicrous argument, yet there can be no denying that viscerally, if nothing else, it is that much harder to accept the literature of freedom and human rights from the pen of a violent rapist, whose public life was a deception.
Strangely, as some have pointed out, we do not make equivalent judgements when it comes to the visual artists.  Gauguin was a paedophile, as his ‘relationships’ with 13-year-old girls attest, Caravaggio a murderer. Tamar Garb, professor of history of art at University College, London, commented in the Sunday Times: ‘Scholars have fought about Gauguin for the past 25 years. He’s a paedophile racist, running around with these 13-year-old girls, who become his so-called wives. Many scholars think it completely compromises you when you look at those doe-eyed, brown bodies and how they were representative of a culture of racism and colonialism.’ Most people, though, remain resolutely uncompromised. And Gauguin is revered as a key figure in the history of modern art.

Paul Gauguin’s ‘Te Arii Vahine’ (‘The King’s Wife’), 1896 (Photo By DEA/ E. Lessing /De Agostini/Getty Images)

Others are not so ‘lucky’. Perhaps because they are manifestly lesser artists (though that is a strange moral justification), Rolf Harris and Gary Glitter won’t be reappearing on radio playlists in the near future, maybe not in our lifetimes. Still others are fortunate that they lived in a very different climate and are not subject to the trial by social media of today or the much improved social and sexual mores of today. Benjamin Britten, rightly revered as the greatest opera composer this country has produced, was known to have infatuations with pre-pubescent boys.
But if one can listen to Peter Grimes with a clear conscience and congratulate oneself on appreciating a Gauguin exhibition, why should one feel a shudder in watching House of Cards or reading Darkness at Noon? And what is the correct critical reaction to the upcoming Royal Court production of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, when even the head of the theatre where it will be staged was so conflicted that she changed her mind twice about putting it on.

It is hard to overcome human revulsion at a personality defect so strong that it can harm, degrade and traumatise fellow human-beings. But ignore it one must, I would argue, when it comes to a work of art that touches heart and mind, in the case of Darkness at Noon or a Gauguin painting. It is quite right that one does not want to see the work’s creator, as the Edinburgh students did not want to look on the image of Koestler. But appreciating the finished work is not an endorsement of the person who created it.

Koestler’s writing triumphs over the man, So, should Spacey’s acting be allowed now and in the future to triumph over the man? There are a number of roads to go down. We can, as seems to happen now, write known abusers and harassers – and their work – out of the script and out of history. Or, we say that we must judge a work of art as an entity in itself and put a flawed or criminal creator out of our minds, but at the same time deprive known abusers of the opportunity to make any more art. Or, we take the view that once a work is created, its creator is irrelevant. Judge the art, not the artist.

But, there is another way. In the case of literature, one makes a critical judgement of what is on the page. It demeans both the work and one’s own judgement to then make a revaluation based on what may have come to light about the author. It is unthinkable that we could rate the works of Shakespeare any less highly if now, hundreds of years later, information were to be revealed painting him in an unflattering, even criminal light.

The cases of actors, directors, comedians, musicians, are harder. They have to be employed, and often be part of an ensemble. To put them before the public and pay them well for it does seem to condone their crimes or alleged crimes. It is hard to see this happening, hard to make a case that it should happen.

But their previous work, work done, work applauded, before they became subjects of infamy, should still be accorded the same critical judgement as it was at the time. Spacey’s Oscar-winning performance in American Beauty remains a fine performance in a fine film, and I see no reason why it should not enliven an evening on TV in the future. To try to wipe the past, is not just to write off a body of work of an artist, no matter how they are viewed at present, but to detract from the judgement that we as partakers of that art made.

Inconsistencies abound, both in society’s treatment of different artists, their frailties and their crimes, and in critical reaction to them. But we must at least be consistent in respect of our own critical judgements already made, and react to the art not the artist. Although many caught up in the current wave of retribution are unlikely to work again, and certainly will never enjoy a similar profile, esteem or popular affection, some of the hypocrisy shown by them would be matched by us if we quietly forgot or renounced critical judgements we had made in the past, and refused to be reminded of acknowledged greatness in art.

Separating the art and the artist may not always be possible, but where it is, it is of service both to the art and the consumer of that art. The artist, if not an irrelevance, certainly comes a distant third.