[Note: I wrote this about a year ago. This was before several excellent books came out on this topic, e.g. here and here. I have only read the first of these but I have not updated what I wrote in light of it.]
I have a confession to make. I used to like Woody Allen’s movies. They were a major influence on me in my late teens and early 20s. I enjoyed their exploration of existential themes: the meaninglessness of life, the fundamentality of choice, the Death of God, and the spectre of moral nihilism. I think some of them are genuinely great movies — specifically Annie Hall, Hannah and her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanours — some are very good — Match Point, Husbands and Wives, Blue Jasmine among others — and some are pretty awful (Melinda and Melinda, Scoop etc).
I have another confession to make. Although I like a lot of stand-up comedy, the only stand-up comic I have ever paid money to see is Louis CK. I went to one of his shows in Dublin several years ago. Like Woody Allen, I enjoyed his comedy partly for its philosophical depth and insight. I believe that several of his shows, and some episodes of his TV show, explore the tragedies and absurdities of the human condition in an insightful and humorous manner.
Confessing to all this puts me in a difficult position.* Although I don’t think either Woody Allen or Louis CK are Cosby-esque in their moral misdeeds (a point to which I will return), there is, at the very least, a moral cloud associated with both men. This makes it hard for me to engage with or enjoy their work anymore. For example, I have not watched a Woody Allen movie since about 2014, nor have I revisited any of Louis CK’s work since the controversy about him erupted in 2017.
Poor me, right? This does, however, raise an interesting question: Am I right to censor myself in this way? Would it be permissible for me to continue to enjoy Annie Hall or Live at the Beacon Theatre? Can I separate the artist from the art? Can I overlook their moral misdeeds?
These are questions that apply beyond these two examples. A lot of art has been produced by moral monsters (for some reason the term ‘monster’ has caught on in the debate). Many people are now finding that the misdeeds of their favourite artists are under the moral spotlight once more. This is causing something of a sea-change in how people evaluate and appreciate art, at least when they are in polite company. Lots of people are now asking: Should we continue to engage with and enjoy the art of moral monsters?
This article is my attempt to answer this question. I’m not claiming to have any major new insights or arguments. This is well-trodden territory. But I will try to offer some clarifying frameworks for thinking about the issues. I will also defend an argument of sorts. I will argue, towards the end, that there is a good reason why a lot of great art is morally ambiguous or disconcerting. This may, in turn, provide an explanation for why some great artists are morally conflicted or even morally unsavoury individuals. This doesn’t mean we ought to excuse them or celebrate their art, but it may offer some reason to avoid overly moralistic or puritanical responses to art.
1. How Monstrous Are They?
I want to start by considering some of the questions we might need ask in order to determine how to respond to the art of moral monsters. The first question is an obvious one: how monstrous is the artist under consideration? A plausible assumption is that the more monstrous they are the more challenging the dilemma becomes.
But this assumption can be surprisingly controversial. There is a tendency in these discussions to lump qualitatively different cases together. For instance, in the world of stand-up comedy, people sometimes consider the cases of Aziz Ansari, Louis CK and Bill Cosby as a collective. But once you familiarise yourself with the details of the cases, this doesn’t seem right. While all three men were accused of sexual misdeeds, there are significant differences when it comes to the moral nature of those misdeeds. Bill Cosby drugged and raped dozens of women; Louis CK masturbated in front of women in circumstances where their apparent consent to these acts (I say “apparent” because CK claims that he always sought consent) may be thought to lack the usual moral power of consent; and Aziz Ansari was sexually aggressive and pushy on a date (and, as far as I know, no one has suggested that what he did is the equivalent of sexual assault or rape).
Bill Cosby is the biggest moral monster here. I think it is uncontroversial that what he did is worse than what Louis CK did, and what Louis CK did was worse than what Aziz Ansari did. There is a clear hierarchy to the moral misdeeds they performed. It seems to me that hierarchy must be factored into our evaluation of their work. So, for example, while I wouldn’t watch anything with Bill Cosby in it now, I might watch something with Aziz Ansari in it.
