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The Bad and the Beautiful

#MeToo has forced the question: can we still enjoy the work of predatory artists?
Good Art Bad People

One of the many questions occasioned by the tsunami of allegations against men in the movie industry is whether we should reappraise their art in light of their misdeeds. Can we continue to laugh at The Cosby Show knowing that its star is a convicted sex offender? Can we continue to identify with Dustin Hoffman after hearing that he groped, flashed, and sexually humiliated underage girls on multiple occasions? Can we continue to enjoy the movies that Harvey Weinstein produced knowing that their creation helped cause so much pain to so many women?

Art, at its best, can seem sublime, numinous even. Look at a canvas touched by Paul Cézanne or a scene photographed by David Lean or read a sentence written by Vladimir Nabokov and you may very well feel that you have glimpsed the meaning—or, at least, one of the meanings—of life. For myself, I don’t think I could bear to be without the film Chinatown (1974). I love nearly every frame, from its sepia-tinted opening credits, backed by Jerry Goldsmith’s sultry score, to its calamitous conclusion, brought about by the protagonist’s own hubris, like the ending of a Greek tragedy. The trouble is that it’s directed by Roman Polanski. In 1977, Polanski drugged and anally raped 13-year-old Samantha Geimer, then fled the country to avoid jail time. He remains unpunished to this day, living comfortably in Paris, France. So how should we regard Chinatown? Its success, and the attendant fame it brought Polanski, helped make his rape of Geimer possible. Should we reappraise the film because of what we know about the filmmaker?  What are we to think of a work of art when it is made by a bad person?

It is a question that goes back centuries, if not millennia. Caravaggio, the great 16th and 17th century Italian painter, killed a man in a duel. So did Shakespeare’s friend, the playwright Ben Jonson. Edgar Allan Poe married his cousin when she was 13 (Poe was 26), as did Jerry Lee Lewis—his cousin, not Poe’s—when he was 22 and she was 13. Benvenuto Cellini was a murderer, Jean Genet was a thief, and William Burroughs shot his wife in the head (a supposed accident). You could fill an entire page with the names of the anti-Semites: Voltaire, Richard Wagner, Edgar Degas, Edith Wharton, Henry Adams, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Evelyn Waugh, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and Mel Gibson being but an obvious few. An inventory of racists or misogynists in the arts would be equally long.

Of course it’s easier to forgive Caravaggio or Ben Jonson for their sins because they’re so far away from us in time, living in worlds that, we recognize, were bound by different morals and manners than our own. Duels were common in Renaissance Europe, one part of the wider (and widely accepted) honor culture. This doesn’t make such behavior any less abhorrent. If killing a man in a street fight is wrong today, then it was wrong 400 years ago, causing pain and trauma then as it does now, perhaps more so. (If the loser of a Renaissance duel had a wife, she would face potential financial ruin without a man to support her, since women were barred from entering most professions.) And Caravaggio, even by the standards of his own day, was quite a miscreant, getting in fights, stiffing creditors, and, on one occasion, physically attacking a waiter for not addressing him with sufficient respect. Outrage, though, has an inverse correlation to time. We can treat Caravaggio and Jonson with more dispassion than we can the men of our own era, more easily separating the artist from the art. After the allegations of sexual misconduct by Garrison Keillor came to light last November, not only did Minnesota Public Radio fire Keillor but it also ended all rebroadcasts of his show, A Prairie Home Companion, and ceased using the trademarked phrase “prairie home companion” in its other programs. Meanwhile, Caravaggio’s paintings hang in museums all around the world, and Ben Jonson’s plays can be picked up at any number of bookstores and public libraries.


Film and literary theorists have for decades downplayed the deeds—and, by extension, the misdeeds—of artists. In the 1940s, the New Critics, reacting against the “great man” approach to literature that had dominated the field to that point, argued against interpreting artists’ work through their actions. Doing so, they felt, turned literary criticism into a branch of psychobiography. (Hemingway’s mother made him wear dresses when he was a child, so, as an adult, he compensated by writing about macho subjects like bullfighting and war. That kind of thing.) They preferred to focus on close readings of the texts themselves. Later, in the 1960s and ’70s, the post-structuralists and deconstructionists went further, maintaining that authorial intent was an illusion. A novelist, they pointed out, was not always aware of what his intentions were when he penned a book. Furthermore, he was bound by the structure of language itself, constricting his thoughts, making them flow through pre-built linguistic channels. Language, they argued, spoke through the author, not the other way around. “The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centered on the author,” Roland Barthes complained in his seminal essay, “The Death of the Author.” “Criticism still consists for the most part in saying that Baudelaire’s work is the failure of Baudelaire the man, Van Gogh’s his madness, Tchaikovsky’s his vice. The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author ‘confiding’ in us.” [Italics his.]  Theorists like Barthes gave short shrift to the morals of artists. Why let an artist’s misbehavior affect your understanding of his work when he can’t even understand his own intentions in creating it?

