Razer: great art happens to terrible people

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.

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

31 responses to “Razer: great art happens to terrible people

  1. Confused. Can understand little prick / napoleons complex. Can even weather debate about payments to South African musos can even cop El Cpndor Pasa but a fucking song about a rabbit. Did I miss the acid when it was being handed out ?
    Very Confused

    1. I think in this case you did not miss out on the acid. I’m afraid I’ve no idea what you’re talking about! Rabbits???

  2. I find it a bit off to say that another dollar in Woody Allen’s pocket doesn’t give him more opportunity to rape. Doesn’t money and influence count when it comes to getting out of these sorts of allegations? Not only does increased wealth give him more money to burn in terms of legal defence, the wealthier he is the more socially and politically influential he’s likely to be. The wealthier the rapist is, the more likely that people are likely to say “Oh, they’re just making it up for the money” when their victims come forward.

    1. Given that the only potential legal action reported is one of a suit against Allen, then we could argue that money to him is a good thing. The more he has, the more damages he is able to pay.
      I understand the emotion of this case and as I said, if one wishes to make the personal decision not to endorse his work by refraining (as many people have in recent decades for other reasons) from paying for it, that’s okay. But to say that this is a BDS strategy of real and identifiable value comparable to that of endorsing Israeli use of non-citizen labour is plain wrong.
      Again. It’s up to individuals to take a stand if they feel they need to on an auteur who is alleged to have committed crimes. But it’s not one that I think can be meaningfully organised to produce a result. Unlike the Oxfam decision which is a meaningful result.

  3. Thanks Helen for writing this excellent piece. This issue has been haunting my brain for decades and I’ve never been able to resolve it until reading your argument. The matter is important to me as I am a music producer. There is a fear that leads to absolute self-censoring; because if one is not a ‘perfect saint’ and squeaky clean right down to even the genetic level then one is not going to be welcome in the sanitised morality-zone that is the public sphere. Of course it is wrong to think this and like never before we need artists as real flawed human beings to be out there with acute indignation mixed with transcendental artistry to shake up our unconscious conformity to stupid. Decade after decade capitalism continues its death-grip to ensure that the world of art is ‘safe’. It is a challenging prospect to face and it’s understandable that so many with precious creative gifts just give up.

  4. Interesting premise. Personally I have always been able to separate the art from the quirks and/or failings of the artist. I think partly because of a sense that great art can be transcendent. As an example, I love the song “Something” by the Beatles, yet, I have been told the line “something in the way she moves, attracts me like no other lover” apparently refers to a adulterous affair. My disappointment was palpable, was I was expected to no longer like the song because of this revelation? Yes, that was the expectation. Sorry, but I still love the song, and frankly don’t care about that particular moment in the artist’s life, other than the fact that the inspiration lead to greatness. If anything I resent the stain placed on the art. Ars Longa,Vita Brevis…

  5. I think the light gets shone on artists because they are in the public eye and so their bad quirks get discovered. I think if the light got shone on the rest of us the discovered personality flaws might be the same. Also, their is the possibility that fame and success create personality issues that may not have arisen without it.

  6. We seem to have created a vicious, warped, self-contradictory circle. It is no longer enough to just appreciate art. Increasingly, we insist on knowing more and more about the artist. They and their publicists and their more obsessed fans are more than happy to facilitate this.

    But then, we want to the artist to be interesting because we like to gawk at and analyse interesting people, and artists are meant to be interesting, aren’t they? But virtuous isn’t interesting. There must be some scandalous things about the artist. But don’t they realise they are role models, dammit! Where is their sense of morality and ethics?

    We and the artists need to take ourselves, and each other, a little less seriously. Maybe we could learn from another duo, Roxette. They have even (literally) survived a brain tumour.

    Importantly, they remind artists and art fans how not to take themselves seriously. Who else would have a greatest hits record called “Don’t Bore us, Get to the Chorus”, or more recently, “The RoxBox”? Or who else would have described one of their biggest hits “Listen to Your Heart” as “trying to recreate that overblown American FM-rock sound to the point where it almost sounds absurd”.? And which other female artist of the era wouldn’t have given a hoot when an over-serious American reviewer said: “Fredriksson is squandering her talents in pop’s low-rent district”?

    There is so much the rest of the ‘western’ world can learn from Scandinavia. Maybe not taking our artists so seriously (and them not taking themselves so seriously) is a good start.

