Separating Art from the Artist

composer and poet, Richard Wagner

composer and poet, Richard Wagner

If the estimation of art depended on the personal behavior of those who create it, the world’s artistic heritage would be vastly reduced. We value art for its ability to stimulate us intellectually, move us emotionally, delight us aesthetically; not because its creator is a paragon of virtue.

Indeed, many brilliant artists are deplorable human beings. Sometimes it can seem as if, having found the seven deadly sins insufficient, they are compelled to square or cube them. Another group, while not beastly to others, turns the bad behavior inward, pushing them toward alcoholism, drug addiction, depression, and suicide. Just off the top of my head, ready candidates from the modern era for an artistic rogues’ gallery would include Van Gogh, Arthur Rimbaud, Poe, Hemingway, Roald Dahl, John Cheever, William Styron, Raymond Carver, Gorky, Pollock, Rothko, Diane Arbus, Tennessee Williams. I once met the actress Patricia Neal who surprised me with accounts of dreadful behavior by her husband, the children’s book author Roald Dahl.

Carl Jung, surveying this sad terrain, wrote that “The lives of artists are as a rule unsatisfactory – not to say tragic – because of their inferiority on the human and personal side . . . There is hardly any exception to the rule that a person must pay dearly for the divine gift of creative fire.”

Alfred Adler proposed a compensatory theory of creativity whereby human beings produce art, science, and other aspects of culture to compensate for their own inadequacies. The oyster producing the pearl to cover up the grain of sand intruding into its shell is one analogy.

I don’t buy that a miserable life is necessary to create art. More than a whiff of the 19th Century Romantic view of artists can be detected in that linkage. As went Lord Byron, so go Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain. In fact, I am not persuaded that among artists the misery quotient, if we want to call it that, is all that much different from the general population. I have been acquainted with many miserable people who never so much as brushed up against art. Among composers, Joseph Haydn was reported to be kind, stable and well-adjusted.

Richard Wagner is a great artist whose reputation has been fouled both by his boorish behavior and by the tragic course of history after his death. His anti-Semitic writings are vile, though it must be said hardly unique for 19th Century Europe. Wagner had the bad luck of becoming the favorite composer of someone born six years after he died, a monster (and frustrated artist) by the name of Adolf Hitler. Some have taken Hitler’s fondness for Wagner and drawn a line of causation from Wagner to Hitler to the Holocaust. This supposed linkage has enough purchase that there remains an unofficial ban on Wagner’s music in Israel. This despite the fact that Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, adored Wagner’s music. He said that he listened to it constantly, particularly to Tannhäuser, as he was writing his seminal book, The Jewish State. Alex Ross analyzed the tension of Wagner in Israel in a thoughtful essay in the New Yorker in 2012.

Asher Fisch is an Israeli-born conductor renowned for his grasp of Wagner. In 2013 he led the orchestra for Seattle Opera’s production of the Ring cycle. During a lecture in Seattle he told us it was his life’s goal to conduct Wagner in Israel. His mother was expelled from Vienna in 1939, and both his parents lost loved ones in the Holocaust. But when Fisch conducted Wagner at Vienna’s State Opera House, his mother said she was proud of him. She felt that if her son could some day conduct Wagner in Israel it would amount to a final victory over Hitler. That would also deliver a degree of redemption for Wagner, a man beset with contradictions.

In his book Wagner: The Terrible Man and His Truthful Art, the classics scholar and opera expert Father M. Owen Lee writes that Wagner was “a man plagued with self-doubt, self-pity, and self-destructive impulses, in flight and frustration and fear, recurrently in the grip of ailments, ever in need of support, often emotionally isolated.”

Most of us would hold that great art does not require a wretched creator. Lee agrees, with a qualification: “I don’t doubt that great art can be produced by a good man. (Bach comes immediately to mind.) But in most cases great art is produced by someone deeply divided, profoundly ambivalent, ever-conscious of the flaw in human nature, struggling with it, and endowed by it with a potential for good or ill much vaster than our own.” Furthermore, when the creator is pitiful or odious we can and should distinguish between the art and troubled person who brought it forth.

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