If you ever want to see how little purchase such theories have outside the academy, Google the phrase “artists who were bad people” and then just look at the number of articles that pop up: essays from The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Time, Cosmopolitan, Salon; discussion forums on Reddit and Quora; and user-generated polls of the most odious artists of all time. To admire an author or a painter or a movie director is, to a certain extent, to admire his (or her) view of the world. Thus, when an author or a director we esteem turns out to be bad, it can seem like a breach of faith, almost as though a trusted friend has been deceiving you. “I took the fucking of Soon-Yi as a terrible betrayal of me personally,” writes author and essayist Claire Dederer in a recent article in The Paris Review. She is referring to the affair, begun in the early ’90s, that Woody Allen had with Soon-Yi Previn, the twenty-something daughter of his then-girlfriend, Mia Farrow. Dederer clearly adores Allen’s movies—she calls Annie Hall (1977) “the greatest comic film of the twentieth century”—but, knowing what she knows about Allen, she says that she now finds it almost impossible to watch them any longer:

When I was young, I felt like Woody Allen [italics hers]. I intuited or believed he represented me on-screen. He was me. This is one of the peculiar aspects of his genius—this ability to stand in for the audience. The identification was exacerbated by the seeming powerlessness of his usual on-screen persona: skinny as a kid, short as a kid, confused by an uncaring, incomprehensible world. (Like Chaplin before him.) I felt closer to him than seems reasonable for a little girl to feel about a grown-up male filmmaker. In some mad way, I felt he belonged to me. I had always seen him as one of us, the powerless. Post-Soon-Yi, I saw him as a predator.

What Dederer seems to object to most is her own discomfort: that she might, by watching Allen’s films, have to identify with a “predator.” But why shouldn’t movies make us uncomfortable? Isn’t that the purpose of a film like Schindler’s List (1993), which depicts the horrors of the Holocaust, or a documentary like Titicut Follies (1967), which takes us inside the walls of an abusive mental institution, or even of an old-fashioned monster movie like Alien (1979), which makes us grip our armrests in terror? Among the many things that art does—amuse us, sadden us, thrill us—is give us a window into other people’s minds, showing us the world through their eyes. If we want to prevent bad deeds from happening, we must first understand why people commit such deeds, and to understand that, we must be willing to look into the minds of immoral people. If you want to know how an anti-Semite thinks, read Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. If you want to know how an ephebophile thinks—that is, an adult who is sexually attracted to teenagers—watch Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979).

The most shocking thing about Manhattan, when one sees it today, is not that Allen’s character, Isaac, is dating a high school girl, but that the movie treats this fact so casually. The other people in the film hardly seem to notice. No one voices a word of moral disapprobation. Added to which, Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) is such a paragon of perfection—idealized all out of proportion, as Isaac would say. While the adults are all mixed up in love and riddled with neuroses—Isaac kvetching about the water and the noises in his apartment, Mary (Diane Keaton) and Yale (Michael Murphy) stressed about the respective books they’re writing—Tracy is blissfully free of such anxieties, the picture of youthful innocence. She’s beautiful, intelligent, kind, sexually adventurous, and (big surprise) hopelessly in love with Isaac, a balding, 42-year-old man without a job. Did Dederer really need to wait for Allen to have sex with Soon-Yi to find out that he had a thing for young girls? It was right there in his movies all along.


Of course, many people suspect Allen of being guilty of a much more vile deed than having sex with his current wife. In 1992 Allen was accused by Mia Farrow of molesting their seven-year-old adopted daughter, Dylan, an accusation that Dylan Farrow continues to make to this day. The charge is entirely credible, but the evidence against Allen, as so often in cases of child molestation, is scanty—much too scanty for a legal conviction, which is presumably why Dederer largely avoids the subject in her article on Allen. Assume the worst, though. Assume that Allen really is guilty of molesting Dylan. Would this be a reason not to see his films? Perhaps. One certainly wouldn’t want to put money into the pocket of a child molester, thus giving him the means to molest yet more children in the future.

