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The dark history behind letting male “geniuses” get away with bad behavior

No, artists aren’t “above the rules.” You’re just reading too much Byron.

(l-r) Lord Byron, Harvey Weinstein, Roman Polanski.
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In the wake of the ongoing Harvey Weinstein scandal, the novelist Emma Cline wrote a piece for New York magazine about her own experience of harassment in the literary field.

"An older writer introduced himself,” she wrote. “I imagined, for a moment, that maybe he saw me as a fellow writer. When someone gestured for us to stand together for a photograph, the writer put his hand on my back, then dropped it lower to grab my ass; how swiftly I was returned to my body, to the fact of my youth and gender.”

Cline goes on to talk about myriad other instances of harassment in the literary world, including the unnamed “head of a literary organization” who implicitly offers to trade access to influential big names.

Cline is far from alone. The #MeToo campaign has brought together women from all walks of life, from every occupational field. But the arts — literature, theater, film, and so on — have proven particularly fertile ground for sexual misconduct.

Part of this is the way these industries are structured; often the arts lack the more obvious hierarchical nature that come with corporate America, like HR departments and formal codes of conduct, making it potentially difficult for bad behavior to simply slip through the cracks. But part of the problem, too, is cultural. All too often, artistic expression — and artistic freedom — has doubled as a kind of smokescreen for self-indulgent behavior: The erotic feelings art and artistic collaboration evokes in (usually) men is so deep-seated, so powerful that they cannot help (they say) but succumb to their urges.

Harvey Weinstein’s status as a studio executive — “the money,” in other words — meant that the power he exerted, and the threats he was able to make, were often transactional in nature: Do this, or I’ll ruin your career. But the Weinstein scandal has opened the floodgates of women willing to talk about harassment in the arts more broadly. And in many cases, the implicit assumptions underlying harassment are far less clear-cut. Artistic “vision” can often legitimize bad male behavior as much as, if not more than, financial clout.

Earlier this year, Bonnie Nadzam wrote an essay for Tin House, Experts in the Field,” that captured this dynamic particularly incisively. She writes of a series of older male writer-mentors for whom literary guidance and erotic impulse are inseparable. One tells Nadzam, “an early draft of my first novel was so good it made [him] want to sleep with me.”

In a follow-up piece in LitHub, other women writers echoed Nadzam’s experience. "When these men,” writes Elissa Schappell, “who trace their privilege to being the sons of Mailer, Updike, and Hemingway, behave inappropriately (for example, make sexual comments about your body in public, offer to get your colleague fired if you take off your clothes, kiss you, put a hand on your ass…) the culture accepts that they are just performing their vocation and their gender."

It’s a story I find familiar. When I was in my very early 20s, an older man in a position of professional authority over my writing described his feelings in words unnervingly similar to those Nadzam heard. “As soon as I read your novel, I knew I had to sleep with you.” He didn’t manage that, but he pressed his point — some writers, he said, were like the Romantic poet Lord Byron, or the pianist Franz Liszt, whose artistic genius simply made people fall in love with them. (“I just want to be inside your genius,” he explained, earnestly).

The true artist was, in some sense, transcendent of the kind of bourgeois, corporate norms that might, in another atmosphere, fall under the category of “harassment.”

Now, I don’t doubt for a second that there is something innately, inherently, erotic about language, or art more generally. Self-expression and communication are acts through which we trade in both power and vulnerability, the proportions of which form the basis of most sexual frissons. The thinking goes that art is so powerful, that the artist is, through his art, so very liberated, that norms of compassionate or ethical human conduct do not apply.

The convenient narrative by which male artists are able to claim that this case of seducing a young female artist is so special that it is unlike all the others that have come before it, or will come after, is exactly that — convenient. Not only is this untrue in a moral sense, it’s also historically untrue.

The artist wasn’t always so “above the rules”

The cultural idea that the artist is somehow spiritually above the rules of common conduct — particularly when it comes to sexual mores — is relatively recent. While artists might have been associated with immorality in their personal lives (hence why, say, for centuries women were prohibited from acting onstage, lest they be exposed to the sexual corruption of the theatrical world), the culturally pervasive idea that artists shouldn’t even be bound by morality is more recent.

