Friday, April 21, 2017

Moonlight Musings

The Singer or the Song? 

Should we – can we? – separate the artist from the art?

A few weeks ago, shortly after learning of the death of Derek Walcott, I posted a lovely poem of his in my column The Living Dead, to honour the fine poetic legacy he left us.

Not long after that, I was shocked to read about accusations that he had sexually harrassed two female students at separate universities where he was teaching, giving one a low grade for refusing his advances and threatening the other to stop a play of hers from being produced unless....

Here is a brief and fairly neutral article on the matter.

I found a number of other excellent articles online by Googling Derek Walcott accusations, in several of which the authors consider the thorny question of how much this should influence our opinion of him as a poet. The rights and wrongs of the matter are a bit complicated, due to the fact that Walcott denied the second allegation at least, and the case was settled out of court.

In the first case, apparently he did admit to it. The University dealt with it, upgrading the student's mark and giving Walcott a reprimand. We might think they didn't regard it very seriously. But the case was a factor in the University's eventual reform of its policies around such issues.

Some people think it was all a smear campaign to stop him accepting a posting to Oxford later in his life.

They might be excused for this view by the fact that the woman who was appointed to that posting instead of him was the one who reminded everyone of the allegations against him – unintentionally, she said  – which persuaded him to take himself out of the running rather have the speculation revived. When that fact emerged, she herself felt obliged to vacate the position! (I told you it was complicated.) Some highly respected poets argued for Walcott's appointment, others spoke against it.

I found an article in The New Republic particularly thoughtful and interesting. It mentions other famous writers and public figures who are strongly suspected of conduct in their private lives (in some cases proven) which we might well find reprehensible – from Charles Dickens to David Bowie (and we could probably all add a few more names to those listed) – and postulates 'a literary patriarchy that stretches back centuries,' in which it has been 'easy for great men to hide their offenses behind the magisterial cloak of their art'.

It's not quite so easy any more, but still there are those who get away with a lot. I don't meant this Musing to be about Walcott in particular; he's one recent example (recent in my personal knowledge anyway). Let's take Bowie, an artist whose work I've long loved and admired. Again, it is only recently that I came across allegations that – early in his career at least – he was quite happy to intoxicate and seduce his under-age groupies. Indeed, it was a time when that was pretty much expected of rock stars, and we all thought the victims were willing. On the face of it, perhaps some were, but nowadays we would question whether immaturity and intoxication can really permit of consent.

Whatever may be true about these particular men, I think it's fair to say that not all famous writers are also good people.  But then, most people are not entirely good, are we? How to judge? Where does one draw the line? Tolstoy, we are told, took his long-suffering wife for granted as she supported him selflessly so he could create his novels. Not very nice, not at all endearing; but does it rate with flagrant philanderers, thieves and brawlers (think Villon), addicts or sexual predators? 

And, whatever the sin in the personal life, how does it affect our reading of the poetry? 

Perhaps it's easier to investigate if we think of the visual arts. When I am moved by Picasso's Weeping Woman, do I also reflect on how badly he treated women in his life? Should I? (And what if I don't even know? I do, obviously, but there must be viewers who don't.)

Painting in National Gallery of Victoria. Image used here according to Fair Use.

Or, if I am basking in the sonorous words of Kubla Khan, does it worry me that Coleridge was reputedly under the influence of narcotics when he wrote it? Should it worry me? Should I, rather, rejoice in the way that this habit (presumably) enhanced his poetic gifts?

Perhaps you think drug addiction is a different kind of flaw, victimising only oneself? A man I once knew was a friend of Australian poet Michael Dransfield's mother, whom he met after her son had died from an overdose. This man was furious with Dransfield for the sorrow he had inflicted on his mother. Also, he had seen some of Dransfield's poems in manuscript and roundly castigated them as 'chicken scratchings' which in no way justified the drug use and early death. I don't know what he read, and it's true that Dransfield's last published poems were fragmentary compared with earlier ones, but many of his fellow-poets (myself included) will tell you he was a beautiful and important poet. I would say (and did say) that the quality of the verse is a separate issue: that the drug taking was a sad fact that didn't justify the writing whether it was chicken scrawlings or beautiful poetry; and also that it is beautiful, lasting poetry, which does not depend on his drug use to make it so.

