Guilty pleasures? For women that’s most of our culture.
From John Martyn and Lars von Trier to Woody Allen and William Burroughs, women must deal with ‘problematic’ artists on a daily basis
One of the things I hate is the idea of “guilty pleasures” – especially about music. It is so blokey and always comes down to some guy liking something that is a vaguely different genre from the one he is associated with. I always remember Slash saying his guilty pleasure was Rihanna. What? Rihanna is a goddess. Also, no one is actually truthful. None of these people are blasting out Gary Glitter singles at a disco. How guilty is their pleasure, really?
For women, much of culture is, in some shape or form, always guilty. Surprisingly, I don’t live in a separatist commune and much of what I like has been produced by men of dubious morality, to say the least. Separating the art from the artist is not only a subject of intellectual debate, but a physical reaction. When you hear James Brown, you want to dance. Sure, I would prefer great art to be made by people who adhere to my own personal belief system and who are kind to those around them. But I know this not to be the case.
When the wonderful Tracey Thorn was on Desert Island Discs recently, she picked Solid Air by John Martyn. Superb. I would have trouble selecting just one John Martyn track. I used to love seeing him. I also know he was a violent, abusive man. Beverly Martyn, his wife, once wrote: “Over the years, I received a broken nose, a fractured inner ear and hairline fractures of the skull. One night, he smashed a chair over me and my arm was damaged when I put it up to protect my head from the force of the blow. He wouldn’t let me even call a doctor, let alone go to the hospital.” She said those around him knew what going on, could hear her screaming, but he was the great John Martyn, off his head on drugs and booze and yet able to write the most tender of love songs. I still listen to him. I still think William Burroughs, who shot his wife “accidentally”, is a brilliant writer, but I try to gauge my own reactions, and how they change over the years.
Nick Cave writing about murdering women is somehow acceptable to me – but after the allegations against Woody Allen (which he denies) I can no longer watch his films. Hitchcock abused his female actors but I will watch his work, while Bernardo Bertolucci is unbearable to me now. Reading Lars von Trier’s latest interview made me question all this again. He is so messed up (so would I be if I had to grow up in rule-bound Denmark). He also faces allegations of sexual harassment (which he denies). But do I think he has made some brilliant films, as well as some execrable ones? Absolutely. Yes, I do.
Walking this tightrope is simply what it means to have a politicised female sensibility. As much as I love Hannah Gadsby, I do not share her view that we should now dismiss Pablo Picasso because of how he treated women. Still, only the other day, I was flattered to be called a snowflake, as I thought that was reserved for young people. I first heard that term in Fight Club. Another great film … ?
You see, the culture in which we immerse ourselves is a minefield of racism and misogyny. Learn from it. Don’t try to sanitise it … Can you love something that depicts hatred? Yes, sometimes you can and yes, sometimes this is the way that hatred is internalised. Fine lines. But the answer is not for women to refuse manmade art, it is instead to see that women too – from Paula Rego to Julia Davies to Elena Ferrante – can depict women who are as intriguing and complicated and as monstrous as men. Such women feel no guilt at all. The solution to art that is “problematic” is not to ban it, but to learn from it and make more art. Darkness is not the province of the masculine. Can you separate the life from art? Yes, and this is not an innate gendered quality. We do not need to feel guilty about our pleasures.
3 December 2018