This article by Claire Dederer raises an interesting question. What do we do with the art of monstrous men? In other words, does knowing that the artist is a horrible person invalidate their art? She addresses Woody Allen as her primary monster, for his appallingly disgusting sexual antics (such as having an affair with (and then marrying) his partner’s daughter dear god words fail me), but also Roman Polanski (who raped a teenage girl, among other heinous acts). But these bastards made some great films… what to do?
Roald Dahl is another, though not in Polanski’s league for criminality, as far as I know. Writer of the best kids books ever, and some pretty damn good stories for grown-ups, he was so horrible (and a raging anti-Semite) his publishers wanted nothing to do with him. Emily Temple discusses this here.
This problem is widespread, and probably related to the fact that to make art, you have to have a selfish streak. To actually finish a book, a play, a film, a sculpture, you have to abandon those around you and get it done. It’s hard. And possibly one of the reasons that so many people have unfinished book projects on their hard drives.
It is also related to the fact that really successful people tend to be powerful; their positions enables them to bestow or withhold favours, patronage, advancement. Imagine what it would do for my career if Steven King told all his fans to buy my books! Or what it might do for a young woman’s acting career if Harvey Weinstein thought she’d look good on camera… Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That excuses nothing, but it raises an even harder problem- most of the really good art out there has a monster involved in its creation somewhere. Should you boycott a movie because the second assistant director beats his wife? (I’d say probably not, because their name doesn’t sell the movie.) Or refuse to buy a book on the grounds that the publishers don’t pay their female employees as much as their men? (I’d say definitely yes; you can always buy it second hand, which doesn’t benefit the publisher at all.)
I try to prevent the monster from benefitting from my patronage. Dahl is dead; he can’t benefit from my buying his books for my kids. But that’s hard to do in all cases, especially movies (unless you simply pirate them, which has its own ethical problems). Buying them second hand on dvd is a good solution, because the horrible creators don’t benefit.
And what about swordsmanship styles sources? In almost all historical swordsmanship cases, the author is long dead and cannot benefit, so it doesn’t actually matter that he (I can’t think of a primary source written by a woman- do let me know if you think of one!) may have been horrible. Also, we must remember that it takes an extraordinary person to rise above the generally accepted morality of their time; not even Thomas Jefferson resisted keeping slaves. So Fiore dei Liberi stating that “a man without boldness is worth less than a woman” (as he apparently does in the prologue of the Pisani Dossi ms) is appalling by today’s standards, but it would be simply absurd to expect him to adhere to modern expectations of sexual equality. I do not hold with meta-ethical moral relativism; in this case, Fiore is wrong. That doesn’t invalidate the art he taught, but it also means that we should not discourage women from training just because he would have. Dammit, I even teach the art to peasants, which would have horrified him probably more than teaching women (so long as they were noble born; unfortunately I don’t think a single one of my hundreds of female students were of the necessary social class). But in this case it is easy to separate the art from the artist, and there are no moral problems in developing his art.
But with artists that are still alive, that’s very hard to do, and in many cases should not be done. If you buy the products of a person you know to be reprehensible, you are enabling their crimes.
Get a free sample of The Medieval Longsword
Where should I send your free sample of The Medieval Longsword?