Yesterday, I listened to “Episode 60: The Horrors of Roman Polanski” on The Rant Macabre, and Darren and Keith were discussing the films of Roman Polanski when the conversation turned to separating the artist from his work. Roman Polanski’s history is no secret, and one of the hosts admitted he feels guilty for enjoying the director’s films.
This got me thinking about immoral artists.
The dilemma is an old one. I heard it in music school about Richard Wagner, an outspoken anti-Semite. Some refuse to listen to Wagner’s music because of his racial bias.
Nevertheless, this position never impressed me as a good one. I’ll use an example from my writing classes on the fallacy of ad hominem. Consider the following:
At some point, someone might have asked Adolf Hitler for the time or a weather forecast. It is within reason to assume that Hitler responded truthfully at least part of the time. So, should a person have rejected Hitler’s answer as false out of hand?
Most people would say, “No,” I suspect.
Here’s a more plausible variation involving Charles Manson, the notorious mastermind of the Manson Family murders:
In recent years, Manson has taken up the cause of curbing anthropogenic climate change. Does the fact that a convicted murderer promotes addressing climate change mean that climate change is not real, or dangerous? Or that we shouldn’t do something about carbon emissions because we would give this culprit what he wants?
The point is that arguments must stand on their own merits. So why not works of art?
If the business of stories is truthtelling, and all real art tells a story in some sense, then a work of art makes an argument—giving us a reason to believe something is true.
And if the purpose of art is not to reveal truths about the human condition about which science is silent, then what are the arts for?