It arose as part of a wider cult of individuality that characterized the Romantic era of the early 19th century in continental Europe; a backlash to the more formal, rational Enlightenment era.

Before that, while you might have found an individual artist or writer who exhibited those qualities, or who chose to embrace subversion through satire or through scandal, the “countercultural artist” was hardly a cultural phenomenon or a stereotype. A poet or artist was far more likely to uphold the values of society — often through the prism political or court patronage, given that those in political power were often funding said art — rather than subvert it.

To name just a handful of examples, Virgil, author of Roman epic The Aeneid, wrote one of the greatest poems of all time as a paean, in part, to his patron Caesar Augustus. The Aeneid was a coded celebration of the triumph of “order” (and, Virgil implied, Caesar himself) over chaos. Several hundred years later, Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queen upheld similarly conservative values: as an exploration of chivalric virtues that doubles as praise of Queen Elizabeth I, by whom he was funded.

Meanwhile, in the field of visual arts, the great Renaissance artists including Michelangelo and Botticelli likewise created art that upheld the values of their patrons, including the Catholic Church, and their world. These writers and artists may not have agreed with everything about their patrons, or their society more broadly, but they were not “countercultural” in the sense we might think of it today.

All that changed in the 19th century. Straining against the formal dictates of classicism’s ideology of control and moderation, the Romantics became, in essence, the modern world’s first true “countercultural” movement. Poets like the German Friedrich Schlegel celebrated individuality, and celebrated art as a kind of pinnacle of individual self-expression of personal genius. Schlegel believed in "a single absolute law: the free spirit always triumphs over nature.”

Late 18th century Romantic poet Samuel Coleridge went even further, basically treating artistic expression as an act that made human beings God-like, since what could be more divine than acting as creators? The idea of genius, as a singular quality belonging to truly special, “chosen,” artists, came into fashion during this time. Coleridge, in his Biographia Litteraria, upheld the "self-sufficing power of absolute Genius” as far superior to, say, talent or hard work. The genius was such a special, such a singular, such a divine being, that he (and it was usually a he) transcended the moral world order.

The job of the artist, by and large, became not to make sense of or uphold the predominant culture, but to exist as a solitary genius outside of or even defying it. It’s telling, for example, that for centuries, the best-loved and most critically well-received of Shakespeare’s plays were his histories: stories of England through its various good, bad, and flawed kings. In the Romantic era, however, critics “re-discovered” Hamlet as Shakespeare’s “best” play, interpreting it not as a story of madness but rather the psychologically complex story of a tortured outsider unsure of how to make his way in the world. It’s a critical perception that persists in modern culture to this day. (“I have a smack of Hamlet myself, if I may say so,” Coleridge said, and plenty other writers, relating to his tortured inwardness, agree).

Lord Byron changed what we let “artists” get away with

Still, no one writer was more influential on how we think of art today than Lord Byron. “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” as one ex-lover called him, with well documented propensities for drugs, young women, young men, and incest, Byron exemplified in his life and work alike the kind of bad-boy, womanizing, countercultural ethos that is now all but synonymous with being a “tortured artist.”

Jacques Barzun, writing in the Atlantic in the 1950s of Byron’s influence, gives a (truncated) rundown of the great writers influenced by that trope: “From Goethe, Pushkin, Stendhal, Heine, Balzac, Scott, Carlyle, Mazzini, Leopardi, Berlioz, George Sand, and Delacroix down to Flaubert, Tennyson, Ruskin, the Brontës, Baudelaire, Becque, Nietzsche, Wilde, and Strindberg, one can scarcely name a writer who did not come under the spell of Byronism and turn it to some use in his own life or work.”

The “Byronic anti-hero” has endured, from the tormented, disaffected Pechorin of Russian Romantic Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time to the Draco in Leather Pants of Harry Potter fanfiction. While not all of these characters were artists themselves, they all possessed the Byronic idea of specialness or genius — they were men somehow set apart from normal society, and normal society’s rules, by their intelligence, creativity, and powers of observation.

