Great creations should be separated from their often flawed creators

YOU wouldn’t know who to boycott these last few weeks, so many worthies are turning out to have feet, knees and in some cases thighs of clay.

The first to give himself a

mud pedicure was Mel Gibson, with his

anti-Semitic rant while under the influence.

He apologised several times, got probation

and continues to attend AA meetings.

In the lull after the Mel-fury died down,

another VIP delivered himself of some unfortunately

quotable quotes.

Perhaps subconsciously remembering that

media, like nature, abhors a vacuum, the

splendid Andrew Young, former Mayor of

Atlanta, former pal of Martin Luther King,

former Prince of the Equality movement

whose good looks were matched only by

his brain power, did his own bit for anti-Semitism.

Already suspect for making

positive comments about Wal-Mart (roughly

the moral equivalent in the US right

now of making positive comments about

the Christian Brothers here at home) the

72-year-old dropped himself in it when a

journalist suggested to him that Wal-Mart

might have a history of squashing flat the

Mom-and-Pop stores in poor black areas.

Maybe, Young responded, that wasn’t a

bad thing. Because, he went on, those

Mom-and-Pop stores were rarely owned by

black people from the neighbourhood.

They were owned by Jews. Jews, for

starters, and then, later, Koreans and others.

And don’t get him started on the quality of

the food these store-owners flogged to their

African-American customers.

Cue apologies and resignations by Young,

followed by baffled but measured comment

from rabbis clearly reluctant to belt the

72-year-old with the force appropriate to a

younger, less stellar figure, lest their condemnation

provide a negative summary to

an outstanding and positive career.

Within days, an even older figure — this

time the Nobel prize-winning novelist,

Gunter Grass — published memoirs revealing

that he had been a member of the Waffen

SS during the Second World War. The

Waffen SS was so condemned at the

Nuremberg Trials that its members were

denied the rights accorded to survivors of

the Germany army, navy and airforce.

Just why Grass outed himself in his 78th

year is not clear. He himself simply said

that the secret had weighed on him. It had

weighed on him for a hell of a long time,

during which he had carved out a reputation

for demanding that Germany face up

to its past and that younger Germans be

not afraid to ask their fathers what they did

in the war. A clue as to why he confessed

may be found in an observation he made

some time ago, to the effect that: “Information

networks straddle the world. Nothing

remains concealed.”

Grass may have figured that, sooner or

later, someone would find out about his

past, and that he would have more control

over its interpretation if he announced it

himself. The reality of his SS membership

seems to have been that it lasted less than a

year, in the dying months of the war, and

that he was 17 at a time when teenage boys

were being rounded up for combat and caressed

in photo opportunities by a trembling,

bunker-dwelling Fuhrer.

Any illusion of control Grass might have

cherished was quickly dispelled. His biographer

— possibly motivated by the realisation

that the revelation made HIM look inadequate

as to research and gullible as to

approach — said: “It puts in doubt from a

moral point of view everything he has ever

told us.” Grass’s enemies immediately called

for him to be stripped of his Nobel Prize.

That didn’t work. Nobel Prizes, like diamonds,

are forever, so if Seamus Heaney at

some stage reveals something repellent, he’ll

continue to be a Nobel Laureate.

In these three moral let-downs, Andrew

Young is the exception. As a politician and

thought-leader, he’s done his work and a

bit of late-onset bigotry cannot undo it.

Gibson and Grass, on the other hand, as

artists, are represented by a body of work

which can be boycotted or devalued by

what we now know about the two of

them. Indeed, a planned TV mini-series to

be produced by Gibson was immediately

canned after his arrest and rant, although

nobody has suggested that Grass’s The Tin

Drum be removed from bookshops.

I T MAY happen, though. In modern

times, we have lost the capacity to

separate the life and beliefs of artists

from their work. Earlier generations were

much better at regarding the work as standing

on its own, regardless of the disrepute

of the man who made it. Witness Caravaggio,

a lamentable human being given to serial

killing, riot, drunkenness and disorder,

whose works (including the painting hanging

over a mantelpiece in Jesuit headquarters

in Dublin) have always been admired

for innovative use of light and movement.

Or take a look at Jacques-Louis David,

the painter who made Napoleon a visual

icon of his time. Nobody who stands in

front of David’s “The Rape of the Sabine

Women” in the Louvre decides that it can’t

be a great painting on the basis that the

artist was a turncoat ass-licker who, during

the French Revolution, cosied up to anybody

whose patronage could be useful and

abandoned them as soon as they looked like

they had a date with the guillotine.

Even in relatively modern times, nobody

ever seriously suggested that Norman Mailer’s

work be banned, or that the judgment

of its worth be influenced by public knowledge

of his hostility and sometimes violence

toward women.

Arguably the first great artist to be crippled

by her political past was Leni Riefenstahl,

the film-maker who directed Triumph

of the Will, a documentary used by

the Nazi party as propaganda. Although

Riefenstahl was a film pioneer, her work

was disregarded, post-war, and when this

resilient and brilliant woman turned herself,

in her late 70s, into an outstanding under-

water photographer, most critiques of

her publications effectively warned potential

purchasers off, on the basis that a) they

shouldn’t support such a demonstrably evil

figure, and b) that someone with her past

couldn’t produce worthwhile material.

The problem is that rotten people DO

produce worthwhile material and always

have. The Catholic Church, paradoxically,

has always recognised this. Its sacraments

are efficacious, independent of the moral

standing of the administrator. Even if the

priest in the confessional was a jerk, his absolving

of the sinner still worked.

Boycotting Mel Gibson’s product because

of bigoted blither coming out of him when

he’s well-tore is the diametric opposite of

that stance. Deciding that everything

Gunter Grass has written is probably spurious

because he kept his mouth shut for 60

years about a brief membership of a killer

organisation is equally daft.

What writers, painters, sculptors, poets

and actors create should be separated from

the frequently flawed people behind the

creations. Because most writers, painters,

sculptors, poets and actors are not model

citizens. Never were. Never will be. No offence

to the few out there who eschew

bigotry and have never been members of

anything other than the Credit Union.

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