But the case of a filmmaker, unlike that of a novelist or a painter, is tricky. Movies, contrary to what auteurist critics like Andrew Sarris argued, aren’t the brainchildren of lone individuals. It takes hundreds, sometimes thousands, of professionals to make a movie, many of them great artists in their own rights. Manhattan isn’t just a Woody Allen film. It’s a Diane Keaton film, featuring one of her best performances; a Susan Morse film, edited so expertly that the shots at times seem to have their own musical rhythm; and a Gordon Willis film, in which the cinematographer crafted some of the most exquisite images ever captured on celluloid. You can’t boycott Allen without boycotting these artists right along with him, punishing them for his sins. And what if the situation were reversed—if, say, Allen were innocent but the production designer, Mel Bourne, or the casting director, Juliet Taylor, were a child molester? Would you still boycott Manhattan? If so, how far down the chain of command would you go? To the costume designer? The script supervisor? The best boy grip? How much collateral damage are we willing to accept to punish a bad person?

Part of the challenge here, obviously, is linguistic. When we call a person “bad,” we are making a moral assertion; when we call a work of art “good,” we are making an aesthetic one. Complicating matters further is the fact that art can, and very often does, depict very bad things without itself being immoral. Picasso’s Guernica shows the bombing of a Basque town by Nazi and Italian warplanes during the Spanish Civil War. People and animals writhe in agony. A woman wails while holding a dead child in her arms. It is a painting of a war crime. Nonetheless, few people would call it a bad painting merely because it shows a bad deed.

The paintings of Balthus are a different matter. Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, otherwise known as Balthus, always denied that he was sexually attracted to pubescent girls, but anyone even vaguely familiar with his work can see through that lie in an instant. His pictures bask in their own prurience. They ooze eroticism. Their subject: underage (and frequently underdressed) girls. In Thérèse Dreaming, the subject sits with her eyes closed, her head cocked to the side, perhaps warming her face in the sun or perhaps—something about the concentrated curve of her mouth suggests it—caught in an erotic reverie. Her leg is provocatively raised, exposing her bare thighs. Her crotch is covered only by a thin strip of wrinkled, white panties. A cat—a suggestive touch and a favorite motif of Balthus’s—laps milk from a dish beside her. Even today, 80 years after it was made, the painting still has the power to disturb. Last fall, a petition was circulated to remove the work from display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. “I was shocked to see a painting that depicts a young girl in a sexually suggestive pose,” writes Mia Merrill, the head of human resources at a finance start-up, who began the petition. “It is disturbing that the Met would proudly display such an image…. The Met is, perhaps unintentionally, supporting voyeurism and the objectification of children.” Merrill’s petition so far has received more than 11,500 signatures.


One reason that Balthus’s painting continues to cause such a stir is that it implicates the viewer in the painter’s perversion, making us accessories after the fact, like the audience of a snuff film. Balthus may have turned pubescent girls into sex objects, but we’re the ones checking them out. It’s hard not to feel at least a little dirty while looking up little Thérèse’s dress. Needless to say, one could argue that this was Picasso’s purpose, too. Thérèse Dreaming makes viewers feel guilty for what they’re doing, while Guernica, when it was first displayed, made viewers feel guilty for what they weren’t doing (stopping the slaughter in Spain). Is seeing a little girl in such a pose more horrible than seeing civilians murdered by the thousand? Why does Balthus’s painting come in for more censure than Picasso’s?

The answer is, at least in part, because of sex. Since Christianity “concentrated on sexual behavior as the root of virtue,” Susan Sontag wrote, “everything pertaining to sex has been a ‘special case’ in our culture, evoking particularly inconsistent attitudes.” Because the sexual assault of a minor by an adult is considered the most heinous of sexual crimes, it is an exceptionally special case, causing people to bristle at the slightest display of child sexuality. If this protects children from being molested, so much the better. The problem is that all matters relating to sex tend to throw people’s moral compasses off. Note the outcry that was caused when the actor Matt Damon chose to comment on the #MeToo movement. Here’s what Damon said:

I think we’re in this watershed moment. I think it’s great. I think it’s wonderful that women are feeling empowered to tell their stories, and it’s totally necessary. I mean, you know, I think there’s—I do believe that there’s a spectrum of behavior, right? And we’re going to have to figure out like what—you know, there’s a difference between, you know, patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation, right? Both of those behaviors need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated, right?

