Monday, October 5, 2009

Creepy Aesthetes & The Cult of Genius

The last time that I mentioned Goethe's Italian Journey, I commended Goethe for seeking to understand art as art, not by using lots of big words and abstract nouns to praise the artist's genius, but by examining the artist's hisotrical background and limitations. In other words, he actually studied the art, and so he knew how to judge the art as art. However, the following passage shows that just because an artist knows how to judge art as art or create beautiful art, he doesn't necessarily know how to judge art in relation to other things, such as morality.
The day before yesterday I visited Lord Hamilton at his villa near Posillipo. One cannot imagine a more glorious sight on God's green earth. After our meal, a dozen youths swam in the sea--that was a beautiful sight. The many groups they formed and the poses they struck while playing! He pays them to do this, so that he might have this pleasure every afternoon. (Letter from Tischbein to Goethe, Italian Journey; July 10, 1787)

Did anything there strike you as strange? How about the last line about paying boys to swim by his villa (pictured below)? I thought that was strange. Why does this strike me (and many others, I presume) as a bit, well, creepy?

There are two reasons. First, there are the obvious homoerotic and pederastic overtones here--paying for the sight of young boys wearing little or no clothing. Certainly, most fathers would not be happy when he found out some old man was enticing his son to take off his clothes for his pleasure.

However, that doesn't explain Goethe, Tischbein, and Lord Hamilton. There's no evidence that any of these men was a pederast. Indeed, Lord Hamilton kept a young, nubile woman, Emma Hart (pictured below), at his villa for "aesthetic purposes." Goethe mentions elsewhere (March 16, 1787) that Emma would dance for guests wearing only light sheets and pose for painters in very artistic poses, such as a devotee of Bacchus, or as Ariadne. However, the oddity of Lord Hamilton's relationship to Emma doesn't end there; he later actually married her, despite the unseemly difference in age between the two. But, it doesn't end there either. He later encouraged her to become Horatio Nelson's lover, and even shared his home with the couple and with Emma's mother. This behavior is certainly strange, and repulsive, but it has nothing to do with pederasty.

There must then be a second reason why this all seems a little creepy: Lord Hamilton (and perhaps Goethe and Tischbein too) treated Emma Hart and the young swimmers simply as pieces of art. They seemed to think that their aesthetic interests--enjoying the beauty of the human form--took priority over normal ethical rules, especially those concerning sex. They didn't even need to maintain the appearance of propriety, because they were above all those petty rules.

This isn't the only example of an aesthete who thinks that the normal rules of morality don't apply to him. The obvious contempoary example is Roman Polanski. Whatever the artistic merits of his films, they simply do not excuse the crime to which he pleaded guilty. Listening to his "aesthetic" friends from Hollywood and France, however, you could be forgiven for thinking that child rape is not a crime when committed by a great director.

What explains the difficulty that some artists and other aesthetic types have in recognizing what for most people are clear ethical boundaries? My only explanation is that some artists are prone to genius-worship. They think that anyone capable of creating beauty in a work of art should therefore be free to create beauty in their own lives--by their own standards. The artist as a god: that is the essence of the modern cult of genius.

This obviously is not meant as a smear on all artists. All this tells us is that being an artist does not by itself qualify someone to speak on matters of morality. Conversely, however, being a good person does not qualify someone to speak as an expert on matters of art. However, in today's world, where the cult of genius is so prevalent, there is a temptation for artists, or anyone who wants to be a genius, to construct his own moral universe. Geniuses, however, have to live by the same rules we all do.
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