Some people are uneasy about this. They are unhappy about the idea that there is a clear hierarchy of moral wrongdoing. Part of the concern here seems to be that the usual tools for demarcating between the seriousness of different wrongs are imperfect. For example, we often use physical or psychological harm to distinguish between the gravity of different wrongs. The more harmful the act is the worse it is said to be. But it is not always easy to establish how harmful an act really is, particularly when it comes to sexual assault and rape. Furthermore, it’s not obvious that degree of harmfulness is a relevant marker of the gravity of sexual wrongdoing. Some rape victims are not particularly traumatised by what happened to them. The sculptor Eric Gill molested and raped his teenage daughters but according to the testimony of one of them she did not find it to be harmful or traumatising (she may not even have classified it as rape or molestation if asked). Should that matter? In criminal law, harm is used to distinguish between the gravity of wrongdoing in regular assault cases, but not in sexual assault cases. In sexual assault cases, the focus is more on the degree of physical intrusion (penetrative assault is worse than sexual touching). But this is also an imperfect guide to the degree of wrongdoing. And this is just to focus on the external features and consequences of wrongdoing. If we were going to establish a hierarchy of wrongdoing we would also need to consider the perpetrator’s state of mind: did they do it intentionally, recklessly, inadvertently? Were they deluded or deranged at the time? These are all potentially relevant factors when it comes to distinguishing between different wrongs and can make it difficult to determine just how monstrous the actions were.
I appreciate these concerns. Furthermore, I appreciate that when it comes to artists in the public eye we don’t always have the facts we might need to distinguish between degrees of wrongdoing. Still, I think we must distinguish to some extent. One of the main reasons for this is that none of us is a moral saint. We all have moral flaws. I like to think I’m a reasonably good person, but I have lied (or been frugal with the truth) in the past. I have been angry with people I love. I have broken promises. I have been callous or uncaring about the lives of others. Am I monster? Should you be reading this article given what you now know? If we don’t distinguish between degrees of moral wrongdoing, we will quickly impugn all artists. This would be overkill. (I’ll return to this point later on). In addition to this, in some cases the difference between the moral wrongs is not controversial, even with an imperfect factual record. Again, there is a clear difference between Bill Cosby’s wrongdoing and Aziz Ansari’s wrongdoing. It’s not a difficult call.
This brings me to another point. Some acts are definite moral wrongs, but some acts are morally ambiguous. We are not sure what to make of them. They seem morally dubious in some respects but less so in others. Here’s one potential example that has always bothered me: romantic and sexual relationships between older and younger adults. I’m not sure what to make of them. I’ve mentioned previously the example of Emmanuel Macron and his wife. She is his former high school teacher and is 24 years older than him. They started dating when he was 18, were separated for a while, then got back together when he was 30. They have been married for over a decade and, by all accounts, seem to be happy and flourishing. Is there something morally wrong about their relationship? Is she a sexual predator? Has he been groomed? I think the origins of their relationship are dubious (I discuss this in more detail elsewhere) but its subsequent history makes me think it is not hugely problematic.
Of course, I’m tiptoeing around a more delicate example: Woody Allen. Woody Allen is accused of two major moral misdeeds: (i) sexual assault/abuse of his adopted daughter Dylan; and (ii) entering into a sexual relationship with the adopted daughter of his former partner Mia Farrow (Soon-Yi Previn) when she was barely 20 years old and he was in his 50s. The first, if true, is clearly a moral wrong and I will talk about it a bit more in a moment. The second, which is definitely true, is, I would suggest, more ambiguous in its moral character. I know for many others it is a clearcut case. They see it as an older man sexually grooming a young girl with whom he was essentially in a father-daughter relationship. The problem with this interpretation is that both Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn deny this. They point out that he was not her adoptive father nor was he in a father-like relationship with her. Furthermore, there is the subsequent history of their relationship to factor in. They have been together for nearly 30 years and when you read the rare profile pieces about them, they appear to be happy and well-functioning.
To be clear, I’m not excusing Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi. I’m not saying it was morally commendable or desirable. But I did read the 2018 profile of Soon-Yi Previn. It paints a fascinating picture of her past and present life. If we believe her (shouldn’t we believe her?), she came from an abusive background and appears to have idolised Allen when they started their relationship (perhaps still does). There was a clear inequality of power and influence between them at the outset. I personally wouldn’t like to be in a relationship with someone that idolised me. But the subsequent history of their relationship, and the accounts from friends and acquaintances suggesting that she is content and capable of standing her own ground, does cause me to reassess. It may not be ideal, but I’m not sure it was morally wrong or that it is still morally wrong or that it makes Allen a moral monster.
I may have lost some readers with this. If you’re still here I have two other qualifications I want to add before moving on. In addition to distinguishing between the gravity of the wrongdoing involved, we also probably need to consider the degree of certainty that we have regarding this wrongdoing. Did it really take place? Rumours often abound about artists, especially if they are well known. Sometimes all we have are accusations and denials. It’s hard to know what to make of those. You can dismiss, suspend judgment or pick a side. Other times, the historical record is clear. Hitler and John Wayne Gacy both produced artworks. We can be confident that both committed horrendous moral wrongs.
