September 27, 2010
In yesterday’s New York Times, Week in Review section featured an interesting article entitled: Life, In The Way of Art by Randy Kennedy. The article tells the story of a famous civil rights photographer, Ernest C. Withers whose great works of art have been exposed in a number of museums and published in numerous books. What was not known until now is that Mr. Withers had been a paid informant for the FBI and that he has spied on the leaders of the civil rights movement for a number of years. This revelation, published this month by Commercial Appeal in Memphis after a two-year investigation was a shock to his friends and admirers. Mr. Kennedy asks the interesting question of whether this revelation casts a shadow on his art anymore then on Picasso’s art because of his deep misogyny, or T.S. Eliot poems because of his perceived (by some) anti-Semitism. Randy says: “It is always treading on dangerous ground to try to locate the value of the work in the life of the artist or in his (or her) sense of morality.”
I, personally have a great difficulty in trying to distinguish a person’s accomplishment from his or her behavior. What if Adolf Hitler had been a great composer? Would I be able to listen and enjoy his music? Could you appreciate a beautiful photo of a child if you knew that the photographer was a child molester?
It is for me a matter of integrity and character. The etymology of the word integrity comes from the Latin adjective integer which means whole, complete, one. We are one person however complex, flawed and prone to making errors. I believe we can’t truly live separate lives.
Ernest C. Withers died in 2007 and we may never know his motivation and intent in spying for the FBI. We cannot judge him but we may condemn his actions.
One can recognize and even appreciate the artistic or other accomplishments of a person but in order for us to respect that person, we need to share at least some of that person’s values and not disapprove of his or her behavior.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said:
“Character is higher than intellect.”