The great Renaissance sculptor and goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini, creator of Perseus With the Head of Medusa, was a murderer and a rapist. He killed at least two men and was accused by a model of sexually assaulting her. This does not stop me from looking with great amazement and curiosity at the naked and sexual Perseus With the Head of the Medusa. The knowledge of the immorality of the creator does not distract from my enjoyment of his creation; indeed I am made even more curious to know how beauty is perceived by a violent man. I assume that all art is made by people who are pretty bad in one way or another and that I am going to see the world through the prism of their own particular badness. I assume that any good art will be in part about badness.
And I will eagerly look at the work of any tyrant, rapist or murderer for the same reason. If Kim Jong-un wrote a novel I would be first in line for a copy.
Nor is my absorption of these things a question of compartmentalizing, of ignoring or suspending my disgust with an artist's personal behaviour so as to concentrate on the art. I'm watching and reading because I expect art to be about moral dangers in a way that is less didactic than essays are. I expect art to be troubling because I expect people to be troubling. I am prepared to like and dislike something in every work. I can also appreciate the aesthetic genius of a moral monster without feeling that I am becoming inured to monstrosity. Just as I can read Heidegger without becoming a Nazi, I can look at one of Adolf Hitler's juvenile watercolour paintings and appreciate a bit of pink in the sky there, and understand it as a painting of its era and one by a tyrant at the same time. And if I do this and am judged immoral for it, is it because it is bad for just me or bad for society at large?
A moral question arises, to me, only when money is exchanged. Looking is one thing, but what about buying? If I buy the photo of the work of a baby-eater, am I enriching a criminal and therefore perpetuating criminal acts? I really want to roll my eyes at this and say who the hell cares, my essay on it will be more valuable than this indirect complicity – and furthermore, it is easy for me to get a free pirated copy of anything – but okay, I will stop and try to take this scruple seriously.
Here is where we enter the moral quandary that affects the contemporary mass cultural moment. The problem of engaging with art by bad people, it is said, is an economic one. There is Zhu Lu, the Chinese artist who photographed himself eating what was purportedly a human fetus. And then there is Woody Allen. I need to understand the art of both men and so need to look at it. But Zhu Lu and Woody Allen are in fact only distantly analogous because Zhu Lu's art is not commercial. I'm not really supporting Zhu Lu by looking up his pictures on the internet. But it is argued that by paying money to see a film by a still-living man accused of sexually abusing a child, we would be rewarding someone who deserves to be shunned. It is also argued that the culture of movie-making in Hollywood is pervasively sexist and abusive and that contributing to its economic success as a whole is a subtle approval of its tactics. An essayist in The New York Times tweeted that "the critical acclaim and economic clout of the art facilitates the abuse."
A writer in Esquire echoed her, taking an even more puritanical stance. We must stop separating artists from art, argues Tyler Coates, and throw out all the movies made by bad men. There is plenty of art in the world and we would not miss the handful of movies by abusers. He does not extend this demand to the other arts created by bad people (novels by fascists, poems by thieves), so I don't know if we are meant to throw those out too. Coates speaks of movies as art to be "enjoyed" (not precisely the role art plays in my own life), and proposes that we deprive ourselves of the presumed pleasure – a simple pleasure, like ice cream – of the corrupted movies. It will rid ourselves of complicity. It will be as easy as giving up ice cream for lent.
Any Christian will recognize this as a fundamentally religious impulse: The goal is not so much to improve the world as to improve oneself, to keep oneself pure.
I want to take issue with the idea of "enjoying" art as well. Yes, one does enjoy it, sometimes, but that's far from the only reason for art's existence. Art is not ice cream. To consume art is for me as necessary a means of understanding the culture around me as reading the news is; it is necessary and automatic, almost involuntary. It is also frequently unpleasant: Art can be disturbing and noisy and embarrassing and downright awful, and I still feel curious about it. I love the movies of Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier, movies very much about moral cesspits, and I can't say I am experiencing pleasure exactly.
Fictional narratives, good or bad, are a kind of oxygen for my brain. If I were to stop delving into unpleasant, embarrassing or possibly immoral art for any reason, I would feel cut off from my own intellect. I would feel stupid.
I am baffled, genuinely baffled, by the idea that by consuming art one is somehow perpetuating the ideas in it. Do I absorb the values of Nazism by looking at Hitler's watercolours? Do I advance Nazism if I reprint Hitler's watercolours in a history book? And should I feel guilt if I find any of Hitler's watercolours pleasant?
Even if I read a book that is explicitly about child abuse and that appears to be unjudgmental about child abuse (Lolita, say), am I perpetuating it or just trying to understand the deeply bad world? Art can be propagandistic, yes, but I am an adult with a critical faculty, not just a pulsing irrational emotional sensor; I can think and analyze what I read and see.
I get the concern about the financial support of criminals, but that economic question really only applies to living artists and only to certain art forms, and it is such a minor issue to me, such an unavoidable byproduct of the serious and necessary work of understanding the world that I can't really take it seriously. Besides, it is so easily bypassed: If you feel bad about it, just stream a pirated version of the movie for free.
As far as real crime goes, let the police and the courts deal with criminal artists; I have no interest in protecting them. Lock them up as long as you want. I have only a passing interest in the outcomes. That belongs to a different sphere of activity.
I hardly need to begin the list of great artists who committed serious moral offenses. Caravaggio, murderer; Sade, rapist; Egon Schiele, abuser of teenage girls; Ezra Pound, anti-Semite; Jean Genet, thief; Banksy, vandal… I could go on for pages here, ending the list with me and you, hypocrite lecteur, who may not be ourselves utterly unblemished. Eliminate the bad artists from the canon and you might as well eliminate art itself.