Should we factor that degree of uncertainty into our assessment? I think we should. Some accusations and rumours have no credible basis and so it is right to ignore them. Some have partial credibility but there is still room for doubt. That said, there is a danger that people use epistemic uncertainty as a convenient excuse to continue to engage with the work of moral monsters. It gives them plausible deniability. Accusations and rumours surrounded Bill Cosby for years. It seems that many people in the entertainment were aware, but not sure, of his wrongdoing. Some possibly protected him despite knowing the truth. Something similar appears to be true of Louis CK. I only learned about the accusations against him in 2017 but they had been circulating for years before that and were well-known in comedy circles.
Woody Allen rears his head here once again. Although the accusation of sexual abuse against his adopted daughter has been in the public record since 1992, it came to the fore again in 2014 when she (Dylan Farrow) wrote an open letter in the New York Times recounting her molestation. That’s when I first heard of it (I was too young in 1992). For many people, her testimony and repeated avowals that the abuse took place, are enough to prove the case. We should believe her. And if you doubt that, we also have the supportive testimony from her brother Ronan and mother Mia. At the very least, these accounts cast a major cloud of suspicion over Woody Allen.
But, of course, he vehemently denies it ever happened. He claims that Mia Farrow coached Dylan on the story and may subsequently have implanted it as a ‘false memory’ in her mind.
I read a lot about this case in 2014 and I’ve read a little bit more since. I’ve read about the investigations and trial hearings, most of which felt the accusation was either unproven or the evidence inconclusive. I’ve read the various accounts of Moses Farrow (Dylan’s other brother) claiming that Allen’s version is accurate and that his mother was both physically abusive and psychologically manipulative. I’ve read Soon-Yi’s account of the abusive upbringing she had at the hands of Mia Farrow and the tragic fate of Farrow’s other adopted children. I find it hard to know where the truth lies. An epistemic fog seems to shroud this case. The available evidence speaks to something morally disturbing at the heart of this family breakdown, but what that is, exactly, is unclear. All I can say is that I’m not sure what to believe. There is enough there to believe that Allen committed a moral misdeed, if that’s what you want to believe; but there is also enough there to be unsure, if that’s what you want to believe. Furthermore, I am just discussing this case for illustrative purposes, the same epistemic confusion may lie over other cases of alleged moral monsters thus making it more difficult to decide what to do with them.
The other qualification I wanted to add concerns forgiveness. Suppose we agree that an artist is a moral monster. Can we ever forgive a moral monster? If they accept their wrongdoing and repent, should we give them a second chance and reengage with their work? I will say more about this issue below because I think sometimes we justly celebrate the art of the morally reformed individual, but I cannot address it in the detail it deserves. Suffice to say, I think there should be some possibility of moral redemption for moral monsters, but the cases vary. I don’t think there is any possibility of redemption for Bill Cosby. Not now. Not with so many victims and so many years of cover up. But there may be redemption for others.
To summarise from all this, when it comes to evaluating the work of moral monsters, I think we need to factor in the degree of wrongdoing (including the possibility of ambiguous cases) and the degree of certainty about that wrongdoing.
It may seem crass and imperfect, but you can think about arranging different artists and their associated wrongs along a two-dimensional plane. Artists like Hitler and John Wayne Gacy are high and to the right: they engaged in serious acts of moral wrongdoing and we are very confident that they did those acts. Bill Cosby also belongs somewhere in this range (I’m not saying he is the equivalent of Hitler or John Wayne Gacy, but I’m not sure exactly where it place him relative to them). Other cases can be arranged appropriately.
This is just a heuristic device but it might be useful to keep it in mind in what follows. As a rough rule of thumb, the bigger the monster (the worse the wrongdoing and the higher the degree of certainty in the occurence of that wrongdoing), the bigger the challenge when it comes to engaging with and enjoying their work. But this rough rule of thumb presupposes the answer to several other questions we have yet to ask.
2. Three Other Important Questions
If we have determined that the artist is a monster, and we have some rough estimate of how monstrous they are, we can proceed to the main question: should we continue to engage with or enjoy their work? We need to be careful when answering this question. There are different moral and evaluative questions that we can ask about the work of moral monsters and there is a danger that we confuse some of them in our ethical analyses.
