One of the great health risks of a life lived for any time at all in western privilege is affection for Bridge Over Troubled Water. There are few studio albums better than Simon & Garfunkel’s last to evoke the pain of not having very much pain, and crying tears for the fact of one’s own crushing emptiness is an easy matter when one hears The Only Living Boy in New York. Listening for the first, or the hundredth, time, it is hard not to be felled by Simon’s virtuosic tantrum; as far as crybaby ballads about being left alone for longer than five minutes go, this is one of that form’s most enduring.
Paul Simon was a principal of white complaint-pop and Living Boy, one of its finest moments, happens to augur that he would soon give Art Garfunkel the boot. Garfunkel had dared to temporarily quit town and his role as a vocal instrument-for-hire to try his hand at acting, and in this short absence, Simon wrote a big, beautiful song about his small and ugly response to a perfectly reasonable deed. After the album’s 1970 release, Simon broke the duo up and more than forty years later, Garfunkel is still calling him a prick.
Or, more specifically at a press conference this week, a little guy with a “Napoleon complex” whose friendship he only consented to endure out of a pity which “created a monster”. A monster that itself created Living Boy, a viable career for Garfunkel, whose sole gift may have been otherwise offered only to coffee shops or advertising jingles, and moments of self-intimacy by millions of lonely middle-class strangers. We can almost excuse Garfunkel’s personal refusal to shut up and let the fact of Simon’s paranormal talent stand alone. What we cannot excuse is the increased public tendency to confuse the good work for the bad artist.
Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, great art happens to terrible people. T.S. Eliot, who wrote The Waste Land, was a vile anti-Semite. Woody Allen, who is alleged to have abused children, redeemed middle-brow American cinema. Tallulah Bankhead, an addict whose dying words were “codeine … bourbon” and was investigated for the molestation of English schoolboys, gave an Anglophone screen audience uncompromised feminine grace hitherto unseen. Her occasional girlfriend Billie Holiday, largely understood as one of the greatest vocalists in any genre to have ever gargled gin, was a prize beast. Let it be plainly said, Bill Cosby is one of the very best things ever to have occurred in comedy. Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown are extraordinary cinema. Wagner, who hated Jews, knew how to write a tune almost as well as Picasso, who hated women, knew how to paint.
There are plenty of reasons to hate Paul Simon and most of them, in my view, are on Graceland. I can’t decide if I dislike the works on this record most for their clumsy and self-interested appropriations of Johannesburg jive or that stupid “Betty, when you call me” refrain. Whatever the case, art continues to give us enough trouble with the matter of its interpretation without having to drag its creator into the perplexing mix.
Of course, the temptation to gossip is one we cannot resist and the true death of the author is about as likely to soon occur as the true end of Neighbours. To suppose that it is possible to suspend interest in the serious allegations against Cosby or Allen or those milder ones against Simon is naïve. Personally, it is when I have a favourable view of an artist’s work that I am curious to read all biographical calumny. There’s nothing like the sting of moral disappointment to hone a critical response. But it is at this point, perhaps, that the real life of an artist should cease to inform criticism of their works. We can use our loathing for a player to learn to love their game more fully.
This is not to say, of course, that the decision to boycott an artist is meaningless. Oxfam’s decision, for example, to part ways with the actor Scarlett Johansson for her involvement with an Israeli soft-drink company whose use of West Bank labour is unlikely to win any Employer of the Year awards was, in my view, politically and organisationally astute. The widespread individual decision not to watch a Woody Allen film (particularly Scoop, Match Point or any of the later, genuinely terrible films that feature Johansson) is a little more peculiar. Chiefly for its lack of effectiveness. Refusing to fund an Israeli manufacturer whose profit relies on the exploitation of pseudo-citizens is instrumentally sensible. Supposing that an extra dollar in an alleged rapist’s pocket will fund further abuse makes little material sense.
To overlook the works of Allen, or of Polanski, is a failure to study cinema. Actually, removing Lost in Translation might even impede the scholar a bit. But, even if we allow the removal of important works, say of Eliot and of the known dick Dickens, from the literary canon and we find, as we might, the scholarship survives, what we have lost is something even more important than their works. We have lost the ability to criticise art distinct from morality. And this is a present danger.
On both sides of politics, brutally simple moral interpretations of art is now broadly acceptable. The Right has maligned Peppa Pig, The Muppets and even Mad Max for their putative critique of capitalist modes of production and family values. The Left has, in recent years, given Lena Dunham a drubbing for her failure to showcase diversity; this, by the way, is not an unreasonable charge but one that becomes relatively unreasonable when it is a charge levelled more forcefully at a young, female auteur with a DIY aesthetic than it is at any of her peers, as though women are more inclined to be reasonable. Everyone has the shits with Dunham’s direct antecedent, Woody Allen and there are dozens of pieces written for respectable outlets about why we must not tolerate his work — none of them logically convincing. Of course, the particular case of child abuse allegations is one we can see as a reasonable rationale for unreason in criticism. I respect that an individual might take the decision not to view Allen’s or Polanski’s work. I do not, however, respect the now regular habit of assessing a work entirely for its moral value and/or for the morality of its architect.
Art is never good due to its moral foundation. In fact, art that proceeds almost entirely from a moral basis is almost always shit. I have seen some very well-intended plays that have made me want to strangle myself after disposing first of the collective that produced them and their retinue of marionettes hand-made from recycled materials. I cry with awed hopelessness every time I read The Waste Land and I laugh at Annie Hall. Of course, Brecht, who, to the best of my knowledge, was not an unmitigated cock, aligns almost perfectly with my political view and he happens to be very good. But the tedious point I am making is that none of us, regardless of our views, can hope for the regular coincidence of what we consider “good” morals and good art.
In a time where art criticism is largely concerned with assessing a work based either on its lack of prejudice or its presence of “family values”, we can hardly afford to undo the good work of twentieth century critics and haul the artist in for scrutiny, too. Let’s learn to give up the meth of the author. Let’s learn to leave the artist where they belong: Feelin’ Cranky in the memory of Art Garfunkel, a man who got very lucky to collaborate with one of pop’s great arseholes.