Balthus painting 'Thérèse revant'  Brill/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Moralism and the Arts

It is hard to imagine admiring art that espouses child abuse, racial hatred, or torture. But just as we should not condemn a work of art because of the artist’s private behavior, we should also be careful about applying norms of social respectability to artistic expression.

NEW YORK – Chuck Close is an American artist, famous for painting large portraits. Severely paralyzed, Close is confined to a wheelchair. Former models have accused him of asking them to take their clothes off and of using sexual language that made them feel harassed. This behavior prompted the National Gallery in Washington, DC, to cancel a planned show of Close’s work. And Seattle University has removed a self-portrait by the artist from a university building.

If we were to remove all the art from museums or galleries because we disapproved of the artists’ behavior, great collections would soon be severely depleted. Rembrandt cruelly mistreated his mistress, Picasso was beastly to his wives, Caravaggio lusted after young boys and was a murderer, and so on.

And what about literature? Céline was a vicious anti-Semite. William S. Burroughs shot his wife in a drunken haze, and Norman Mailer stabbed one of his. And movie directors? Forget sexually inappropriate language: Erich von Stroheim shot mass orgies for his own pleasure. Charlie Chaplin liked very young girls. And then there is Woody Allen, accused of but never charged with molesting his seven-year-old adopted daughter.

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