Christopher Bartel has offered a useful clarification with respect to the different evaluative questions we can ask. He thinks that there are three distinct ones. I don’t quite agree with his original presentation of them so here is my slightly modified variation on Bartel’s three questions:
The Interpretive Question: Should the fact that they are a moral monster affect our interpretation of their art qua art? In other words, should it change the meaning or significance that we attach to their artwork?
The Experiential Question: Should the fact that the artist is a moral monster affect how we experience and respond to their work? Can we continue to enjoy it or experience it as we did before or does the knowledge of their monstrous nature necessarily impact on our experiences of their work?
The Engagement Question: Should the fact that the artist is a moral monster discourage us from engaging with their work in the future? Should we stop buying their work, attending their shows, talking about them etc.? Does continued engagement somehow lend continued legitimacy to their work or does it excuse what they did?
These questions might generate very different answers in the case of a single artist. For example, I might find that I can’t help but laugh at some of Louis CK’s jokes, despite my suspicions of his moral character. Thus my experience of his art is largely unchanged. I might also find that knowledge of his misdeeds changes how I interpret some of his jokes (e.g. were those frequent allusions to masturbation a signal of his wrongdoing?) without necessarily undermining my appreciation for them. Finally, I might decide that although I continue to enjoy his work, I shouldn’t engage with it anymore. It would be wrong to do so. (This is just illustrative; I’m not saying that this is the right reaction to Louis CK).
That said, although these questions are distinct, they can be hopelessly tangled together. The knowledge that we have about someone’s character probably does affect our experience of their work. For example, it’s hard to look at an episode of the Cosby Show and not think about Bill Cosby’s monstrous actions. This knowledge of who the artist is (or was) probably does leak into our interpretation of their work. It’s hard to see much sincerity in the wholesome moral message of the Cosby Show given reality of Bill Cosby the man. All of this probably affects our answer to the engagement question. Even though the Cosby Show has a wholesome moral message (at least on the surface), and other people were involved with its production who, as far as we know, were morally blameless, promoting it, watching it or rebroadcasting it seems dubious given the fact this will perpetuate Bill Cosby’s name and presumably (though I don’t know the royalty arrangement) enrich him.
Maybe this entanglement of the questions shouldn’t happen. But I think it’s hard to avoid. In what follows I will try my best and approach each question separately.
3. Answering the Interpretive Question
Let’s start with the interpretive question. This may be the most philosophically vexing question. I’m not an aesthetician or literary theorist, but I know something about interpretive debates in legal theory and how complex they can become. Broadly speaking, there are two main schools of thought when it comes to the interpretation of artistic works:
Autonomism: The meaning and significance of the art is independent of its original author/producer/creator. In other words, art is autonomous. The originator of the art does not control its meaning or significance. The people who engage with it do and they can change its meaning and significance over time.
Intentionalism: The meaning and significance of the art is somehow dependent on its original author/producer/creator. They had certain artistic intentions and these intentions affect the meaning and significance of the art. There are different degrees of intentionalism. Strong intentionalism would hold that the originator of the art has a lot of control over its meaning and significance; weak or moderate intentionalism would hold they have some control but not total control.
Autonomism is often associated with the work of the French literary theorist Roland Barthes who developed the famous ‘Death of the Author’ thesis in literary theory. The idea is easy enough to grasp. Take a book like 1984. Orwell seems to have intended this as a critique of totalitarian, particularly communist states and their surveillance and misinformation apparatus. But you could interpret it in different ways. You could view it as a parable about the dangers of technology; the elusiveness of truth; the problem of political resistance; the struggle for mental sovereignty; the importance of language in shaping our perception of reality; and so on. There are many layers of meaning to it and it is open to the reader to add those layers of meaning in, even if Orwell did not explicitly intend for his book to be read in this way.
Autonomism, if true, would have a major impact on the debate about the art of moral monsters. It would separate the art from the artist. The meaning of the art need not be affected by the character of the artist, which would in turn suggest that our enjoyment of the art need not be tainted by knowledge of what the artist did. But is autonomism true?
There is something to autonomism. An artist’s intentions for their work are often quite limited and parochial in nature. This doesn’t prevent us from seeing something more in them. For instance, I’ve read numerous interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays over the years. From feminist readings of King Lear to existentialist readings of Hamlet. It seems to me that Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have intended for his plays to be interpreted in these ways. Nevertheless, the people that present these interpretations of the plays often have reasonable arguments to make. They can point to examples within the text that support their reading. They have turned the text into an autonomous entity that can be used to support different interpretations.