Well, right. Damon is simply making a distinction between different types of sexual abuse, while asserting that he wants all sexual abuse to be “confronted and eradicated.” The actress Minnie Driver, however, objected to the distinction. “No. You don’t get to be hierarchical with abuse,” she responded on Twitter. “And you don’t get to tell women that because some guy only showed them their penis their pain isn’t as great as a woman who was raped.” But why shouldn’t we be hierarchical when we talk about sexual abuse? Would Driver make the same argument in regards to theft or killing? There are important differences between shoplifting, insider trading, and armed robbery, just as there are between manslaughter, murder, and genocide. Sex crimes, logically, shouldn’t be any different.

The other crucial difference between Guernica and Thérèse Dreaming is that, in the case of the latter work, the painter himself is committing the moral transgression. Picasso didn’t bomb a city just so that he could paint it, but Balthus really did have a pubescent girl lift her skirt for him. (Thérèse, who was either 12 or 13 at the time, was the daughter of one of Balthus’s neighbors.) I’m made aware of this moral dilemma each time I watch Louis Malle’s film Pretty Baby (1978). Even 40 years down the road, it remains one of the most morally ambiguous movies ever made. It tells the story of Violet (Brooke Shields), a little girl growing up in a New Orleans brothel in the 1910s. Before being deflowered, at the tender age of 12, Violet is carried about on a litter before a roomful of swells so that they may take turns bidding on her, as though she were a bottle of fine wine. After her mother (Susan Sarandon), a whiny, self-centered prostitute, abandons her, Violet moves in with Bellocq (Keith Carradine), a shy photographer who hangs around the bordello. Bellocq has, by this point, fallen in love with Violet, and the two are wed in a small church service, with the other courtesans from Madame Nell’s brothel acting as witnesses. The couple appear set to live happily together—until Violet’s mother returns and snatches the girl away. “You cannot take her!” Bellocq desperately cries. “I can’t live without her.” But he has no chance, and he knows it. At that moment, it’s hard not to sympathize with the photographer, child molester though he may be. Violet is not ready to be a wife. She still plays with dolls. But Bellocq has given her what her mother never did: love.

Brooke Shields is superb in the role, perfectly combining a child’s naiveté about the workings of the world with a prostitute’s brazen knowingness about sex. It’s one of those roles, like Marlon Brando’s in The Godfather (1972) or Heath Ledger’s in Brokeback Mountain (2005), that are almost impossible to imagine without the actors who played them. The question is: did Louis Malle have the right to let Shields play it? Malle’s movie may scorn the wealthy johns who feast on Violet’s body, but his own camera is doing something not entirely different. In one scene, Bellocq photographs Violet in the nude, and as he sets up his shot, oblivious of the child’s growing impatience, the camera—Malle’s camera, that is—stares at Shields, stretched out naked on a couch in Bellocq’s studio. The camera lingers on Shields for nearly 10 seconds, not a stitch of clothing on her reedy body. Shields obviously consented to be in this shot, but she was a little girl at the time, the same age as her character in the movie. Shields’s mother, who got her the part in the film, consented to the shot as well, but did she, any more than Malle, have a right to expose her daughter in this way, for the whole world to see? Laws against child pornography exist specifically to protect children from being taken advantage of by adults, the assumption being that, even if they aren’t being asked to have sexual intercourse, children aren’t mature enough to make a rational decision whether or not to be photographed without their clothes on. In other words, it’s not the picture that’s the problem; it’s the taking of the picture.

Again, it’s important not to let sex cloud our moral perception. Directors have harmed actors in ways far worse than anything Louis Malle did to Brooke Shields. John Ford once punched the actress Maureen O’Hara in the face. Otto Preminger used to scream at his actors until they’d weep. On the set of Angel Face (1953), he had Robert Mitchum slap Jean Simmons across the cheek for so many takes that Mitchum finally turned around and slapped Preminger. Dennis Hopper, during pre-production on Easy Rider (1969), threatened Rip Torn with a steak knife, holding the blade only inches from the actor’s eyes. Torn dropped out of the film, and the role went to Jack Nicholson, making his career. Carelessness and the violation of child labor laws on the set of John Landis’s Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) resulted in a helicopter crash that killed three actors, two of them children under the age of 10. Shields, by contrast, appears to have been relatively unscathed by her experience on Pretty Baby:

As a mother of an eleven-year-old today, I am equally clear that I, myself, would not allow my daughter to be photographed topless. But it was a different time, and not only did my mother really believe we were creating art, but this film was special, too, and the scene [with full frontal nudity] was one of the shortest ones in the entire film.