But I am just reading a new memoir, The Green Bell, written decades after the event by Paula Keogh, who was Dransfield's fiancée at the time of his death. A beautifully honest book, it makes it clear that Dransfield himself believed that the drugs would serve to enhance his poetry (even if he was also vulnerable to them for less conscious reasons). I never met Dransfield in person, and I suppose no-one can be sure if he was right or wrong in his belief. (My only comparison is alcohol, and I learned a long time ago that writing while drunk doesn't produce good poetry.) But it's my opinion that he had a phenomenal talent which wouldn't have needed chemical enhancement.

However, it appears he did deliberately engage in self-destructive, illegal behaviour which caused great hurt to others as well as to himself. Does that stop me loving what he wrote? Does it taint my experience? No, not at all. I feel sad about it, but then much of the poetry is sad anyway. But what if he was right? What if the drugs did make the poetry more beautiful? If he should indeed prove to be an important and lasting poet, was he in fact justified by his immortality, no matter who else suffered? A difficult question!

I'm afraid I don't spare a thought for Picasso's lovers when I am sitting in front of Weeping Woman. At other times I am aware of what a nasty so-and-so he could be, and deplore it. But while I'm looking at the painting, that predominates.

On the other hand, I can't hear a Rolf Harris song any more without revulsion at the thought of what a hypocrite the man turned out to be. Is that because of the type of wrongdoing? Is it because of the relative powerlessness of the victims? Harm to children is particularly horrifying.

What about Walcott? Can we still read his magnificent verse with the same delight in its magnificence? Or does it seem different now? What about Bowie? Is our enjoyment of his work diminished in the face of his exploitation of minors? Or can we excuse and ignore that on the grounds that (a) it was a different era with different mores and (b) he was a multi-talented genius who left the word enriched by his art? (Do you wish I would have just shut up about them both and not destroyed your illusions?)

Should we all stop writing because we have done things we feel guilty and ashamed about? (I'm certain we all have.) Many of us are honest about our failings, I think, not trying to deny them but seeking to grow past them. This, if so, makes us better human beings – but does it have anything to do with our art, either way? Indeed, if we all lived perfectly clean and wholesome lives and had only pure thoughts, would our art even be interesting?

Relax, I'm not suggesting we should be evil. (Well, maybe just a little bit naughty would be OK? Just sometimes?) But I suppose if a law-abiding, kind-hearted citizen can write successful crime thrillers (and I know two commercially and critically successful women writers who fit this description) then perhaps a person with serious character defects can nevertheless create works of art that uplift the human spirit?

Is it a matter of degree? It is said that Hitler's master of propaganda, Goebbels, wrote poetry and thought of himself as a sensitive man. The mere idea makes me shudder! There is no way I would read poetry by Goebbels if I ever got the chance. I wouldn't care if it was the most brilliant poetry ever produced. (I doubt that it could be, coming from a person like that, but life is strange and human beings complex; anything's possible.) I wouldn't even bother finding out. The point is, in the end – and even though my life has revolved around poetry since I was seven – there are human values more important than art.

Which ones, and how much more important? And which art, come to that? Goebbels is an extreme case, on which it's very easy to take a stand. So is Rolf Harris, in a different way – no-one would claim Jake the Peg to be high art. But what about all the in-betweens? Where does one draw the line?

What do you think?

Feel free to express your opinion in the comments. I'd love to know how others deal with this dilemma – if indeed it is a dilemma for you. And do pop back during the week to see where the discussion leads!


