I was never a fan of the plays of Arthur Miller, or of the man himself. Thus I’m as fascinated as everyone else by the recent revelation that he wrote his handicapped son out of his life. I haven’t had anything to say about it in print, though, because it happens that I wrote a “Sightings” column last summer in which I discussed in detail the problem of what to do when an artist is discovered to have dirty moral laundry:
To be sure, few major artists have been known for their goodness, but nowadays we seem quicker than ever to render summary judgment on their failings. Should we be more careful about throwing stones? The next time you’re tempted to do so, consider these five caveats:
• Be historically aware. Judging the sins of the past by the standards of the present can be a shortcut to self-righteousness. Make sure you have all the facts–and that you understand their historical context–before passing sentence. Robert Conquest, author of “The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties,” was reluctant to condemn the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko for toadying to his Soviet masters. “We might yet accept,” he explained, “that in Soviet circumstances [Yevtushenko’s] record, with all its shifts and compromises, may merit, on balance, a positive assessment.” As Mr. Conquest knew, Soviet artists like Yevtushenko and Dmitri Shostakovich lived in fear of being jailed–or shot–for saying the wrong thing. Are you sure you would have done differently in similar circumstances?
• Don’t lose your sense of proportion. Yes, Mark Twain used the word “nigger” in “Huckleberry Finn.” So what? It’s still the great American novel–as well as a powerful indictment of racism. To criticize it because it contains a once-common word now considered offensive is a prime example of political correctness run amuck.
• Remember the Golden Rule. As Somerset Maugham said, “I do not believe that there is any man, who if the whole truth were known of him, would not seem a monster of depravity.” When you read about the alleged misconduct of an artist, ask yourself how you’d look if your private life and thoughts were put on public display.
• The work is what matters most… Pablo Picasso treated women like dirt–but does that make “Three Musicians” a bad painting? Richard Wagner hated Jews–but does that make “Tristan und Isolde” a bad opera?
• …but artists are human beings, too. George Bernard Shaw was a loyal supporter of Soviet Communism who looked the other way when Stalin started piling up corpses. That doesn’t justify a ban on performances of “Pygmalion,” but it does mean–and should mean–that there will always be a blood-red asterisk next to Shaw’s name in the literary record book. The ability to make great art excuses no man his basic human responsibilities.
The occasion for that column was the news that Günter Grass had kept secret his wartime membership in the Waffen-SS. This is how it ended:
As for Günter Grass, I won’t deny that his plight filled me with the unholy joy at the spectacle of another man’s discomfort that Germans call schadenfreude. (It figures that they’d have a word for it.) Few things in life are more satisfying than to see a hypocrite slitted with his own sword. But I know, too, that the German historian Michael Wolffsohn got it right when he said that Mr. Grass’ “moralizing life’s work, though not his storytelling life’s work, is devalued by his persistent silence.” I’m no fan of his novels, but even if I were, I hope I’d know better than to confuse them with their author. One of the enduring mysteries of beautiful art is that it can be made by ugly souls.
I don’t think Arthur Miller made beautiful art. Judging by the Vanity Fair piece that revealed to the world the heartless way in which he treated his fourth child, it would appear that his soul was no more beautiful. I wish these two things were necessarily related. That would make the world a more orderly and intelligible place. But they aren’t, and–alas–it isn’t.