I was not yet a sexual being, and this was how Louis Malle wanted it to be. He was more interested in showing my emerging sexuality through my attitude rather than via gratuitous nudity. We simply did not make a big deal of it. I was never scarred in the way the press wanted to speculate and hope.

“Hope” is the key word in that last sentence. Outrage can be an addictive emotion, and it’s important not to let it blind our reason, even in the midst of a justified panic. Sex crimes, for all the suffering they cause, are not the only crimes that people commit, nor necessarily the worst. Some of the most harmful deeds are not felonies at all. Parental neglect can, at times, be as painful as parental abuse, abandonment as traumatic as assault. You don’t have to be a killer like Caravaggio or a sexual predator like Harvey Weinstein or even a bad person at all to hurt the people around you. The vast majority of people aren’t merely good or bad. They are both, sometimes by turns, sometimes simultaneously.

Take Charles Dickens, for example. The novelist was, in many respects, a good man. Raised in abject poverty, he had, all his life, an acute sympathy for the poor. He campaigned against debtors’ prisons,  and invested in building a school for impoverished children and a shelter for London prostitutes. He used his public readings to raise funds for Great Ormond Street Hospital, keeping its doors open when the hospital was on the verge of bankruptcy. The facility, which is specifically devoted to the care of children, remains open to this day. Towards his own children, however, Dickens could often be callous and cruel. He sent his son Edward to Australia when the lad was only 15, never seeing him again. He was even more negligent of the feelings of his wife, Catherine. As she got older and fatter, he got tired of her, beginning an affair with a much younger woman. Unable to divorce Catherine, Dickens exiled her from his home, and then smeared her in print, telling the world that her children didn’t love her. This wasn’t true. “We were all very wicked not to take [Catherine’s] part,” his daughter Katie later wrote. “Harry does not take this view, but he was only a boy at the time, and does not realise the grief it was to our mother, after having all her children, to go away and leave us.” It was during this period that Dickens wrote some of his most cherished novels: A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and Our Mutual Friend. “We like to think of our geniuses as great characters,” Katie lamented, “but we can’t.”


When we turn on a movie or when we pick up a book, are we hoping that the movie or the book is good or are we hoping that the artist who made it is good? Run through your list of favorite movies or novels or paintings, then ask yourself what initially drew you to them. Was it the quality of the art or the quality of the artist’s character? Most people, if they are honest with themselves, will probably acknowledge that it’s the former, but that doesn’t mean that an artist’s character has no effect on how we see their art. Dickens, after all, could have been a much worse man than he was. Imagine, for instance, that he had not cared for the needy or that he had not donated so much of his income to charity. Imagine a Dickens who despised the poor, writing poignantly about their lives in The Old Curiosity Shop, Little Dorrit, and Oliver Twist, all the while sneering at them in private. How could we not think differently about Dickens’s art if we discovered such details about Dickens’s life? Could we abide a Dickens who was not only a heartless husband but also a hypocrite?

In fact, we do, only it’s not Charles Dickens: it’s the painter Edgar Degas. Acid-tongued and antisocial, morose and misanthropic, Degas was not a very likeable man, to say the least. His hatred of Jews was extreme even for Belle Époque Paris, and he had a near-equal disdain for women. “I have perhaps too often considered woman as an animal,” he once told the painter Pierre-Georges Jeanniot. “Women can never forgive me; they hate me, they can feel that I am disarming them. I show them without their coquetry, in the state of animals cleaning themselves.” Yet Degas’s paintings, contrary to what the artist himself said, depict women with more tenderness, more humanity, and more vivacity than just about any other painter of his era. Degas was particularly fond of painting ballet dancers, who, at the time, were generally regarded as kitschy, lowbrow entertainers. Rather than showing them onstage, pirouetting and posing for the audience, Degas preferred to show them backstage, cracking their joints and stretching their sore muscles—behaving, in other words, like people rather than objects for display. Whatever the artist’s personal prejudices against women were, they don’t come through in his paintings.

Yet the fact that we see a contradiction in Degas only serves to demonstrate that we can’t, in our own minds, separate the artist from his art, no matter how much we might want to at times. Artists and their art will always be inextricably linked, despite the attempts of deconstructionist theorists to pry them apart, for the simple fact is: artistic intentions do matter. How, for instance, would we recognize irony in art if we didn’t make assumptions about the artist’s intentions? A motion picture without intention behind it would merely be a random collection of images—captured, presumably, when a movie camera was turned on accidentally. A painting without intention wouldn’t even be recognizable as a work of art. Even Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal has clear artistic intention behind it. If it hadn’t, Duchamp wouldn’t have put it on display, and no one (including myself) would have ever called it art. “Language does not have the autonomous power to shape reality that its theorists often claim,” the author John Farrell points out in his recent book, The Varieties of Authorial Intention. “It requires the guarantee of intention behind it in order to license the interpreter’s remarkable powers of inference, and these inferences require common knowledge of the world shared by author and audience, the knowledge against the background of which their language developed in the first place.”


