IT’S an odd thing about the human mind, isn’t it? We fetishise a character like Frank Underwood – revelling in his dodgy dealings, betrayals and murders – but when the actor who plays him turns out to be unsavoury, we recoil from the show as if we can no longer distinguish between the man and the fictional protagonist.
I suppose, in a febrile, post-Weinstein context, Netflix has been placed in an impossible position. Spacey’s decision to respond to allegations he sexually assaulted a 14-year-old boy by coming out as gay was so badly misjudged, and the backlash against him so dramatic, that carrying on with another series would have been interpreted as an endorsement. You can’t go on handing wads of cash to someone who is being accused of a string of serious crimes, especially when some of the claims come from members of the House Of Cards crew, and he is alleged to have created “a toxic on-set environment”.
Less explicable is the decision to axe a biopic of Gore Vidal starring Spacey which is already in post-production. But perhaps Netflix was worried about the links that could be drawn between novelist and actor. Vidal is a serial espouser of deeply unpalatable opinions. Asked about the arrest in Switzerland of the film director Roman Polanski, who fled the US to avoid a sentence for the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl, he replied: “I really don’t give a f***. Look, am I going to sit and weep every time a young hooker feels as though she’s been taken advantage of?” You can see how that line – or others like it – would go down with audiences in the light of Spacey’s own alleged offending.
It is interesting, though, how quickly the film industry has turned against Spacey; it is usually so tolerant of its miscreants. In 2003, Polanski was given a Best Director Oscar for The Pianist; Woody Allen is still making films (despite his marriage to his adopted step-daughter) and only now – with the issue at the top of the agenda – does a petition look set to prevent Casey Affleck (who was sued for sexual harassment) from presenting the Best Actress Award at this year’s awards ceremony.
If producers face ethical conundrums, so too do consumers. Are we obliged to dissociate ourselves from works of art produced by those whose actions or ideas we abhor? There have been calls, for example, to boycott Johnny Depp’s latest film, Murder On The Orient Express, because of allegations he beat his ex-wife, Amber Heard. But shouldn’t it be possible to distinguish the worth of a film or book or painting from the worth of its creator?
This is a question that has dogged us for centuries; and it’s important because, if the answer is no, we have to write off whole swathes of our heritage and culture. How many great artists would pass a 21st century morality test? At the top end of the offending scale, we have our killers and maimers: Caravaggio, Ben Jonson, Norman Mailer, Sid Vicious, Kenneth Halliwell; then there are the sexual deviants: Caravaggio (again), André Gide, Lord Byron, Gustave Flaubert; the adulterers: Pablo Picasso, Lucien Freud, Ted Hughes; and the anti-Semites: Richard Wagner, TS Eliot, Edgar Degas, Roald Dahl and Ezra Pound.
Below them come those whose character deficiencies are less easy to categorise – men like Ernest Hemingway, whose youngest son Gregory once wrote: “When it’s all added up, papa, it will be: he wrote a few good stories, had a novel and fresh approach to reality and he destroyed five persons – Hadley, Pauline, Marty, Patrick and possibly myself.”
At the centre of the Mozart biopic, Amadeus, lies the puzzle: can a bad (or shallow) man make great art? But casting one’s eye through history a more pertinent question might be: can an unreservedly good man? Is an element of dysfunctionality – a cruel streak, say, or a tendency towards voyeurism or narcissism – a prerequisite for the truly original and interesting. And if so, how should we, as consumers, respond ?
There are some people whose behaviour or belief systems are so heinous, their work cannot stand apart. It is impossible to separate Nazi Albert Speer’s designs for a gleaming new Germania from the ideology behind them or the manner in which they were supposed to be realised.
As the author of the anti-Semitic tract Jewishness In Music, one can also understand why Wagner’s operas are not performed in Israel. But is his work in itself anti-Semitic, or does its greatness transcend the odiousness of his views? The same can be said about the poems of TS Eliot; one might avoid reading Gerontion with its derogatory Jewish stereotypes, but do we really have to cast aside The Waste Land because it is written by the same man?
It is, of course, easier to separate the artist from the art when the two are not obviously related; if I look at Guernica, I think about the unarguable cruelty of war, not the arguable cruelty of the painter whose wife and lover both killed themselves after his death.
But there are other artists whose unacceptable traits seem inextricably linked with the work they produce. Let’s go back to Caravaggio: isn’t his attraction to adolescents the very essence of paintings such as Boy With A Basket Of Fruit and The Lute Player? Doesn’t their appeal lie in their overt eroticism: the parted lips, the sexual yearning? Yet are they nonetheless not beautiful paintings?
Another factor that impacts on how willing we are to overlook artists’ bad behaviour is whether or not they are still alive. There is little point in rejecting Percy Bysshe Shelley and Ozymandias for the way he treated his pregnant wife (abandoning her for Mary Godwin) when he has been dead for almost 200 years.
When, like Spacey, actors are still performing, the dilemma is more profound; every time you engage with their work you are consolidating their reputation. And yet, if I ask myself: ‘Would you still watch American Beauty knowing what you know now?’ the answer is yes. Even though it is about a middle-aged man’s (unfulfilled) infatuation with a teenager; and mostly on the superficial grounds that I like it.
Life is full of contradictions. Perhaps my ethics are so fluid they can be moulded to fit round my own preferences. Or perhaps it’s just that some things speak to us regardless of – and distinct from – the fallibility of those who brought them into being. Raised a Catholic, I was taught to “hate the sin, but not the sinner”; how difficult can it be, then, to hate the artist, but not the art?