Blood on the canvas

Published

Credit: Caravaggio

Adam Nicholson
Writer

How should we look at the work of violent artists? The reality is far from simple.

There is a painting which hangs in Rome’s Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, c.1599, entitled “Judith Beheading Holofernes.” It is one of a number of undisputed masterpieces by Caravaggio. In stark chiaroscuro, colours vivid, and with those entirely individual and idiosyncratic countenances peculiar to the artist, the scene is presented: the startled, sleeping Holofernes lies, his neck split open as young Judith decapitates him, while an older attendant looks on. It is a powerful depiction of the biblical scene brought to life. However, do you wonder, as I do, when you look upon it whether that face of Holofernes, filled with surprise, horror, and anguish, and the jets and spurts of blood issuing from his slit throat were so realistically depicted by virtue of Caravaggio’s having cut a few himself?

The moral (or immoral) conduct of artists has long remained an uncomfortable issue, and one that flares up into the public discourse now and then, usually precipitated by a scandal. Caravaggio was indeed a violent man and a murderer, yet his genius for painting is undisputed and his works hang in Italy’s national gallery. When you look upon them, do you see only paintings—only art—or blood on the canvases and corpses hanging with them that make the sight unbearable?

Ultimately, the choice of whether to countenance an immoral or objectionable artist’s work is a subjective one, decided upon a case-by-case basis, but it is of interest how many artists we generally collectively tolerate in spite of behaviour which generally is viewed as repugnant. Suffice to say, our inability or unwillingness to divorce artists from their art has oftentimes left us in tight spots. Of interest is how personal the works are. For instance, if Woody Allen were to make a film in which a man, following an acrimonious divorce, marries his adopted daughter, people would rightfully squirm. As it is, they are mostly content to enjoy his back-catalogue and tolerate his annual new productions, trying wherever possible to ignore entirely his personal controversies.

Likewise, it is of note how the reception of a questionable artist is influenced by age-old cultural hierarchies. A painter, sculptor, literary writer, and even filmmaker now can find themselves quietly excused of a great deal, simply by virtue of their art seeming legitimate. If you happen to find yourself to be an artist of talent, in a respected field, who performs a criminal action, the blemish is likely to be overlooked lest it interfere with our appreciation of your work. We continue to hold in the highest esteem Dickens, Hemingway, and Ted Hughes, in spite of a mixed bag between them of neglect and abuse of spouses, mistresses, and children to varying degrees of severity. William Burroughs shot his wife during a party, Kevin Spacey was revealed to be predatory, Hitchcock menaced his blonde female leads, Roman Polanski is a convicted rapist, Gaugin abandoned his family to paint, Wagner hated Jews, Flaubert had sex with young gigolos, and Byron was likely embroiled in incest. The list of inequities, of every level of severity, goes on and on and on, and yet their places are secured in our canon of classics and are unlikely to be purged for moral reasons, and their past awards and decorations remain in place.

The requirement for artists to be morally upstanding may be preposterous, but a great many of our most exalted seem especially egregious in their offences. How we approach their works falls into a select few approaches: to consider the work as an entirely separate entity, to seek excuses for their immorality, or simply clothe their crimes in a veil of silence. Madness or addiction make for regular alibis. Take the case of Ezra Pound: the modernist poet’s anti-Semitism and passionate embrace of fascism almost had him executed for treason during WWII, but being declared insane both spared him and largely excused his work. (Though in his defence, he later renounced his racism in private, which cannot be said for his contemporary T.S. Eliot.)

The issue is at heart a moral one. As a culture—and this perspective has seldom changed—we find it distressing to acknowledge that those we find repugnant are just as capable of intellectual and creative success as the irreproachable. Evil, we should like to think, would be disqualified from the ability of touching us in any way other than coldly. As with most things, the reality is far from simple and certainly the division of talents, virtues, and vices is seldom clear. With past artists, it seems simple that we acknowledge their personal failures alongside their artistic successes. The issue is more pertinent with regards to active, living people. The solution seems a simple one, but difficult in practice: the privilege of public exhibition be denied to artists of criminal standing, such as was done with Spacey. And yet, the question then becomes what is or is not immoral and who should decide, and insofar as ethics has persisted as a philosophical field debated over for a few thousands years, I find it unlikely that I shall happen upon the golden answer in the course of my musings. We return once again to the personal: how much can you stomach and how much are you willing to lose to stay true to your principles? When looking at a Caravaggio, you must ask yourself again whether it is the blood or the oil on the canvas that stands out most to you, and whether the masterpiece is at all diminished regardless of your answer.