The recent resurfacing of allegations against Woody Allen have brought up one of the great questions about art and artists. What do we do when a really terrible human being makes great art?
Musically speaking, the greatest efforts to address this question have been spent on the work of Richard Wagner. Wagner was a great composer who made unquestionably beautiful music. He was also a petulant human being.
I will never forget the first time I taught him in history class. I made the mistake of sketching his biography first before playing the music. When we got toward the end, I waded through Wagners’ call to purge Jews and Jewish influence from music, return to the sacraments, and eat only vegetables. I brought up the possibility that he may have had a heart attack from a fight with Cosima about one of his affairs with a chorus girl. A student in the class said out loud, “Good!”
The class was unable to hear how beautiful his music was because his biography made them too angry. So, I had to make up a rule. When it comes to teaching Wagner, do music first and then the biography.
Let’s approach the question from the opposite direction. If a composer is exceptionally morally “good”, does some of that morality make it into the music? Is Messiaen’s music somehow more spiritual because he was so devout? Is Ralph Vaughan Williams’ great treasury of religious music somehow less spiritual because he was an atheist?
The general problem in this approach is not the idea that who you are and what you believe somehow affects your work. I think it does. The problem is that people are much more complex than that. As Father Owen Lee says somewhere in his book on Meistersinger, Wagner may have been a horrible human being, but his portrayal of Hans Sachs shows that he knew what a beautiful human being was.
In the same way, Woody Allen isn’t getting a prize for being a boyfriend, father, or moral champion. He may even, for all I know, deserve criminal prosecution. That doesn’t mean that he isn’t a great artist. It would be nice sometimes if it did mean that, but it doesn’t.
I might also add: Picasso, Josquin, Dostoyevsky, King David, etc.