To care about an artist’s intent is, by proxy, to care about an artist’s actions, both good and bad. The more we know about the latter, the more we can infer about the former. One can easily see why Claire Dederer finds it difficult to watch Manhattan today. The relationship between Isaac and his 17-year-old girlfriend looks a lot less innocent after you discover that Woody Allen, as a middle-aged man, had sex with teenage girls. The director’s actions influence how we see the movie, and the movie, in turn, influences how we see the director. As the example of Degas demonstrates, an artist’s actions don’t always reveal his intent. “Providing a complete intentional explanation for any action may well be impossible even for the person who holds the intention,” Farrell writes. But we can’t resist trying to discover artists’ intentions nonetheless. As Farrell explains, “When we read literary texts it is people we are trying to understand—people under varying historical circumstances. It is their creative actions we are trying to appreciate, not mere collections of words. These actions come to us having already made their impact on many other people in intervening generations who have inflected them in their own ways. Dealing with people as historical agents is uncomfortable, difficult, exasperating; making judgments about them can be even more so.”

Making judgments about people is difficult, in part, because intentions matter in morality just as they do in art. This is why we make a distinction between manslaughter and murder. If we found out that Caravaggio didn’t intend to kill Ranuccio Tomassoni (the man with whom he dueled) but only did so accidentally—say, because Tomassoni tripped down a flight of stairs and landed on Caravaggio’s upturned rapier—we would not judge him so harshly, though the consequence of the action would be the same. Intentions matter in moral terms because they explain previous actions and help make possible predictions about future actions. For this reason, the parents of many teenage actresses would probably be leery of letting their daughters attend script conferences alone with Roman Polanski. His past actions make it thus. Consequences matter, too, of course. The sexual crimes of Harvey Weinstein are far more heinous than those of Al Franken, being both greater in number and more traumatic in kind. But actions uncoupled from intentions aren’t actions at all. They are mere events and not ascribed a moral character. We don’t consider hurricanes or tsunamis to be unethical, even though they’ve killed millions of people over the centuries.

The creation of a work of art, too, is a human action, and thus open to moral critique. When an artist directs a movie or writes a poem or paints a picture, he intentionally affects the world around him. The Ku Klux Klan was virtually non-existent in the 20th century until D.W. Griffith released his masterpiece, The Birth of a Nation (1915), after which membership in the organization skyrocketed to its highest level ever. But if art can do harm, it stands to reason that it can do good, as well. It’s comforting to think that a work of art, if it’s beautiful enough or moving enough or original enough, may atone for the sins of the artist. The experience of watching a great movie, like Chinatown, or of looking at a great painting, like Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of Saint Peter, or of reading a great novel, like Dickens’s David Copperfield, feels enriching—even, at times, ennobling. Were these masterpieces to vanish suddenly, the world would be an appreciably bleaker place. Imagine the loss to humanity if Dickens’s novels were erased from existence. Think of all the luminous characters we’d lose: Scrooge, Peggotty, Steerforth, Fagin, Mr. Bumble, Mrs. Gummidge, Mr. Murdstone, Miss Pross, Mrs. Toodle, Herbert Pocket, Betsey Trotwood, Harold Skimpole, Jenny Wren, Nicodemus Boffin, Sydney Carton, Bill Sikes, Nancy, and Uriah Heep. To open one of Dickens’s novels is to open a door to a storehouse packed full of some of the most delightful people you’ll ever encounter: stubborn Mr. Grimwig, for example, always exclaiming that he’ll eat his own head, or Mr. Dick, with his strange obsession with King Charles I. As a fan of Dickens, one can’t help feeling that these characters make our lives richer, fuller. One wants to say that the tradeoff is worth it—that, however Dickens may have erred as a man, the treasure he left us in prose atones for his misdeeds, bringing joy to millions of readers and, in the process, making the world an appreciably more beautiful place. This may be. It’s doubtful, though, that that’s how Dickens’s family saw it.

Graham Daseler is a film editor, animator, and writer. His articles have appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, The Los Angeles Review of Books, 34th Parallel Magazine, and numerous film periodicals.



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