THE FAILINGS OF THE GIFTED
Is it OK to like the good art of bad people?
The uncovering of sexual abuse and harassment by the #metoo campaign raises probing questions. These are not new. The films of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski have long divided people. Both are outstanding directors, but their private lives are marred by lurid evidence of wrongdoing.
There is something peculiar about art that lends itself to such judgments. Daily transactions are made with people whose backgrounds leave much to be desired. But we don’t feel the need to take a stand over the backgrounds of those who work in more prosaic occupations, like driving buses, cleaning windows and selling tickets. We are content to receive the services offered. The transcendence of art provokes and inspires us to ask deeper questions about the good life. The aesthetic it evokes compels a curious loyalty to the artist. We feel let down if they mess up. The artist’s profession witnesses to higher meanings; it is not dissimilar to the priest whose sins are revealed.
The dilemma over liking the art of undesirable people strikes at the heart of an old question. Which is more important in a person: talent or character? We prefer to be with good-hearted people but are beguiled by those with great gifts and often excuse them more. Talent seems to be winning today. We pay people far more for their innate gifts – financial acumen, football wizardry – than we do for their compassionate nature. If it were the other way round, far more people would want to work in care homes and halfway houses.
Put spiritually, the question concerns the gifts of the Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit. The gifts are given and frequently manifest themselves quickly and publicly; the fruit has to be worked at and is often expressed quietly and undemonstratively. Both build up the Church, but it is character that God prizes, as Paul’s anthem to love shows in 1 Corinthians 13.
King David was deeply gifted but God cherished him most as ‘a man after my own heart’. And this, in spite of that affair. The adultery David committed with Bathsheba was his sin alone. He was a supremely powerful man with a sense of entitlement, able to impose his will on another woman without personal risk. To compound his failing, David enabled Israel’s enemies to kill her public-spirited husband Uriah. Despite his standing, David was allegorically exposed by the prophet Nathan. It was a deeply shocking case of the abuse of a woman and her unwitting husband.
David wrote many Psalms, it appears. Does this story invalidate his poetry? It is always easier at a distance to forgive the sins of others. Plenty of artists in history have abused women but we have been too blinded by the brilliance of their art to see what even a cursory glance at historical sources would tell us. If David were writing the best worship songs in our era, it is unlikely they would have survived his misdemeanour.
His repentance, once cornered, was genuinely expressed and embodied in Psalm 51, which continues to be used confessionally in the Church. Despite his sorrow, David and others had to live with the consequences of his terrible lapse. And history has audited David’s life as well as his art as an enduring legacy. His gifting inspires; his life educates. The ministry of others to us is not invalidated by their personal failings. That’s the nature of grace. And it makes us feel uncomfortable.
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