  1. I so love your Moonlight Musings, Rosemary. They are my favourite of your features. Two points jump out at me: that we all have done things we are ashamed of and are trying to grow past, and that there are human values more important than art. Like you, I have no interest in reading people who are perverted and dangerous humans. I have been sorely disappointed to discover major failings of some luminaries I once admired, and had to cross them off my list.

    Of the rest, I suppose I enjoy reading poems that move or enlighten me in the hope the writer is doing his best as a human being, with all of a human's challenges and failings. It is likely good I am protected by being not well-educated about poets I admire, so I am not disenchanted by the reality of their lives. Smiles. I like keeping my rosy glasses. This was a wonderful and thought-provoking read. Thank you so much!

    1. I think intention counts for a lot, too. For instance I don't think Michael Dransfield had the least intention to hurt anyone by his lifestyle. By all accounts he was generally a kind and caring person. Naturally those who loved him grieved his untimely death and wished he'd never done drugs, and as I said, it saddens me too. But I'll never stop loving his poetry.

      I expect I'll continue to admire Walcott's too, because I can't stop seeing excellence where it exists – but that IS somewhat tainted for me now. It seems he did do what he was accused of, and did it intentionally. (In one case even acted from his position of power to punish the young woman who refused his demands.) If I want to read him any more, I will at least have to deliberately put aside my knowledge of the person during the reading.

  2. I agree with Sherry that this is a wonderful and thought-provoking read. I think it's one of your best.
    I think all people have some good in them and perhaps art is the opportunity for flawed people to express something that touches us on an emotional sometimes even spiritual level. We are all flawed to some degree too and it's possible that an artist's talent does not reflect the person's moral, addictive or criminal actions. We humans are so complicated.
    What came to my mind (selfishly and with a little humor) is how I wish talent would find ME regardless of my many flaws.

    1. Myrna, all your readers know you DO have talent! I think what matters is how much work and commitment we bring to our talents, and how we choose to use them. I echo Czeslaw Milosz's hope that 'good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument'. We can let our art consume us, like Dransfield or Plath, or we can choose Life equally with Art, even if it is at the cost of greatness. (Then again, plenty of great artists lived long lives, which were at least as fulfilling as most people's.)

  3. Thank you for this work Rosemary. Having come to love your poetry, I am now discovering your essays with much enjoyment.

    The older I get, the more the formerly heroic figures in my life (literary and otherwise) turn out to have feet of clay. This is perpetually troubling, but doesn't exactly disqualify an artist (etc) from consideration or appreciation. It certainly tempers blind adulation though. I find cases where "entitlement" rears its ugly head particularly galling.

    Thank you for making me think, and for your delightful prose style.

    1. Thanks to you, Peter, for your kind words; and for your thoughtful opinion on the topic. Yes, I incline to the the view that in some (many!) cases we must assess the art in its own right, by artistic criteria, so long as it does not in itself promote evil. Sometimes, I suppose, we must make a subjective judgment about that. (I don't, for instance, view Bill Henson as a pornographer.) All such opinions and decisions are subjective, I guess, when you come right down to it. And I do think it's a matter of degree. The more horrifying the crime, the less I can disentangle it from the art. Also, distance (of time) does lend, or reveal enchantment. We can enjoy Villon because it wasn't us he was robbing and bashing; that was all centuries ago, in a particular era and country; it is only the verse which has lasted.

  4. I tell myself that ignorance is no excuse to keep promoting an evil person's work, that there is plenty of art without it--but I apply that rule haphazardly,sometimes framing the work and sometimes not. I stopped watching Woody Allen films after his relationship with his young step-daughter was exposed. Animal abusers are entirely off my list. But I'm not so careful to know about personal goings on of poets and writers. When a beginning professor, I taught many dramas by women that were either suicides or writing about suicide and other self harms--but those I framed in feminist terms and used as a platform for student's creative voices. And what of the evil slave trader who wrote "Amazing Grace"? I wish I could say I always exposed the evil assumptions of sexism, racism, etc., when I saw them so the perpetrators can not profit from images that encourage more evil. I think this day's musings, Rosemary, has made me reaffirm that goal. And thus I will become even more careful and doom myself to not being discovered--though like Myrna, I harbor that wish.

