BONNIE GREER: How to deal with great art made by questionable men

PUBLISHED: 13:00 05 April 2018

Woody Allen and Mariel Hemingway in Manhatten

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Knowing what we know now, how do we respond to Wagner and Woody? Changing cultural attitudes are forcing this question on all of us, says Bonnie Greer

Walking through Tate Modern’s once-in-a lifetime exhibition, Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy, it is impossible not to think of the relationship of the genius and his muse.

Marie-Thérèse Walter was barely 17 years old when she met the great man. He was 45 and world famous. She did not even know who he was, even when he told her. She became his muse and he became her world. Four years after he died, she hanged herself. This is the ‘tragedy’ in the title of the Tate show.

With Trump in the White House, the subject of ‘the monster’ is coming to the fore. The reality of the great artist as monster is nothing new. It is not easy to listen to the sublime music of Wagner with the knowledge that he wrote an attack on Giacomo Meyerbeer and Felix Mendelssohn called Das Judenthum in der Musik, roughly translated as ‘Jewishness In Music’, a landmark text in the history of German anti-Semitism. Yet Daniel Barenboim, the son of Argentinian Jews, felt that Wagner matters so much as a creator of the Western musical canon, that he broke the taboo of conducting him in Israel.

How do we deal with the genius of Roman Polanski, or Norman Mailer? I was a member of the Actors Studio, Playwrights and Directors Unit in New York City in the 1980s. The old masters were still alive then and running the place: Elia Kazan, Joseph Mankiewicz and Mailer.

It was easy, as a young writer, to be in awe: of the man who had discovered Marlon Brando; of the guy who had written and directed All About Eve; of the successor to Hemingway. These were geniuses, and to be read and mentored by them was not only flattering. It was life-changing.

But I was a student of history, too. It was not possible to separate Kazan from his ‘naming names’ for the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s, testimony that caused people to lose their livelihoods; some to go into exile; some to kill themselves. But there he was, reading and advising me on my work, and Mailer, who read my work, too, and encouraged me. Even as he kept up his public persona as a misogynist.

There are other great men I had encounters with in my youth, men still alive that I won’t name, but as you walk out into the daylight, you wonder how to see their work now, what to do. Are they still geniuses after they’ve hit on you, or after you’ve read about what they had done to other women? To other men, too, especially young ones at the beginning of their careers.

Do you put aside Das Judenthum in der Musik and its influence on Hitler in favour of the revolution of the great composer’s Gesamtkunstwerk? Is it possible still to listen to any of it, knowing that his music was the soundtrack to a genocide, the likes of which the world had never seen before or since?

In this era of ‘MeToo’, a revolution which is starting to branch out into a deep assessment of who and what we are, how can we avoid the question? Above all, does this question have a place in art?

It is difficult to explain the revolution that Bill Cosby was. Never before had a black man had the ability to become, in effect, the father of the nation.

Back again to my New York days... I was invited to The Cosby Show’s ad agency to look at the pilot and to see if I wanted to write for this landmark series. I turned the chance down. Not because it was no good.

But because it was nothing more, to me, than an African American version of the average American Dad, a 1980s version of a show I had grown up with called, subtly, Father Knows Best. I was too stupid to realise that this very fact was the genius and revolution of Cosby. He and his Cosby Show were the American Dream. Plus, in one swoop, he destroyed the racist myth of the feckless black man, the dude who had no idea what fatherhood was.

The show was the culmination of decades of selling breakfast cereal to kids on television; and making smiley comedy albums.

Cosby became so vital to the NBC network, that its initials came to be known as ‘Network Bill Cosby’.

Then, a few years later, allegations against him surfaced. Among many problems now is that a generation of American kids were raised according to the strictures and wisdom of Cosby’s Dr Huxtable character. His words and very being are buried deep inside the nation’s subconscious. His Cliff Huxtable was named as the greatest television dad. He is one of America’s millennial generation’s godfathers.

And then there is the matter of Woody Allen, in general, and his great film Manhattan, in particular. This love letter to Allen’s hometown, with its Gershwin score and its film noir black and white, is considered by many critics to be his masterwork. It is the pinnacle of the Allen trope: the schlemiel with the wins. Through him, our inner schlemiel found solace.

The always troubling part for me, even as I first watched it at the cinema all those decades ago, was his character Isaac’s relationship with Mariel Hemingway’s Tracy. The actor was 17 at the time that she made the film, but at times the camera makes her look younger, much younger. More like 15.

Hemingway, a fine and sensitive actor, nominated for an Oscar and winner of many prizes, is also the granddaughter of the great writer. She has spoken about witnessing the sexual abuse of her sisters by their father, Hemingway’s first son Jack, who we know Hemingway referred to affectionately as ‘Bumby’.

Mariel Hemingway’s Tracy has a radiant fragility. She is wisdom and patience, next to the neurotic older women in Allen’s film.

His Isaac meets her Tracy for milkshakes. She is meant to be ‘the refuge’, and the smile that Allen gives her at the end of the film is a homage to Charlie Chaplin’s smile at the end of City Lights, when the innocent blind girl he has loved gets her sight and at last sees him, and we know that she approves. Even if he is one of life’s losers.

Great art is meant to impart feeling. And I came away from Manhattan that first time with a sense of anger, mixed with an admiration of the mastery of the work, blended in with my own protective feelings toward Tracy.

I wanted to run into the scene and grab her away from him. I hoped that she would take Allen’s character’s advice and find herself a boy her own age while she studied theatre in London. Tracy tells Allen that her parents are sending her there and I found myself giving them a mental ‘high five’. They knew what was going on.

And so did we.

Manhattan was once considered a cultural artifice. Less so now.

The American comedian Seth Meyers even made a joke about Allen’s films at the last Golden Globes: “So I was told the plot of The Shape Of Water: ‘A naïve young woman falls in love with a disgusting sea monster’.

I said, ‘Oh man, not another Woody Allen movie’.”

We have entered the 21st century. And there are questions and observations.

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