Geoff Johnson: Celebrating art does not condone the artist

In a recent column that was partly about the increasingly popular anti-science ­movement, I quoted controversial right-wing philosopher and writer Ayn Rand as ­saying: “Reason is the only means of acquiring knowledge. The entire history of science is a progression of exploded fallacies.”

Interestingly, several respondents objected not to the thought expressed, but to the fact that the column quoted Rand at all.

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That raises an interesting question that may have implications for not only the “what” but also the “who” we teach in schools. The question is: “Should we ­separate the artist from a consideration of his/her art in our curriculum?”

If the answer is “yes,” does that raise a red flag about poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose luminous poetry, including Kubla Kahn, emerged from a drug-addled dream induced by a lifelong opium ­addiction?

Playwright Oscar Wilde, one of the great contributors to the anthology of literature in the English language, also led what in the England of the late 1800s was considered an extreme lifestyle.

Wilde was convicted of homosexuality, a crime in his day, and sentenced to two years of hard labour in Reading Gaol.

Again, Wilde’s art survived the ­proclivities of his lifestyle.

He died in 1900, but movies based on his plays (the 2004 movie A Good Woman ­starring Helen Hunt is based on Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan) continue to be made.

Should we object to any mention of ­legendary political leader and author ­Winston Churchill, a proud and unashamed alcoholic who once, in response to criticism of his personal habits replied: “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.”

In other words, should we object not only to the individual but also to his/her ­contributions to the culture based solely on his/her personal proclivities, idiosyncrasies or even political beliefs?

As a one-time wannabe musician, I have been inspired by the creativity of ­Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and guitarist Joe Pass. Given the chance, would I have hung out socially with any of these innovators? ­Probably not.

As a history teacher, should I applaud the yahoos who destroy statues of Captain James Cook or pull down statues of John A. Macdonald?

Not in my book, because, in Cook’s case, the objection was not to his extraordinary navigational skills that contributed to the discovery of the very coastline the yahoos were standing on, but to his 18th-century attitude about the Indigenous people who inhabited the lands he explored.

In Macdonald’s case, he was targeted not for his contribution to the creation of Canada, but for his role in the development of the now- despised residential schools.

A recent large-scale, high-tech exposition of the work of Vincent Van Gogh enabled us to see the extraordinary beauty of the world around us through the artist’s troubled vision.

Van Gogh died in poverty at age 37 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, but fortunately his art survived beyond the turbulent life of the artist and his insanity.

The exhibition was a celebration of his art, not the man’s failing mental health.

On the other hand, there is a darker side to not separating the individual from his/her tendencies and inclinations and his/her art such as it is.

In 2016, Americans elevated Donald Trump, an unabashed public liar, cheat, misogynist and racist, to the highest office in the land, despite the fact that Trump made no secret of who and what he was and still is.

There was a time when Trump’s ­reputation alone would have denied him the mayoralty of the smallest town in the U.S., but his art, the art of the consummate ­conman, exceeded his well-known appalling lifestyle and, who knows, may again.

In a 2017 column, writer Shannon Lee describes a 2009 New York Times roundtable about separating art from the artist. At that meeting, poet and novelist Jay Parini used the example of Picasso in defence of ­separating the art from the artist him/herself:

“Can one really separate the art from the man or woman who creates that art? The answer is yes, definitely. There are many examples in history — too many — of great artists who were terribly flawed human beings, behaving very badly and hurting those around them. If anything, audiences easily make this distinction. Nobody looks at a Picasso painting in a museum and says: ‘I should not take this work seriously because Picasso cheated on his many wives and was abusive to his son.’ ”

No, instead we are enthralled by Picasso’s art, which we separate from the lustful appetites of the artist, the man. We are also impressed by Ayn Rand’s literary genius, if not her philosophy.

gfjohnson4@shaw.ca

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.

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