    1. What ? 'Amazing Grace' was written by an evil slave trader?! I have now Googled and found that he did eventually feel remorse at his involvement in this industry, and supported the abolitionist movement – though late in his life and quite a long time after his conversion to Christianity. Perhaps the great comfort and joy this hymn has brought to so many redeems him? We can't just look at the evil people do; there is also the good to take into account. Most of us are a mixture.

    2. Further, I am reminded of the oft-quoted advice, to hate the evil deed, not the person. If we can make that separation, perhaps it makes it easier to also separate the artistic work from the person and view it on its own merits.

  5. Excellent essay! Now, how far do we want to take this judgement thing? Some things that would horrify me might not be a big deal to you, and vice-versa. Hemingway was a trophy hunter. I find killing just for the blood sport of it to be despicable. Others (like Trump's sons, for example) would have no problem with it. We all have our own personal standards. We are all "sinners" in the secular sense because we're not perfect. Art is derived from life experience, and everything that has occurred in the artist's life up to the point of creating a particular work has contributed to it. I just read a book of essays by Mary Gaitskill--a brilliant writer--who unabashedly acknowledges an early lifestyle that would give many a moralist a heart attack. So where does this judgement thing start, and where does it end? There's no rule of thumb, because it's personal to each one of us. I'm a fan of Hemingway's writing, not his lifestyle, so I must definitely separate the two. And keep telling myself not to be the one to cast the first stone.

    1. Great comment, thanks Timoteo! I do for the most part tend to separate the art and the life, and agree with you about Hemingway on both counts. (Still it can be shocking to learn how very clayed some feet are.)

    2. Oh, and also I think we do need to take into account that we are struggling towards enlightenment, and some things which are highly unacceptable now seemed perfectly OK to our predecessors.

  6. Today’s topic is very interesting Rosemary and I enjoyed every word of yours that comes from such depth. I think art is a journey and the wayfarers are the chosen few. It would be perfect if singers could be the chalice and their song the divine wine. But often integrity, human values and talent do not blend. It’s sad but as you say life is strange. Like learning about David Walcott I really feel the hurt. Is being humane that difficult for such people? Hypocrisy can’t be digested. Then some talents are so often overwhelmed with the inner power they have; a bit frenzy driven they seem to be. A little balance, a little responsibility would have done them a world of good. Not sure if their art would have suffered for that or not but at least an untimely death could have been averted. In this context I must say I am really amazed at Tagore. With that huge talent and considering the abysmal grief he was thrown into so unfairly by Fate from the age of fourteen how perfectly balanced human being he was. His long eighty years of artful existence is ample proof of that. Critics till date haven’t unearthed anything to disenchant us of this wonderful gentleman.

    1. Good to know, Sumana, that some of the great are also good! And perhaps the others are in the minority, after all.

  7. I think we should separate the singer from the song but I do not think it is possible.
    Personal bias is impossible for most to overcome. For a completely fair assessment, work should be judged without knowledge of the author .

    This does not or will ever occur for many reasons, most of which are self serving and not altruistic. Anyone in academic life will attest to this.

    I am most fortunate in that I don't like Walcott, Picasso Hemingway or Rolf Harris .I have not read Goebbels.I would be very surprised if I liked it. The problem with translations when it deals with poetry is that they are mainly translated by linguists...the reason translations of poetry are usually abysmal unless the translator is a poet as well.But I will definitely read his poems to be certain.

    If I love the work of an artist I am not too interested in the background story . If an artist is interesting and engaging and I do not know their work, I want to read hear or see the work ... and more often than not the experience is disappointing. So good interesting and vibrant people do not always produce good work and vice versa.Humans are forever complexity personified

    Michael Dransfield was a wonderful poet and sadly, mainly unknown ... far superior to many of our revered poets showcased in our school curricula which guarantee a poetry free existence for future generations. I read his biography many years ago. It is out of print now .He did try to rid himself of the monkey on his back but its grip was too you have read Helen Garner as well.
    And I must be the only literate Australian who did not appreciate or observe any apparent genius in John Clark as well.

