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Judge the art not the artist

Max Stafford-Clark is a fine director – innovative and influential. The industry has much to thank him for. Our Country’s Good and years of other fine work at The Royal Court and Out of Joint among other things.  Somehow we have to learn to separate that excellence from his revolting lechery.

It’s the same with Kevin Spacey who did, among many other things, an splendid job at The Old Vic. His foul and probably criminal, sexual preying on young actors is a separate issue. Of course it musn’t be belittled but it’s nothing to do with his artistic achievements and ability. Yet his scenes have been “cleansed” from the new Ridley Scott movie, All The Money In the World and Netflix isn’t doing another series of House of Cards.

And now this weekend we hear that the BBC has pulled Ordeal by Innocence, which was scheduled for Boxing Day because Ed Westwick has been accused (not tried or found guilty, please note) of sexual assault.

This is all getting absurd and very sinister. Witchhunts are never just or reasonable because they’re a kneejerk reaction. I don’t want to live in a world of Orwellian “unpersoning” either whatever the targets of it have done.

Don Carlos Gesualdo (1566-1613) murdered his wife and her lover. He was by all accounts either mad or evil or both. But that doesn’t detract from the quality of the marvellous music he composed. His glorious madrigals are played quite often on Radio 3.

Richard Wagner seems to have been a nasty piece of work too. His views are said to have inspired the Nazis. But that isn’t going to stop me listening to or loving, for instance, Tannhauser. Nor should it.

My father – ex RAF and very much of his generation – was a lifelong homophobe and I recall having exactly this discussion with him quite late in his life. He felt physically sick, he said, watching Charles Laughton in a film and thinking about the filthy … Well, I don’t need to spell out his offensive views here. “In that case you’d better stop listening to Tchaikovsky, looking at Michelangelo’s art or watching anything with John Gielgud in then” I told him tartly knowing that he probably wouldn’t know much about the sexual orientation of any of them. “You simply can’t judge people’s art by what goes on their personal lives” I said in a tone which, I hope, brooked no argument.

And exactly the same principle – although there the comparison stops, of course –  applies to sexual predators who make other people’s lives a misery with their assaults, gropes and comments. Yes, it’s appalling and they must be stopped. Their victims must be encouraged to speak out. In some cases prosecution and imprisonment will follow.  But that doesn’t mean we have to throw the artistic baby out with the toxic bathwater.

As it is I’m just waiting for the iconoclasts and vandals (probably paid out of licence fee money) to arrive at the BBC with sledge hammers. The frieze around the front of the building is by Eric Gill and is a pretty wonderful work of art – especially the statues of Prospero and Ariel over the main door. Gill, we now know from Fiona McCarthy’s 1989 biography, was a paedophile who abused his own daughters. Reading the details, which he described proudly in diaries, left me feeling shaky, clammy and utterly outraged. But I can still admire those sculptures.

I continue to appreciate the work of  theatre people like Max Stafford-Clark, Kevin Spacey – and no doubt others yet to come – too.  We have to hold on to a balance. “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs you’ll be a man by son”. Or even a woman.

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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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