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Humility is as Good as Self-Righteousness

A provocative opinion column in the New York Times by author Judith Shulevitz about the morality clauses many writers are now being asked to sign before publication of their works struck home with me. She points out that publishers can now often cancel or withdraw book contracts if the writer  “becomes the subject of public disrepute, contempt, complaints or scandals,” in, for instance, the words of a contract with Condé Nast magazines. We've seen the same thing in other areas of art and entertainment, such as the cancellation of Kevin Spacey’s, contract on House of Cards for alleged sexual misconduct, or Roseanne’s removal from her television series after a racist tweet. Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, Neil deGrasse Tyson have suffered similar fates. 

Most of us agree that an entertainment company has the right to fire a public personality who behaves immorally if that person violates the company's own ethical policies, harms his or her fellow employees, or behaves in a way that detracts from the product in which she or she is featured. The current social climate seems to demand that the mere accusation of such behavior requires immediate suspension of the accused, which pushes the limits of intolerance and fairness, since there are bound to be some situations in which the accusations are groundless. 

Artists who are not entertainers and do not have a public persona that portrays them in a certain light, are public figures only by virtue of their works. Numerous of our greatest artists of the past not only violated the social norms of their time but were sometimes jailed because of that. Composers going back to Haydn and forward to Barber, Britten and Bernstein were gay when being gay was not only frowned upon, but also illegal in many places. So were writers such as Wilde, Proust, Baldwin and Capote and artists such as Hockney, Warhol and Haring. Hemingway, London, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and two of my favorites, Chandler and Hammett, were all chronic alcoholics, and R. L. Stevenson, Philip K. Dick, Aldous Huxley and Baudelaire used drugs. Many writers, such as Algren, O’Henry, Dostoevsky, and London spent time in jail.

The act of producing art, even morally profound art, is not reserved for those who are morally pure themselves. If that were so, we would not only be robbed of some of our greatest art, but perhaps of any art at all. An artist’s life is no more moral than that of any of the rest of us, and we all have moral lapses and make ethical mistakes at some times in our lives. A society that is so self-righteous and intolerant that it demands that anyone who produces something for public consumption be morally above reproach is being hypocritical.

Our modern society no longer punishes homosexuality, at least not officially, and in fact, anti-gay speech may result in harm to a public figure’s career (e.g. Kevin Hart). The changing attitudes toward homosexuality and gender identity, which have taken place in the last few decades, ought to be a warning to all of us that social mores are culturally defined and subject to attitudinal changes. It’s not an exaggeration to say that profound art outlives cultural attitudes and often transcends them across cultures. Our self-righteous indignation and intolerance should not blind us to appreciating the beautiful artistic achievements that can be produced by deeply flawed human beings. Suppressing the art of those who don’t meet our moral standards can have long-term negative consequences for the quality of our society. 



Reader Comments (1)

This self-righteousness became the "heuristics of blame" in academia during my 40-year career teaching literature. Instead of awakening students to the beauties, the intricacies, the wonderful inconsistencies of great art (often a lack of inconsistency is a hallmark of propaganda, not art), many of my colleagues taught the students to be suspicious of being taken in by the novels and poetry they were reading, to "detect" the moral flaws therein rather than revel in the pleasures of well-wrought writing. We must responsibly bring in historical context, address failures of vision in literature and in any other art, but to stifle love of beauty because of rigid puritanical notions is nothing but a disservice and resembles nothing so much as the ideological idiocies of the regime under which I grew up, Communism, where every text, painting, etc., was scoured for "moral" content. As for the lives of authors, considering the lives of readers (yes, let the first without sin cast the stone), let's get a grip.

January 7, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAnca Vlasopolos

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