Reward the art, don’t flay the artist

The year 1954 heralded a new era of tolerance and compassion when the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize for literature to one of the most compelling authors of our time — “a genius of many sensibilities” — whose public image, however, was associated with the bull rings of Spain and the bistros of Paris; or, with hunting and fishing and drinking and gambling.

A writer, whose deceptively simple prose eclipsed almost every other writer of his generation, was not exactly a paragon of virtue — with daredevilry and womanising being his other passions.

But who cared? The lyricism and eloquence of his narrations, which spanned 15 novels, 88 poems and over 100 short stories, in an unmatched style all his own, won him accolades, to be finally crowned by the Nobel committee’s brief but telling tribute — “one of the great authors of our time.”

Ernest Hemingway is the darkest spot in the Swedish Academy’s gallery of great achievers. This husky, brawling man who loved “the booze, the boats and the broads” could hardly fit into that stately arcade of illustrious men and women. He is also its best representation of an unbiased, unashamed acknowledgement that an artist’s life need not obscure his artistic achievement.

On the other hand, that same life may be the trigger for his artistic creations. One cannot get away from the truth that an artist’s life is inexplicably linked to his work. After all, Hemingway’s best writing came from personal experiences.

An illicit love affair with a nurse in Milan inspired his maiden novel “A farewell to arms,” just as his hunting adventures in the plains of Africa or the gulf streams of Cuba produced masterpieces like “The snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Old man and the sea”, which left the Swedish Academy gasping.

Now, 65 years later, when society is supposed to be more charitable to those who walk the road less travelled, the Nobel Prize for Literature has come under the scanner, with women’s voices clamouring for the dissolution of the board that selected this year’s prize winner, who is said to be involved in a sex scandal.

Jean-Claude Arnault, a reputed photographer and cultural ambassador of international recognition, was identified as the latest recipient of the prestigious award. A damaging newspaper report, however, ended his brief tryst with fame, with 18 women accusing him of sexual misconduct. A stunned Nobel Foundation advised the Swedish Academy to investigate the matter which threatened the reputation of the prestigious prize.

Consequently, the Swedish Academy commissioned a law firm to investigate the allegations. The case collapsed due to lack of proper evidence. Now, the #MeToo campaign on social media protesting against the judgement has resulted in the cancellation of this year’s Nobel prize for literature.

Dogged by controversies

I wonder how Alfred Nobel would have reacted to all this. Founded in 1786, “for the greatest benefit to mankind”, the Nobel Prize has always been dogged by controversies, but none like the present one, which raises the question: is the personal life of an artist more significant than his art?

Or, more importantly, should an artist’s personal life decide our appreciation of his art? How many illustrious poets, musicians, authors or painters would fall by the wayside if we let their lives take precedence over their work.

Thankfully, we are not living in the 19th century, when society saw nothing wrong in imprisoning and torturing a brilliant playwright for “gross indecency” simply because he was a homosexual.

Oscar Wilde’s tragic life is a testimony to the hypocrisy of social values. If we believe in these, we must discard the incandescent poetry of Shelley, the timeless paintings of a Van Gogh or, nearer home, the brilliant satire of a TP Kailasam because their authors did not conform to the dictates of an uncharitable and hypocritical society.

Even Nobel Laureates in other disciplines may fall short in many respects if the Swedish Academy chose to place their personal lives under the microscope.

We have had musicians, writers and film stars in this country whose private lives veered off the beaten track. Sometimes, shockingly so. They were even “unmentionable” in polite circles. But, should that make us spurn their music, their books or their films? Should we examine every artist’s private life before appreciating his/her art? Awards, prizes and titles like the much coveted one of “Sangeetha Kalanidhi” would not have found any takers by this yardstick.

It is true that some of our most gifted artists succumbed to debauchery and dissipation. Some turned alcoholic and ended their lives tragically. But, their magical creations have survived. As that much maligned and misunderstood genius Mozart sadly confessed: “I am a vulgar man, but I assure you my music is not!”

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Reward the art, don’t flay the artist

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