    Thought provoking and excellent article's a cracker luv !

    1. Thanks for adding to the discussion. Yes, I think you are right about both personal bias and human complexity. And I'm sure it's clear that I thoroughly agree with your assessment of Dransfield. Yes, I was just reading today an account by Rodney Hall about him kicking the drugs and getting healthy – until that damn motorbike accident, not even his fault, landed him in hospital on prescribed painkillers which re-addicted him. Very sad.

    2. Excellent essay, Rosemary and one that will have me thinking, questioning, etc., for weeks to come, probably months before I actually begin to form some sort of response. I'm still in shock that this country has elected a self-defined sexual abuser to its highest office of leadership, choosing to ignore or downplay that reality.

      I have spent over half of my life supporting and encouraging abuse victims, so your questions hit hard and close to home. I know that we are all human, thus imperfect. That we all do things we'd prefer not be made public knowledge. But, my question here is, what of responsibility? Not just to our Art, but also toward others? I loved reading and exploring the Beat Generation of poets, only to discover that they, for the most part, felt that to really be good, they had to overwhelm their senses with booze, drugs, and sex. And encouraged each other to do so. But, that only begs the question of how much better they might have been without those particular notions.

      For my own part, having lived with abuse, I decided that I'd do my Art without the added incentives. Has it made a difference? Yes. To me it has. I may never be applauded, let alone, as well-known as many that have been mentioned here, but I do respect the work I am capable of doing. And that is enough.

      I believe that Creativity is a built-in healing agent, when it is allowed to flourish without the additives. And because of that, it will lead us to those areas within that need to be healed. A life that can not respect itself will not flourish. But either way, it will prove to be a lesson to all of us. One can only hope,


    3. I think these are wise words, Elizabeth, about respecting one's own work and the healing aspect of Creativity. I guess that, for the most part, we have to take the finished work of art on its own merits regardless of how, or by whom, it was produced – but there may be extreme cases in which we can't think the art, no matter how brilliant, worth the cost. And it is probably a very individual matter as to where we draw the line. We have two issues here – which is due to the way I raised the various questions: how do we relate to art by people whose behaviour we abhor? And what limits do we place on ourselves – or what lengths will we go to – in the service of our art? You have found your own ethical stance and are very clear about it; that can only be good.

  8. Another fascinating article, Rosemary. I agree that there are some crimes that would very much taint my appreciation of a poet's work. On the other hand, I have long believed that great artists 'push the envelope'. They are risk takers. And individuals that take risks in their art, often, take risks in their personal lives. It is part of their psyche. If I were to have elected to avoid artists who are addicts and alcoholics - I'm afraid I would have denied myself a lot of great art. On the other hand if - while out of control under the influence - an artist committed a crime, would that influence my appreciation of his word. Would I avoid it completely. I suppose that would be a case-by-case basis. You have raised some interesting issues here, Rosemary.

    1. Yes, I think a case-by-case basis is the only way really. And it can't help but be a subjective thing.

  9. Very interesting article to ponder, Rosemary. I do wonder how many poets I have read who, if I knew some of the things they did in their life, I might be turned off by. Some people have inferred that Sylvia Plath's husband Ted Hughes had driven her to suicide with his brutality...thus, having read Plath's work, I have never been able to read Ted Hughes' poetry at all, no matter HOW good he might be. I do think I am influenced by things that a person has done with their life, and that can impact me as to whether or not I want anything to do with their art at all. I am like Wendy, I think. It would be on a case to case basis for me as well.