Still, a pure form of autonomism seems absurd. To suggest that the artist’s intentions play no role in how we interpret their work is too much for me. At the very least, the artist plays a role in fixing some of the formal content of their work: the words on the page, the images on the screen and so forth. We can remix and edit their work if we like, but then it is not the original work but something different — a new work of art produced by collaboration with another artist. Hence, I tend to think that a weak-to-moderate form of intentionalism must be correct.
How does this affect the interpretation of the art of moral monsters? Christopher Bartel has argued that if you embrace some form of intentionalism you have to accept that the character of the artist can play a role in the moral evaluation of their work. His argument hinges on the idea that in producing a work of art an artist is, necessarily, sharing their perspective on the world. The difficulty is that the ‘surface features’ of the art always under-specify that perspective. You may have to look beyond the art itself, into the biography and moral character of the artist, to figure out what that perspective really is. If the perspective in question is one that endorses an immoral or morally troubling attitude, then we can evaluate their work as itself being immoral. For example, Ayn Rand’s novels are intended to endorse her moral worldview (a kind of libertarian egoism). We know this from biographical evidence. She was clear about her intentions with her close friends and followers. If you think that is an immoral worldview, you can evaluate her art as having an immoral meaning.
Although he doesn’t spell it out explicitly, here is my attempt to reconstruct Bartel’s argument:
- (1) All art is produced from a perspective: in evaluating and interpreting the art we have to figure out that perspective.
- (2) The perspective underlying the art is always underspecified by its surface features. Looking beyond those features to the biography of the artist helps to fill out the perspective.
- (3) The moral attitude of the artist can be part of the perspective shared in their work.
- (4) Therefore, an artist’s moral failings or misdeeds, can be relevant to the evaluative interpretation of their art.
This sounds reasonable enough. Sometimes the artist folds their own moral perspective into their artwork. If they are a moral monster, you might expect some aspect of their misdeeds to be reflected in their work. To repeat an earlier example: Louis CK’s frequent jokes about masturbation seem, in retrospect, to have been linked to his real world actions. But this isn’t a hugely surprising or insightful conclusion: artists must put something of themselves into their work. The real question is whether we must always read the artist’s moral failings into their art. Can some artworks be completely separated from an artist’s moral failings?
My own view is that they probably can be. For example, Woody Allen’s movie Crimes and Misdemeanours is a morally complex work, exploring themes of nihilism and religious decline. I’m sure it tells us something about Allen’s moral perspective on the world. But does it say anything about his (alleged) moral misdeeds? Is there some subtle endorsement of paedophilia or child molestation in it? If there is, then I don’t see it and I think it is a stretch to argue that this aspect of Allen’s character (if it is indeed an aspect of his character) is reflected in the movie.
Bartel seems to disagree with this at least in some cases. He suggests that if the artist is sufficiently monstrous, it can be correct to interpret their work as having some connection with their monstrous nature, even when the art itself seems to bear no trace of that monstrousness. He uses the example of Bill Cosby to support this idea. He suggests that Bill Cosby’s morally wholesome output has to be seen as an exercise in moral hypocrisy given the nature of his misdeeds:
The artist’s own personal morality is aesthetically relevant to our evaluation of their work because we may only come to understand the work’s point of view, and therefore the work’s prescribed attitude, by examining the implicit values and attitudes of the artist. For instance, Bill Cosby: Himself manifests an attitude that appears wholesome. However, we now know that this point of view is incomplete. By drawing on our knowledge of Cosby’s personal life, we must see his on-stage persona as an insincere façade.
I’m not sure what to make of this. I think the degree of monstrousness probably plays an important role in the interpretation. If we see nuances or ambiguities in the moral character of the artist, then we can probably interpet their art in a nuanced and complex way. But if we see the artist as pure evil, it’s going to be hard not to let that influence the interpretation, no matter how sweet or saccharine their work appears to be.
4. Answering the Experiential Question
What about the enjoyment of art? If we know that an artist has done something terrible can we continue to enjoy their work? Does knowledge of their misdeeds necessarily impact on how we experience their work?
Here’s an example: I happen to like the work of Lewis Carroll. I particularly like some of his poems and I have always enjoyed his classic children’s novels. Although historians and biographers contest this, many have suggested that Carroll’s fascination with childhood and children (which included a penchant for drawing them in the nude) had an erotic element to it. It doesn’t appear that he acted on these erotic fantasies, but knowing that this is a possibility, can I continue to enjoy his works?