  7. Helen, I have always been an admirer of a,unique, insightful and brave commentator: yourself. I have also been a fan of Paul Simon and Graceland and the Only living boy in New York. I am now suffering from information overload. I thought that Art Garfunkel had simply gone off and done things in Catch 22. I am 76. Should I see a counsellor? J R

    1. No! You’re right. That’s why PS wrote Living Boy. He was cranky about Art (Tom) getting his plane right on time and letting his honesty shine elsewhere. That they broke up just a little later makes this song more portentous.
      I can;t love Graceland but TOLBINY just slays me.

      1. Its that big “Here I am.” at the end. Pop music is the science of setting yourself so some whopping mill stone of smalz will fall right through the listeners soul. That “Here I am.” is a remarkable achievement. Maybe not quite the level of sheer bravado of “A Lineman for the County”, a pop monster about the cheek wringing human warmth of the interstate telephone system. But still, pure talent.

        1. Webb’s Wichita is, I would argue, about love (“I need you more than want you”) and is written in a way that exceeds the conditions of the market and the marketed self. I am a romantic and believe that love precedes the market. I am not Don Draper. Also. THAT song. It’s in my all-time top-five. TOLBINY is more top-five-hundred.

  8. I remember driving around the home town of a close friend. She had left years before but she needed her father and he wanted to tour the old burg. He was a very famous poet at the time. It was very uncomfortable. She resented his disassociation from her and her mother. The break up was extremely unpleasant. He didn’t seem to care one way or the other. In fact I felt as though he were sort of sociopath. We met a couple of other famous writers who had come to town partly just to see this famous poet. They were very respectful and obsequious around him. He just sort of took what ever he could get, and there were dinners and receptions. It was a weird sort of perfunctory family reunion. No emotional depth at all. But all the time people talking about how great the poet was. Chilling.

    Brecht was one of the Hollywood Ten. He was number eleven but he talked so they let him go. Elia Kazan did the same thing. Naughty.

  9. Helen, it is the triumph of capitalism that Simon was able to write a great tune about being moderately unhappy! The sour songs of Henley and Jagger about the trials of the overly-partied and overly-rooted are anthems that validate the sleek untroubled lives that the market gives us! They are as triumphant and affirming as any Wagner Prelude! Hurray for Ennui! Hurray for being vaguely discontented!

  10. Fabulous article thanks you Ms Razer! These are important ideas and you dealt with them thoughtfully, with intelligence and wit.

  11. Thanks Helen, love this. Imagining only having art from ‘moral’ people seems painfully boring. Plenty of amazing things in the world have come about because of awful people – a boycott of them would be exhausting or simply un-doable. However, I can understand a retrospective change in attitude to art I previously enjoyed if the author is an intimate, central part of the art and current revelations suddenly impact on the material – I’m thinking Cosby here. I can’t appreciate many of his jokes on families and relationships now. But, I’ve got an old record of his and there’s this bit about him running a relay race that I’ve always loved – it’s still really funny.

    The cult of the author over art is pervasive. The excuses made for rubbish art by fans of particular artists irks me – foregoing genuine assessment of current work on the basis of past glories. Retrospectively dismissing something wonderful is just as silly.

    Also, that bit about Lena Dunham criticism resonates with me. I’m only a casual fan of hers and not particularly invested, but it’s hard not to notice a disproportionate level of vitriol and criticism she has received in comparison to other emerging artists.

    1. It’s weird how the level of tolerance for ickiness can vary hugely depending on how personally attached one feels to the individual involved.

      I share the increasing discomfort with Cosby seeing as how much I cherished listening to his tapes and watching THE COSBY SHOW and FAT ALBERT as a kid.

      But if these allegations of slipping pills into a large number of women’s and girls’ drinks to render them unconscious have credence, it is another level of hardcore predatory behaviour beyond the creepy, gropey old man behaviour of a sleazy dude with misplaced tickets on his own sex appeal and belief he is Errol Flynn revived (… a club where very few men are excluded I suspect).

      Or maybe it just seems that way to me.

      Anyway, rumours are we’ll be hearing allegations against hundred more celebrities from various walks of life soon enough.

  12. Your basic argument is correct, but some of the supporting points along the way are pretty obnoxious. You also fail to nail the underlying problem in all these judgements – that is, the collapse of politics into petty moralism. By the way, I recently saw a busker trying to raise a buck on the cold streets of Melbourne. He had cerebral palsy and epilepsy, along with obvious poverty to contend with. Should I have cheered him up with the observation that at least he had ‘white privilege’ on his side?

    1. Not sure of the point you are making here. If it’s that different social and economic groups are likely to experience different flavours and intensities of hardship, you’ll find no argument from anyone who can do basic maths.
      I don’t think I mentioned “white privilege”?

      1. Sorry. It was ‘western privilege’, wasn’t it? I don’t think the guy I referred to had much of that either, though he was white and resident in a ‘western’ society.

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