On a recent Friday, I sat down with Steve Paul, a writer in residency at Ucross, to discuss his excellent book, “Hemingway at Eighteen.”
While Paul’s angle is fresh, the subject is not new to biographers: Hemingway led a fascinating life. But, while he drew from his own experiences, Hemingway believed his life should not factor into the consumption of his work.
Indeed, in his introduction, Paul quoted fellow Hemingway scholar Nadine Gordimer: “Let us leave his life alone. It belongs to him. Let’s read his books. His gift to us belongs to us all.”
Her words ring true, and yet — like many, I have not left Hemingway’s life alone. I have traced his steps across the world. I have smoked cigars on his birthday. I have read his correspondences, unfinished manuscripts and biographies.
So, I tore through Paul’s portrayal of “the pivotal year that launched an American legend.” Unsurprisingly, the picture painted of the author as a teenage is not always flattering. I wondered if Paul ever felt disillusioned when he came upon damning evidence in his research.
“It’s not hard to dislike Hemingway as a person,” Paul admitted. “In a way, he just never grew up. And there are a lot of things about him that even the most dogged Hemingway scholar understands — he was not always a good person.”
Does it matter, when Hemingway gave us “The Sun Also Rises” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls”? Should his life be left alone? Can artists be separated from their art?
This last question has plagued me since the #MeToo movement began. Day after day, we have discovered monstrous behavior from actors, comedians, writers, producers, musicians.
Like many, I have wondered how to approach these artists. If I engage with their work, do I support their behavior?
If you believe in ethical consumerism — voting with your dollar — then yes.
But sometimes, I find myself bargaining. There is a spectrum of bad behavior, after all. Aziz Ansari’s one-night misunderstanding is different than Harvey Weinstein’s decades of predation. Do I have to stop laughing at Louis C.K.’s comedy? If I stream “Annie Hall,” how much money am I really putting in Woody Allen’s pocket?
Let’s consider the artists who cannot profit.
One hundred years ago, Pablo Picasso changed the art world. He also terrorized his wife and children.
Oscar Wilde gave us “A Picture of Dorian Gray.” He also had troubling relationships with impoverished young boys.
Richard Wagner composed overwhelming operas. He also was anti-Semitic.
With these artists, I do not have to worry about voting with my dollar. But maybe I can make this excuse because they are dead, their victims long gone. If I download “Thriller” on iTunes, Michael Jackson cannot benefit. However, his foundation — his legacy — can. His victims still suffer.
Now, let’s consider the medium.
Books, paintings, songs — these works are personal to the artist. A movie is a production, made by many. Sure, Weinstein produced “Good Will Hunting,” but the film was directed by Gus Van Sant, written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck and made famous by Robin Williams. Is it still tainted?
As a biographer, Steve Paul told me he also struggles with separating the artist from the art.
“But you know, you read Hemingway for his work, not for his biography,” he said. “You look at Picasso for the revolution of his artwork, not for his biography.
“We hold our nose a lot at all sorts of things in the art world. Show me an artist who was a wonderful, generous, beautiful person,” Paul paused. “Well, I’m sure there were plenty of them.
“But you find it in sports,” he continued. “We’re struggling with football players who are domestic abusers…”
And on we went. These conversations spiral until we start to ask ourselves, who can we love? What can we read? watch? enjoy? Where does it end? Maybe, to preserve art, we must ignore all context.
And yet, Paul’s book offered insight into Hemingway’s particular way of seeing — and sharing — the world. I read the cards in museums. I care what’s “behind the music.”
Context matters. It matters when humans hurt other humans.
Art’s effect on us is not simple or rational, though: It’s deeply emotional.
I cannot decide for you, nor you for me. We can accept the artist’s context and decide how to approach their art for ourselves. But let’s not ignore the question. To suggest there is no issue strips what is most vital about art: its humanity.