To answer this, I’m going to turn to another debate: the debate about the ethics of enjoying sexually or physically violent video games. I’ve written about this on several occasions over the years. I won’t rehash everything I have said. Suffice to say, some people argue there is nothing ethically problematic about this; others disagree. I have an in-between view. I tend to think that enjoying violent video games is perfectly fine on many occasions, but on other occasions it is not. It all depends on the content of the game.
I take this view from Sebastian Ostritsch. He argues that the ‘endorsement’ that is implicit in the game affects the moral character of our enjoyment with that game. If the game is endorsing an immoral worldview, and if the only way to succeed in the game is to share, in part, that immoral worldview, then there is something morally suspicious about your enjoyment of the game. For example, there is notorious Japanese videogame called Rapelay (released in the early 2000s). The goal of the game is to rape a mother and her daughters. The game, consequently, endorses an immoral worldview. If you play the game and enjoy it, then you must, to some extent, enjoy occupying that immoral perspective. This may not have any effect on your real-world behaviour, but the mere fact that you enjoy it says something about your own moral character. A virtuous person would not enjoy a game like that.
Is this morally puritanical? Is there no room for fantasy or separation from reality? Sure there is. Neither I nor Ostritsch is saying that you are a criminal or moral monster if you enjoy the game. And we are not saying that violent video games on the whole are problematic. As Ostritsch pointed out to me when I interviewed him on this subject, it all hinges on what the video game is actually saying to us. Many times violent actions within video games are given some moral justification (you are killing the ‘bad guys’ for example); other times, as in Grand Theft Auto for example, there may be some satire or social commentary inherent in the game. In addition to this, there may be some games in which the moral character of the actions is ambiguous or open to doubt. Enjoying games like this is generally fine. But in at least some games the actions are clearly immoral and the game itself encourages you to endorse that immorality. Rapelay strikes me as an uncontroversial example.
What does this mean for the work of moral monsters? Well, in essence, it comes back to Bartel’s point about the perspective and moral attitude being shared in the work. Does the work endorse the immoral perspective of the artist? If you enjoy the work, are you necessarily sharing in that perspective? If you are, then maybe you ought to reconsider.
Woody Allen’s Manhattan is a challenging case study in this respect. I haven’t seen the movie in many years so what I am about to say is recalled from my imperfect memory of it. In the movie, Allen plays a character in his early 40s. He is in a relationship with a 17 year-old high school student (Mariel Hemmingway). At the end of the movie, after an affair, a breakup, and several attempts to dismiss their relationship as frivolous and fleeting, Allen’s character realises that this relationship is the best one and reconciles with Mariel Hemmingway’s character.
Is the movie Allen’s attempt to endorse paedophilia? If you enjoy the movie, and the ending of the movie in particular, are you sharing this morally problematic worldview? I think it is complicated. For starters, technically the movie doesn’t depict paedophilia. It depicts ephebophilia (sexual interest in adolescents aged 15-19). This technical distinction between types of paraphilia** may seem irrelevant to some people. They might argue that ephebophilia is immoral too so if you enjoy the movie you must share in Allen’s endorsement of that. Saying something like this could get you cancelled nowadays but I would suggest that the morality of ephebophilia is more complicated than the morality of paedophilia. The latter is clearly morally wrong, but the former is more ambiguous. For example, is it wrong for a 24 year old to date a 18 or 19 year old? If not, then at what age does it become morally unacceptable? Do we assume that late adolescents always and everywhere lack the maturity and capacity to enter into relationships with older people? Are older partners always and everywhere abusing some power asymmetry or guilty of coercing/grooming their younger partners? These are complicated questions and I am not going to answer them here. Why not? Because even if the movie depicts ephebophilia it’s not entirely clear that the movie endorses ephebophilia. Allen’s character doesn’t have a primary sexual interest in adolescents: he also pursues relationships with adult women. Furthermore, there are ways of reading the movie that suggests that the moral message is more subtle and allegorical. The adult characters in the movie are feckless, cynical, selfish and immoral. Mariel Hemmingway is, by contrast, honest, mature, sensible and morally unimpeachable. The movie can be read as a commentary on the moral decline of adults in Western civilisation and the need to recapture the innocence of youth through a Kierkegaardian leap of faith. Sander Lee, in his book Woody Allen’s Angst favours this interpretation.