    1. At his early best Hughes was often very good, but I don't think he was ever the poetic genius that Plath was; and his Poet Laureate job resulted in vast quantities of work which I thought turgid and boring. (But I suppose feeding his kids was an important consideration in taking that job.) Plath was suicidal on and off most of her short life; I don't think one can say he was the cause. No-one can know for certain, but I think the accusation of brutality is probably unfair and exaggerated. And after her death, it is Hughes we have to thank for the fact that Plath's remarkable body of work is out there.

    2. I guess I am saying that you probably need not have denied yourself his poetry – but on the other hand (with some exceptions) you haven't missed much!

    3. You have made some good points, Rosemary!

  10. Concerning Walcott, a point I didn't make in the article, which occurs to me more forcefully now, is that, had he not withdrawn himself for consideration for the Oxford position, the University would have had to consider whether he was likely to be a threat to any students there on the basis of his past record. Who knows what the decision might have been? But it seems to me very clear-cut that the wellbeing of students takes precedence over the quality of his poetry and teaching, even in a Higher Educational institution – all the more so as he was not the only noted poet available. I don't see how a case could have been made for employing him – unless the allegation were disbelieved, or he offered ample evidence of having repented and reformed. This is a different matter from whether his conduct affects the way we should value the poetry itself.

  11. What a thoughtful post, thank you Rosemary...we think we have learned everything, know seems it is only now, we are beginning to understand about male harassment of he should to respect women. (Something women have alwaqys known.) Abuse of children. Should it be, "off with their heads?" Or is there another way? What should one do, what would make it OK.

    I don't think anyone intentionally does bad things. But often times change and we do not change with it. I think we hope for the best of everyone.

    Now to your is a hard one. And pershaps we should all consider these questions...but would it make us "moralists."

    Who are we to say? Perhaps the "arts" is a place for all of us sinners...perhaps the one who is less, have a lot to say? Perhaps a deeper understanding of the struggles some of us live.

    1. I think it is actually natural to respond to a piece of art as itself, in the immediate moment, regardless of who produced it. And then we might come to notice that we tend always to like work by a particular poet, painter or composer, so they'll become a favourite. Then it can be very disappointing to learn about failings in their personal lives. I don't know if we can view a work of art in a vacuum, but perhaps we should try. It's very interesting that we tend to be more tolerant towards actors and pop stars.

  12. A very interesting discussion, both here and on facebook, where I posted a link to this post and some people commented there. While it's clear that no definite conclusion can be drawn that covers all cases, you've all helped to clarify for me that for the most part I would want to consider art on its own merits – but it's a subjective thing when all's said and done, and we all have our sticking-points when it comes to issues of tolerance or judgment, so there will probably be some people whose art we won't want to deal with. It probably depends, too, on the greatness of the art, and how long ago the artist lived.

  13. Thank you Rosemary. The point was interesting.

    Few minutes please?
    Here are my lines:

    Humans hold values
    Like math-variables.
    Life computes on us;
    Willingly, or helplessly,
    Sometimes unawarely
    We change.

    Fans and followers
    Are hurt:
    How can our idols
    Catch a scratch ever!

    They overlook
    Artists too are humans,
    Only overstretched.

    It's hard to retain
    Values once gained,
    Unless we become
    As tough as a saint.

    One may decay, or,
    Become divine
    Depending on the
    Way they walk on.
    But, a masterpiece,
    Once created, forever
    Masters hearts of millions.

    While finishing
    A masterpiece,
    The artist attains
    But that is very hard
    To retain.
    Whenever lost,
    The world would see
    The artist gloomy.

    Beauty can’t hide blemishes;
    Saw the moon?
    Fire fails to fade filthy scars;
    Knew the sun?
    Could we then
    Decline sun-rays and moonlight
    As their sources aren't spotless?

    Sparking artists are
    Earthian stars;
    Condemn deeds you dislike
    If any, for sure!
    But, can who-they-are make
    Witful works impure?

    Condemning creator's misdeeds,
    Generations to come should
    Worship worthy works.

    That's all.

    1. Biswajit, I think your thoughtful verses complete this discussion beautifully, and your arguments are very convincing.


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