Today I went to the DeYoung Museum here in San Francisco to see an exhibit of paintings by J.M.W. Turner. It seemed a good way to take my mind off the painful thoughts about the terrorism in South Carolina this week. Some subjects are too painful to think about for very long, so I needed a break and joined the people eager to see the new exhibit of paintings.
Turner’s colorful paintings fill the galleries with light and the visitors crowded around each painting seemed absorbed in soaking up the color and vibrant emotion of the works. Turner was a British landscape painter, probably the best painter
England ever produced. Born in 1775, he began exhibiting his paintings early and continuing to develop and expand his talents throughout his life. His landscapes changed from being fairly straightforward presentations of natural scenes in the tradition of 18th century painters, to being explosions of color with vague outlines of buildings, people, and ships.
I walked through the galleries, stopping at each painting to admire the hazy forms and explosive colors. But as I looked at each painting, the scenes from a movie I saw a few months ago kept coming back to me—the critically acclaimed film Mr. Turner shows the artist working on some of these same paintings. As portrayed by actor Timothy Spall, Turner was a man dedicated to art but cruelly negligent about people. Despite his success as a painter, he refused to support his common law wife or his two daughters, and he sexually abused his housekeeper and treated her with contempt. He appeared to believe that his artistic talents justified his callous disregard for other people. Perhaps they did, but as I looked at his paintings, I wished that I had never seen the movie and learned the sordid details of his life. It’s too bad that that a movie once seen cannot be un-seen so that the images continue to influence any future view of the subject.
What is the value of an artist’s life compared with the value of the people (usually women and children) who suffer because of his vanity? (Of course, the genders may be reversed, but historically most artists have been men and most victims of artists have been women.) Do we really believe that all people are created equal, when people of genius are often treated
as though they are exempt from the normal moral norms of other people?
What is the value of art compared with human suffering? Do artists like Richard Wagner with his vicious anti-Semitism deserve to be honored and supported? Both Shelley and Byron, two of England’s greatest poets mistreated the women
who loved them and neglected their children. They left a legacy of beautiful poetry, but it does make me wonder whether spending a lifetime creating great art has any effect at all on the artist’s moral sense and human empathy.
What is the value of looking at great paintings, listening to fine music, and reading lovely poetry? They are produced by imperfect human beings, sometimes people we would despise if we knew them personally, but the art itself can be far better than the individual who created it. We have to accept creations made by flawed people, because we need poetry, music, and art to make our lives complete. And as Jean Cocteau once wrote: The poet is a liar who always speaks the truth. The artists and poets of the world create beauty despite their weaknesses, so I guess we should be grateful for what we learn from them and not ask for perfection in their lives.