That will sound strained and high-falutin to some. They will counter that the movie really is a subtle endorsement of ephebophilia and that Allen’s biography supports this interpretation. After all, according to Mariel Hemmingway he did pursue a relationship with her on the set of the movie. We also know that Allen has had relationships with late adolescent girls/women in real life (Soon-Yi being an obvious example of this). Maybe he wanted us to approve of what he was doing by depicting such a relationship in a positive light on screen?
I am not going to get into the intricacies of this interpretive debate. I personally find it uncomfortable to watch Manhattan now; I experience it in a different way because of what I know about its creator. The only point I wish to make is that I think that Ostritsch’s endorsement theory is the correct theory to use when trying to answer the experiential question: does enjoying the art require you to, in some manner, share an immoral worldview? If so, you may need to reconsider your enjoyment of the art.
There are, however, two qualifications I would make to this argument. First, the endorsement theory doesn’t necessarily depend on the moral character of the artist themselves. In other words, you don’t have to be a moral monster to produce an artwork that endorses an immoral worldview. As far as I know, the makers of the game Rapelay are not rapists. Nevertheless, they did produce a game that endorses rape.
Second, just because it might be wrong to enjoy art that endorses an immoral worldview it does not follow that you should not engage with that artwork. I think Ayn Rand’s worldview is immoral, but that hasn’t stopped me from reading her novels (or, at least, trying to read them). I think it is worth knowing what she and her followers believe in. Whether we should engage with artwork is a separate question and one I turn to next.
5. The Engagement Question
If an artist is a moral monster, should we engage with their work? In particular, should we write about it, talk about it, pay for it, and so on? In some ways this is the easiest question but in other ways it raises the most moral complexities.
On one level, you don’t want to support or validate a moral monster. If you pay for their books and movies, and if you perpetuate their artistic legacy by promoting and talking about their work, then you are enriching them and maybe even giving them a free pass on their monstrous deeds. This is wrong in a number of respects. It rewards them in spite of their moral misdeeds and it may signal tacit approval of what they have done. Furthermore, it is possible to continue to enjoy their work without promoting it or enriching them. You can probably read or watch most artworks for free nowadays if you like (indeed, this might be a case in which piracy is fully justified) and you can keep this enjoyment to yourself. For example, middle class intellectuals that enjoy Woody Allen’s movies can enjoy them as a guilty pleasure and not tell anyone else about it.
But this argument must be qualified in at least four ways.
First, in many cases, an individual’s engagement with a work of art will do little to enrich or promote the associated artist. If I pay to watch one of Woody Allen’s movies or to download one of Louis CK’s comedy specials, I may be enriching them to some degree, but that degree is minimal. It’s a bit of a collective action problem: if the goal of not engaging with their work is to reduce their power and influence, then individuals won’t achieve this by themselves, unless they too are powerful and influential. Still, despite all this, it may make sense to argue that there is an individual moral duty not to engage with a moral monster just as there is an individual duty to pay one’s taxes and not pollute the environment.
Second, an artist’s death may change how we answer the engagement question. Once they are no longer alive, they cannot be enriched or empowered by engagement with their work. This is one reason why I have fewer qualms about engaging with the work of, say, Lewis Carroll than I do with the work of Bill Cosby or Woody Allen. But even when engaging with their work after their death one may need to place it in its appropriate context and explain the moral concerns relating to the artist. An interesting case study in this respect is the British sculptor Eric Gill, who I mentioned earlier on. He was influential during his lifetime but after his death it was revealed that he had incestuous sexual realtionships with his teenage daughters (as well as numerous affairs despite his professed strict Catholicism). This revelation affected how many people interpreted his works, particularly his nude paintings and drawings of his daughters. In a fascinating article in the Guardian, Rachel Cooke examines attempts by the Ditchling Museum (which exhibits Gill’s work) to explain this information to visitors, without censoring the work itself. Whether that effort is successful or not — and whether Gill should just be cancelled (to use the contemporary idiom) — are not questions I will take up here. I simply point to this as a case where placing the artist’s work in an appropriate context seems important. To exhibit Gill’s work without any recognition of what he did would seem wrong to me.
Third, engagement with an artist’s work need not signal approval of that work. Sometimes it might be appropriate to engage with the work of someone you find morally problematic or who may even have been a moral monster. For example, I don’t think there is any problem with people viewing or talking about the paintings of Adolf Hitler and John Wayne Gacy. It is interesting to know how these artworks figured in the life of these moral monsters and how it may, or may not, be reflective of their monstrous character. Provided we don’t use this as an excuse for promoting their monstrous ideologies or practices, I don’t see the problem.