Of course, sex was part of, if not inseparable from, this mystique. Byron himself, as well as the “Byronic” characters that entered pop culture seduced with reckless abandon and an utter lack of regard for either societal pressure or, in many cases, for the desires of the women themselves. Sexual fulfillment was something these men were all but owed. These genius men were above the rules, while their conquests and victims, by contrast, are left to pick up the pieces.

While the literary culture moved on from Romanticism, our broader cultural conception of the “artist” really hasn’t. Still, as critic Frank Kermode writes, there persists the notion that “the artist is poor, immoral, and marked by an eccentricity of costume.” This idea has persisted in male artistic establishment of the 20th century and beyond — say, in the works of Philip Roth, or Norman Mailer, or any one of the controversial “masculinist” writers of the middle of the last century, or in the films Woody Allen.

It usually takes the form of the idea that sexual fulfillment is somehow something “owed” to an artist, even when (or especially when) that fulfillment takes the form of a “forbidden” younger woman has persisted. That female flesh is the reward for a male job well done is not an uncommon cultural phenomenon in any field, but in the arts, that dynamic often takes on a faux-spiritual aspect. Artists are tormented geniuses. Women (especially when they’re muses) give them what little release they can find in this cold, cruel world. Just look at the recent Darren Aronofsky film Mother!, about a tortured writer and his long-suffering wife, as one recent example of how this trope has persisted.

Kermode likewise writes about how we now see “the artist as a man of high ‘sensibility’ — feeling with remarkable intensity as a necessity of genius and here, too, is the artist as victim, that other necessary consequence.” Because he is so misunderstood by the world, because his feelings are so much stronger (and more important) than anybody else’s, the male artist simply must be gratified. He is not a harasser, in other words, he’s just overcome by the pure intensity of his artistic feeling.

This logic, too, allows men who would persist in unwanted sexual conduct in artistic settings to set up a particularly pernicious dichotomy. Resist the glamorous narrative of all-powerful art, of artistic genius, of a novel manuscript so powerful it demands harassment, and you’re throwing in your lot with the dull, bourgeois Human Resources Departments of this world.

Sure, that subtext goes, you can demand to play by the so-called “rules.” But then, what kind of an artist are you?

All narratives can change

That this particular trope is so pervasive speaks to its power. But understanding that it, like all tropes, is contingent on a particular historical place and a particular time can help negate, or at least negotiate, that power. For women in the arts, recognizing that the way we think about the intersection of literature, sex, and morality is conditioned by the society we live in helps us avoid a dangerous rhetorical trap: It’s not harassment if a Real Artist does it.

For the record, plenty of noteworthy writers don’t fall into the Byron trap, either. In 1897, writing in response — in part — to the literary trends of 19th century Europe, Leo Tolstoy wrote What is Art?, in which he tried to reconcile his radical Christianity with his aesthetics. Writing, specifically, about Christian art, he envisioned a world in which art “can evoke reverence for each man's dignity, for every animal’s life, it can evoke the shame of luxury, of violence, of revenge, of using for one’s pleasure objects that are a necessity for other people, it can make people sacrifice themselves to serve others freely and joyfully, without noticing it.”

It’s fair to accuse Tolstoy of being overly moralistic in his approach — plenty of his contemporaries did. (To be fair, he tried to take down Shakespeare.) But it’s a powerful reminder that there are options out there: that nobody, especially not men hoping to get laid, has a monopoly on what it means to be a Real Artist. Sexual manipulation is not a requisite part of artistic expression. And if history has taught us anything, it’s that how we see art, its creators, and its purpose, can change.

As Hollywood reels from the Weinstein scandal, it may have to reassess how much latitude it grants male artists and visionaries. The success of Oscar-bait indie films of The Weinstein Co., the auteur-led work of Roman Polanski or Woody Allen is predicated on the idea that “great artists” don’t have to follow the rules: an idea that a growing number of women are pointing out is more self-serving than it is idealistic.

We’ve rightly dispensed with the idea that “boys will be boys.” It’s time we throw “artists will be artists” on that trash heap, too.