Drawing the Line: What to Do with the Work of Immoral Artists from Museums to the Movies by Erich Hatala Matthes

“For most of my life,” Erich Hatala Matthes says in his introduction, “I’ve thought of Love and Death as my favourite movie.” As a “philosophy-minded adolescent” who went on to become a professor, he was drawn to its philosophical discussions and referential comedy. But when Woody Allen married his ex-partner’s daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, and was accused of molesting his daughter Dylan Farrow, then seven years old, his feelings changed. Now when he thinks about Allen’s films he feels “confusion, anger, and betrayal”.

What should he do with these feelings? Can he despise the creator but still love the film? Do the moral lives of artists affect the quality of their work? Should we stop engaging with art produced by people who do bad things? And where, to quote the title, which is itself a quote from GK Chesterton, do you draw the line? Hatala Matthes’s book aims to give us the tools to make these decisions.

In the age of Twitter mobs, discussions about morality and art have been co-opted in the culture wars. Government ministers claim that “Western values” are under threat from “woke ideology”. One of the most successful children’s authors in history has been “canceled” by her fans. And also, apparently, by The New York Times, which recently suggested in an ad campaign that it was keen to attract readers who like to “imagine Harry Potter without its creator”. An award-winning poet accused of racism has to save her books from being pulped. Meanwhile a comedian makes jokes about “gypsies” and the Holocaust and a packed venue laughs.

The New York Times recently suggested in an ad campaign that it was keen to attract readers who like to “imagine Harry Potter without its creator.”

Most of these discussions have been conducted at the extremes, but Hatala Matthes wants to bring more nuance. What makes his perspective particularly interesting is that he’s both a philosopher (he teaches at Wellesley College, Massachusetts) and a millennial.

He’s so keen to be inclusive that he includes “a special shout-out” to the students who gave detailed feedback on his book. His writing is accessible and so chummy that it sometimes reads like a blog. But the ideas are complex. Philosophy is complex. Although the prose is lucid, I felt I had to read it twice.

The Questions

Hatala Matthes starts with a striking example. “Imagine it’s 1994,” he says. “You probably didn’t even have internet access,” so “you’re killing time listening to the radio.” On comes the pop/R&B artist Aaliyah singing the song “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number.” Later “you learn that Aaliyah is 15” and the song “was written and produced by a 27-year-old man to whom Aaliyah is secretly married”. He’s the superstar musician R Kelly, who goes on to be convicted of sex trafficking, kidnapping and the sexual exploitation of children. That’s relevant to the song Aaliyah is singing. But does it make the song bad?

Can an artwork be morally bad?

Are Hitler’s paintings morally bad?

What about Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, a paean to Hitler often claimed as a masterpiece?

The Answers(ish)

In tackling these questions Hatala Matthes takes us through potential approaches.

There’s the “normative” approach, which argues that the “ethical flaws of a work” can undermine the aesthetic response it’s aiming for.

There’s the “descriptive” approach, where the moral flaws of an artist can inhibit our ability to engage with the work.

There’s “immoralism”, where the moral flaws in an artwork “present an artistic problem for the artist to solve” and so can actually make it better. Hatala Mattes reminds us of Hannibal Lecter’s joke about eating the psychologist in the film The Silence of the Lambs. “We all share a wicked grin,” he says, “as Lecter strolls off in pursuit of his vengeance and his meal.”

In the second chapter — “Complicity and Solidarity” — he explores whether it’s wrong to enjoy the work of immoral artists. Yet again the answer seems to be: it’s complicated, and an awful lot depends on context.

Is it OK to listen to Michael Jackson in the privacy of your room? Is there such a thing as privacy anymore, when even people’s playlists are public? How do you show your disapproval for an artist and what exactly are you hoping to achieve?

What makes the author’s perspective particularly interesting is that he’s both a philosopher (he teaches at Wellesley College, Massachusetts) and a millennial.

Hatala Matthes is thorough, nuanced and thoughtful throughout, but the very phrase “immoral artists” highlights the challenge he has taken on. In today’s cultural mores there appear to be some clear parameters about what makes people “immoral”: sexual exploitation, racism, colonialism, homophobia and, of course, transphobia. But what about financial exploitation? Cruelty to families or spouses? Bad parenting? Where does it stop?

Hatala Matthes never suggests that these lines are easy to draw, but he is a man of his generation. He says, for example, that some of JK Rowling’s tweets are “misinformed”, “bigoted” and “discriminatory towards trans and gender nonconforming people”. He supports the fan clubs that have issued statements distancing themselves from her views. He is keen, in other words, for transgressors to be re-educated. He doesn’t seem to allow for the possibility that intelligent, thoughtful and, yes, “moral” people might take a different view.

He mentions philosophers who talk about “moral outrage porn”, but only in passing. I wanted to hear more about this, since it seems to be such a prominent feature of our moral landscape.

I also wanted to hear more about older literature and art. How should we respond to Nabokov’s Lolita? What would keyboard warriors make of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal? How do we keep satire alive in an age of trigger warnings?

Drawing the Line is a clear, lively exploration of an extremely important issue. It doesn’t aim to be definitive, but it left me wanting more. It also made me want to sit down with a glass of wine and rewatch Love and Death.

Christina Patterson covers culture, politics, and the arts for The Guardian and The Times of London