The artist as citizen

In an age like our own, when the artist is an altogether exceptional person, he must be allowed a certain amount of irresponsibility, just as a pregnant woman is. Still, no one would say that a pregnant woman should be allowed to commit murder, nor would anyone make such a claim for the artist, however gifted. If Shakespeare returned to the earth to-morrow, and if it were found that his favourite recreation was raping little girls in railway carriages, we should not tell him to go ahead with it on the ground that he might write another King Lear.

And, after all, the worst crimes are not always the punishable ones. By encouraging necrophilic reveries one probably does quite as much harm as by, say, picking pockets at the races. One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being. The one does not invalidate or, in a sense, affect the other.

The first thing that we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp. In the same way it should be possible to say, ‘This is a good book or a good picture, and it ought to be burned by the public hangman.’ Unless one can say that, at least in imagination, one is shirking the implications of the fact that an artist is also a citizen and a human being.

—George Orwell, ‘Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dalí

(Paragraph breaks and boldface added.)

And yet here we are, less than a hundred years later, and the Hollywood elite lionizes and defends the likes of Roman Polanski, who did not quite stoop to raping little girls in railway carriages, but is no Shakespeare, either. I will say it plainly: We live in disgusting times.


  1. It astounds, how many impossibilities have become reality.

  2. And the trap here is thinking the artist is somehow an exceptional person, a purely Romantic notion the modern world should have shed decades ago. (But few people know, for example, that animals and even computers can and do show creativity.) Luckily the indies are working hard to challenge this obsolete brainbug, and signs of success are already showing. We just need to keep at it.

  3. I’m confused about Orwell’s point.

    In the same way it should be possible to say, ‘This is a good book or a good picture, and it ought to be burned by the public hangman.’

    What does he mean by “Good” here? Malory was quite possibly a rapist (or possibly just an adulterer), and by all accounts a very, very bad man either way. Should we be burning “Le Morte D’Arthur”?

    Or does he mean “Good” as in “This work is well composed but defends horrible things”?

    Because if he means we should be burning books on the grounds of the author’s character, no matter how good the book, I don’t agree. The concentration camp analogy hardly follows; it would be more akin to Hitler building a wall to hold up a children’s hospital.

    If he means the second thing – that we should be burning well-constructed and well-written books with horrific moral viewpoints – then why would I care about the character of the author anyway?

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