The Limits of Tolerance
Engaging with Morally Repugnant Artists
For if men will impartially and not asquint look toward the offices and function of a poet, they will easily conclude to themselves the impossibility of any man’s being the good poet without first being a good man.—Ben Jonson
I have a confession to make: for the past nine months I have been harboring a murderer under my roof. He moved in when I was asked to write a book about his most famous play. Since then, I have found myself falling asleep next to him, laughing at his jokes, and marveling at his peculiar genius. His name is Ben Jonson, and in 1598 he stabbed and killed an actor.
I find it difficult to accept that a man who wrote some of the most important plays, poetry, and criticism of the seventeenth century could also be capable of such depravity. Even though it is contradicted by the facts of Jonson’s own life, I want desperately to believe his assertion that artists must first be good people before they can be good artists. I concede that I am a moralist when it comes to art. I think that one of art’s essential tasks is to promote human decency, inspiring others to live in a more just and compassionate manner; therefore, I often experience intense cognitive dissonance when I discover that the goodness in the art is not matched by the goodness in the artist.
Some manage to avoid this cognitive dissonance by claiming that art is amoral and that its value is strictly aesthetic. Others skate around the problem by claiming that man’s need to make art does not stem from a moral impulse but from a transgressive one. For this group, art is immoral and exists so that humans can undercut all social norms and taboos. Such positions, however, are minority positions. Most of us, even if it is not the primary thing we seek in a work of art, desire art that sensitizes us to the needs of others, and we become troubled if the one(s) doing the sensitizing appear devoid of decency. This is why the discovery that Shakespeare probably hoarded food during a famine so that he could sell it to starving men and women at obscenely high prices produced such consternation. It is a direct affront to the saintly image we have of Shakespeare as the “inventor of the human.” Several critics desperate to repair the image of the fallen Bard have gone so far as to argue that Shakespeare wrote Coriolanus as penance for this deplorable act. Apologists for J. D. Salinger have performed similar contortions in the months following the recent publication of David Shields and Shane Salerno’s damning biography Salinger, which depicts the reclusive genius as a selfish seducer of teenage girls, while Gore Vidal and others in Hollywood embarrassed themselves by defending Oscar-winning director and child rapist Roman Polanski after the United States sought his extradition in Switzerland in 2009. Such apologetics and mental gymnastics do not hold water, though. The indefensible cannot be defended, which means that we are ultimately left with the disturbing yet undeniable paradox that terrible people often create works of unimaginable beauty and soul. What are we to make of this? Do we let the character of the creator tarnish our experience of his/her creation? Do we go so far as to boycott work from a contaminated source, or do we celebrate all great art regardless of its point of origin?
The indefensible cannot be defended, which means that we are ultimately left with the disturbing yet undeniable paradox that terrible people often create works of unimaginable beauty and soul. What are we to make of this?
The issue, though, goes deeper than how we respond to a work as audience members: it also includes how and with whom we make art. Unlike a painting or a novel, a stage production is a collaborative endeavor built on relationships between people. Consequently, every theater artist has a vested interest in both the talent and character of the other artists in the rehearsal room. I consider myself fortunate to have worked primarily with people who are as ethical as they are gifted; nevertheless, I have encountered my fair share of sleazy, dishonest, self-serving egomaniacs in the theater. These individuals use their power to verbally demean, insult, and belittle their fellow artists both inside and outside of the rehearsal room. They may sexually harass others (see Theatre Bay Area’s informal survey of sexual harassment in the theater) or circumvent union regulations (see Punchdrunk’s recent flouting of federal labor laws), denying actors and stage managers what is rightfully theirs. Many of these people are also damn good artists. Should we close our doors to them? If we do shut them out, we deprive the world of the extraordinary art that they would create and embark on a dubious path of sanctimonious condemnation that has no clearly defined beginning or end. If we do not shut them out, we implicitly condone their behavior and signal that such actions will be tolerated so long as the perpetrator is rich in talent.
It would be lovely if Ben Jonson, confessed murderer, were right, if the most gifted among us were also the most compassionate and generous of spirit. We all know, though, that this is not the case, and therein exists the dilemma. There is no formula that can solve this ethical quandary, but I would suggest that we all consider the following questions as we navigate this delicate issue:
Do we work in a place where talent trumps decency or decency trumps talent? When we hire someone for our organizations, especially an artistic director, do we ask what kind of art will this person create or do we ask what kind of artistic community will this person create? How would our art and artistic communities change if we placed a greater emphasis on character? Would the quality of the art suffer, and even if it did, is that a price worth paying? When do we make the difficult yet courageous decision to leave a community that no longer embodies our values?
Ultimately, how we answer these questions is determined by whether we think we are in the business of making art or making humans because the reality of the situation is that it is not always possible to do both.