Fourth, and finally, when answering the engagement question we probably do need to factor in just how monstrous the artist really is and the degree of moral ambiguity associated with their alleged misdeeds. Some artists might redeem themselves through their work, or they may have important moral insights to share. We might lose something of great value if we refused to engage with their work.
This last point strikes me as being particularly important. So much so that it is worth talking about in more detail.
6. The Dangers of Over-Moralising Our Attitude to Art
Few, if any of us, are moral saints. Few, if any of us, have all the moral answers. We have doubts and uncertainties. We succumb to temptation. Given this, it strikes me as a mistake to over-moralise our attitude to art and artists. Indeed, the over-moralisation of art is often associated with puritanical and fascistic ideologies. The Nazi book burnings and the Christian bowdlerising of sexually explicit art are two examples of over-moralisation that immediately spring to mind.
If you are convinced that you know best, then you may close yourself off from other moral universes and other moral possibilities. Being curious and critical about your own moral attitudes is a virtue, not a vice. After all, social moral beliefs have changed repeatedly throughout human history. We often think our predecessors had monstrous moral beliefs. Our great-grandchildren may think the same of us. Given this, we should be open to the possibility of learning from works of art, and possibly even artists, that transgress our current moral beliefs.
Christopher Bartel has a useful term for such people. He calls them “counter-morality” artists. They are people that challenge the conventional moral wisdom, often through a combination of their work and their personal lives. He cites the example of Hunter S Thompson, which is a good one. There are many others.
Similarly, we shouldn’t irrevocably condemn someone simply because of past moral misdeeds. Several well-known rappers have criminal histories. But they have overcome these histories and channelled a lot of it into their work. We can forgive them, perhaps even sympathise with them, for what they have done. We can enjoy and perhaps even learn something from their work. Bartel calls these people ‘hardship artists’. Part of what is interesting and valuable about their art is its origins in their moral misdeeds. Furthermore, recognising and engaging with their work is an acknowledgment of both our own failings and good fortune.
This is linked to the point I made earlier on about redemption. I’m willing to accept that some people are beyond the pale and do not deserve the right to come back. Bill Cosby strikes me as a clear example of this. But surely we have to allow for the possibility of moral redemption for others? Again, not accepting this possibility is redolent of puritanism.
7. Is the Best Art Morally Ambiguous?
This brings me to one final argument or observation. My own view is that the best art, or, to be more precise, the best narrative art (books, movies, plays etc), tends to be morally ambiguous. In other words, there are no clearcut heroes or villains. People are making difficult tradeoffs and choices. Part of the fun and enjoyment in these works of art is that we can debate their wisdom and reach different conclusion. Sometimes great narrative art succeeds, in part, because it encourages us to inhabit and sympathise with a moral perspective that might seem alien to us. The TV Show The Wire strikes me as being a good example of this. Contrariwise, some of the worst narrative art is overly moralistic and preachy. Ayn Rand's novels strike me as being a good example of this (though it is interesting to understand her moral perspective).
Why is the best art morally ambiguous? I think it is linked to the fact that morality is often hard. We make decisions that affect the lives of others, that involve tradeoffs between incommensurate values and incommensurate lives. There is often, even when we try to avoid it, a moral taint to our decisions. This is a view of morality that has been defended by Bernard Williams and Lisa Tessman and is one that I share. I think good art reveals and highlights the tensions and complexities inherent in moral choices.
This, of course, does not excuse the genuine moral monsters, but it may help to explain why some great artists are morally complex or unsavoury characters. You don’t have to be a moral monster to appreciate the tensions in our moral lives, but it could well be that those that flirt with the dark side of morality are able to provide the most interesting perspectives on it.
I have said a lot in this article. As should now be clear, I don’t think there are simple answers in this debate. My goal has simply been to identify the different questions we should ask about artistic moral monsters and to consider some possible factors that affect how we answer them. When considering the art of moral monsters, we should, I belive, first consider the degree of monstrosity of their moral misdeeds and the degree of certainty we have about them. Then, we should distinguish between three different questions we can ask about their art: the interpretive question (what does their art mean?), the experiential question (how should we experience their art?) and the engagement question (should we engage with their art?). There may be different answers to each of these questions depending on the nature of the moral misdeed, the nature of the artwork, and the context in which we are approaching it.
* If you say something like this, it is incumbent on you to say that your difficulties in enjoying the art would, obviously, pale in significance to the harm done to the victims of the relevant moral crimes. But the ability to say this depends on whether the people in question are really guilty of the relevant moral crimes.