In a September 8 editorial objecting to “Can’t Jail the Spirit,” the Portland Press Herald
laid out what the paper’s top executives appear to think should be a standard for allowing the inclusion of controversial artists in academic discourse. The editorial ended with the statement: “It’s almost irrelevant to ask whether Manning’s work meets objective standards of artistic merit. When the hand that wields the brush is covered in blood, it indelibly stains whatever it touches.”
Such a sweeping policy would seem to preclude some important artists. Here are just a few:
The psychological realism of his work, and his ability to paint dramatic moments, made CARAVAGGIO (1571-1610) one of the first great practitioners of the Baroque school. A resolute drunk and brawler, in 1606 he killed a young man named Ranuccio Tomassoni in a sword fight after a tennis match. Caravaggio produced some of the most important pieces of his short career after murdering Tomassoni, often depicting religious scenes in paintings like Entombment, Death of the Virgin, and Conversion of Saint Paul.
Triumph of the Will
Auteur LENI RIEFENSTAHL
(1902-2003) wore a Waffen SS uniform when she entered Poland with the invading German Army in 1939, and was present at the September 12, 1939, deaths of 30 civilians who were executed in the town of Kolskie in retaliation for attacks on German soldiers. Riefenstahl complained about the atrocity in a subsequent audience with Hitler, but recovered her élan in time to film her patron’s victory parade in Warsaw, on October 6 that year. To reduce chances of assassination, the Germans took more than 400 hostages; among them were several high-profile professors of Warsaw University. Riefenstahl’s documentary about the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, Triumph of the Will
, is widely considered a masterpiece of propaganda.
Not only was EZRA POUND
(1885-1972) a pillar of modern poetry who probably did more than any other to define the poetic school of Imagism, he also somehow found the time to moonlight as an anti-Semitic propagandist for Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, denouncing the Allies in newspapers and on the radio. After Pound turned himself over to American forces in May 1945, he was held at a prison camp outside Pisa, Italy. The verse he fashioned there became The Pisan Cantos
, which in 1948 was awarded the inaugural Bollingen Prize by the Library of Congress, even as Pound was confined to a Washington, DC, insane asylum, and generally despised by the American public.
Caravaggio’s aside, the careers of Pound and Riefenstahl were forever tinged by their political associations. While those controversies continue today, their art still lives.