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James and the Giant Question: Should We Cancel Roald Dahl?
Do Artists’ Moral Failings Mean We Shouldn’t Enjoy Their Work? Reviewing ‘Drawing the Line’ by Erich Hatala Matthes
I’ve read Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach to my four oldest kids and plan to read it to my youngest as soon as she can follow the story. (It’s a bit early; she just turned four.) They all loved the book and laughed hysterically at its edgy, subversive humor, especially the Centipede: “I am a pest!”
Then there was The Fantastic Mr. Fox on audiobook during rides to school. My youngest son laughed himself hoarse every morning before the bell rang. You can be sure I did more than smile. Despite current handwringing about their language, Dahl’s books are completely delightful.
That is, until you discover he was an antisemite. When asked, Dahl would publicly rattle on about Jewish bankers, media monopoly, and more. As readers, what’s the right response?
The Problem with Problematic Artists
“Seeing [Dahl’s] work still celebrated fills me with sadness,” says David Perry, a historian and coauthor of a book I greatly enjoyed last year, The Bright Ages. Perry steers his kids away from Dahl’s stories. Why? “I know that Roald Dahl hated Jewish people like me.”
I’m sympathetic to Perry’s response—seems impossible not to be. But after reading Drawing the Line: What to Do with the Work of Immoral Artists from Museums to the Movies by philosopher Erich Hatala Matthes, I’m also aware it’s neither the inevitable, nor only, response. Matthes covers the Dahl situation, but his scope is far wider. His rogues gallery includes Woody Allen, R. Kelly, Louis C.K., Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, Roman Polanski, Harvey Weinstein, and many others.
The book’s title comes from G.K. Chesterton’s bon mot: “Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere.” But where, exactly? In his brief, tightly argued book, Matthes shows our go-to judgments are not as robust or straightforward as they might seem.
“For most of my life,” he says in his opening example, “I’ve thought of Love and Death as my favorite movie.” Unfamiliar with it? Matthes fills in the details:
It’s a 1975 satire about Russian literature featuring humor that runs the gamut from highbrow referential comedy, to slapstick, to what could only be described as dad jokes. It’s also full of explicitly philosophical discussions, so as a philosophy-minded adolescent who went on to become a philosophy professor, I was no doubt predisposed to like it.
So what’s the problem? “Love and Death stars, and is written and directed by, Woody Allen.” There’s no need to rehearse the details here; to understand the complication we can merely mention, as Matthes does, Allen’s “reputation for having a deeply unsavory moral character.”
I get the conundrum. I’ve enjoyed many of Allen’s quirky movies over the years. Though I haven’t seen it since it came out in 1999, to this day I still recall Sweet and Lowdown every couple of months. It’s a brilliant bit of storytelling. And Sean Penn and Samantha Morton both received Oscar nominations for their performances. But then ... Woody Allen. I always feel an odd mentioning the movie to people, like I need to apologize for referencing it.
Good Art, Bad Artists
How should we think about art we love from artists whose behavior or beliefs we loathe? Matthes builds his book around four questions. I want to focus on two. First, “do immoral artists make worse art?” Second, “is it wrong to enjoy the work of immoral artists?”
The answer to the first seems an obvious no. If we loathed both the art and the artist’s behavior and beliefs, we’d move on to something better. But what if the artist has created something of superior quality? The challenge, says Matthes, is that there’s a difference between the aesthetic and the ethical; we can’t assume failure in one translates to failure in the other. There’s a lot of good art by bad people, and bad art by good people (hence Flannery O’Connor’s complaint about contemporary Catholic novelists).
Sometimes the categories overlap and an artist’s ethical stance bears directly on the audience’s interpretation of the art. It’s hard, for instance, to hear Louis C.K. joke about sexual indiscretions; his ethical choices render that subject aesthetically fraught. Same, as Matthes notes, with R. Kelly’s song, “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number”; the district attorney begs to differ, and the rest of us just cringe.
But with those examples in mind, go back to Dahl. There’s nothing in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or any other of Dahl kid’s stories that telegraphs his antisemitic beliefs. And the works themselves make for exemplary children’s literature. Dahl was a bigot; George’s Marvelous Medicine is also a hoot. Both statements are true.
So if good art by bad artists passes aesthetic muster, what then? Is it okay to enjoy, given known defects in the creators’ character?
Complicity and Solidarity
Matthes offers a twin framework for answering this second question. There is, on the one hand, the issue of complicity. If we enjoy the work of immoral artists, are we somehow complicit in their immorality? It turns out any direct or meaningful complicity is tough to demonstrate.
Reading The Enormous Crocodile provides no material support for antisemitism. Dahl’s dead, and the financial beneficiaries of his work publicly repudiate his views; what’s more, there are countless copies of Dahl books on the used market that contribute nothing to his estate anyway.
Even in the case of living artists, such as Woody Allen or R. Kelly, any financial gains they accrue from ongoing interest in their work ranges on a consumer-by-consumer basis from zero (e.g., used copies already in the marketplace) to infinitesimally marginal (e.g., Spotify pays artists about a third of a cent per stream).
We might imagine enjoying such art offers a form of moral support. But if the artist’s offenses are incidental to the art, that can backfire and ultimately weakens the concept of complicity itself.
On the other hand, there’s the idea of solidarity. It might make sense to distance oneself from certain artist out of solidarity with an aggrieved person or community. But I don’t think there’s a universal standard we could draw here. Perry and Matthes are both thoughtful people, and they disagree on Dahl. I’d wager they’d disagree on even more if they sat and talked.
That’s normal, even commendable. We live in a necessarily pluralistic society in which sensitivities, affections, and allegiances differ person to person. This is especially true in the case of art. What does any particular book, song, painting, or statue mean? Art requires interpretation, and that naturally reflects differences of opinion—differences that only multiply when we further factor the moral character of the artist.
Up for Debate
What goes into a book is the author’s; what comes out of the book is the reader’s. Readers, viewers, listeners, and fans of all sorts are free to take what they want from an artist’s work. In some very real sense, the work ceases to be the artist’s the moment it’s released, displayed, or published. Instead, it belongs to the public to appreciate or argue about however its members choose.
This exchange can take many shapes. It might look like reasonable, good-faith conversation, or it could resemble the sort of rancorous, manichaean shouting matches about book banning and cancelation to which we’re increasingly treated (lucky us).
We’re likely to get more of the latter if we can’t find better ways to deal with our disagreements. Thankfully, through these and other questions Matthes’s book provides us with useful framing for constructive debate.
As a father, I want to close with this: Dahl’s prejudices warrant all the scorn they receive. But children aren’t served by sheltering them from moral difficulties; they have to learn to draw the line for themselves. One fact of life worth wrestling with early on is that people are neither wholly good, nor wholly bad—same with their impact in the world. Better to learn to take the good and leave the bad than sweep it all out of sight and hope children develop their moral reasoning by other means. A couple of Roald Dahl titles might be the perfect vehicle for the lesson.
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