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Is it unethical to acclaim the work of morally reprehensible people?


When I came across an article titled, “A Great Artist Kills his Wife–Now She’s Just a Quirky Footnote in his History,” I thought certainly it would be about Carl Andre murdering Ana Mendieta, Andre threw his wife the artist out of a high-rise window in 1985 yet was celebrated by Dia: Beacon with a retrospective last year. Or the article could’ve been about Sid Vicious, who after stabbing his girlfriend Nancy Spungen said she “fell on the knife.” Or perhaps Robert Blake, the creepiest of all actors who was acquitted of his wife’s 2001 murder. Alas, the article in question is about William Burroughs murdering his wife, the Beat poet Joan Vollmer; a story I had never heard before. Apparently Burroughs and Vollmer were playing a game of William Tell at a party, only Burroughs fatally shot Vollmer in the head. Oops.

The list of creative men doing awful things to their wives and family is a long one, yet the way in which we deal with female and family violence in mainstream media is by largely ignoring it, or chalking it up to a quirky bump in the road in the lives of important men. Leela Ginelle writes of Burroughs in the above-mentioned article “A Great Artist Kills his Wife…”:

Scholars commented on Burroughs’ paranoid, futuristic voice, his connection with Beat generation writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and his noted drug habits, all of which, along with his privileged background, make up his public face. They also spoke matter-of-factly about his shooting and killing his wife Joan Vollmer, as though it was just one more eccentric, quirky footnote in the life of a “great writer.”

For instance, Peter Schejeldahl [sic], writing in the New Yorker about the new biography Call Me Burroughs, called the shooting “the most notorious event” in Burroughs life, but passes no judgment on the matter. He describes the writer as being “devastated” by the murder, and, in a nice bit of victim blaming, repeating the theory that the death was “an indirect suicide, which (Vollmer) had willed to happen.”

This brings to mind the accusations of molestation against Woody Allen by his daughter, Dylan Farrow, who has called for a reappraisal of his work considering he is an incestuous child molester. As Ginelle writes in Bitch, Farrow was met with “a mixture of guilt and annoyance” by the public:

When Dylan Farrow’s New York Times op-ed suggested a reappraisal of Woody Allen’s films in light of her allegation that he molested her, it was met with some ambivalence. Even those who supported her asked aloud, in a mixture of guilt and annoyance, if this meant they couldn’t watch his movies anymore. Farrow had forced them to connect a male artist’s private and, allegedly, criminal acts with his creative output, and question whether their enjoyment of the latter implied a condoning of the former. In doing so, she broke with centuries of tradition.

I wish biographers would begin placing as much emphasis on the morality of artists like Burroughs’ actions toward the people in their lives, and the place of those actions within our all too hidden culture of patriarchal violence, as they do extolling the aesthetics of their creations.

If they would start, it wouldn’t feel so novel when people like Farrow did so with Allen, or when rock critic Jim Derogatis asked listeners to reconsider R. Kelly’s work in the light of his alleged crimes against underage girls.

This begs the question: to what extent do we connect creative producers’ personal lives–however unethical–with their work? What cognitive dissonance must we display in order to continue enjoying the films and music of child molesters, or the artwork of murderers? On a personal level, I became thoroughly uninterested in watching Woody Allen movies after Farrow’s op-ed, but on another hand, I find it a slippery slope to connect personal judgments with aesthetic or professional ones. I also find it a loathesome idea to purchase or in any other way support the work of a murderer or child molester and put more money in their hands.

Your thoughts?

*Image caption: WS Burroughs and Joan Vollmer, East Texas, August 1947. c Allen Ginsberg Estate via


Dear Karen,

Though the root of your question is an important one, and certainly not new, the body in which you deliver it seems to lack some accountability. The question of how one approaches the work or legacy of an individual who has been deemed “ethically questionable” is an ongoing one with little reconciliation. I am reminded of attempts to discredit the value of Foucault’s work when it was reported that he many have knowingly had unprotected sex after being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Similar attempts have lodged against Thomas Mann for his lack of resistance against Nazi oppression well into the Second World War (while his children where some its most active and vocal opponents)- Not to mention the ethical murk of Heidegger’s direct complicity with the aforementioned party. Wagner was no better, nor Celine. Caravaggio was a know murderer. Picasso treated women abhorrently. The list goes on and on, and though I have only sited men, it is not exclusive to that gender. It seems that bad people often make beautiful and important things. Human beings almost always bridge the ethical divide in their own action. Of course the degree to which, is the character of the concern. How we reconcile that schism remains a question, and will likely be one for some time.

My direct issue, which has possessed me to take the time of a response, is carried by two of your examples.

The case of Carl Andre and Anna Mendieta has been thrown up countless times since that fateful evening. I’ve never heard it told in a way that is devoid of bias - or in a way that accounts for the few known facts. Andre was tried and acquitted for Mendieta’s death. I haven’t read the
transcripts to the trial (I expect few who call it murder have) but it’s a fair presumption the jury heard/ knew far more than most, and that their judgement was reasonable. It is true that Mendieta was a great artist, and sinfully neglected, but that neglect began long before her untimely death, and thus should be disassociated from it. It was the result of a paradigm shift within art world priorities and conceptual thought which marked the transition from the 1970’s to the 80’s. What is also often omitted is that both Mendieta and Andre were very volatile personalities, and raging alcoholics at the time. They were both blind drunk that evening. No one who was outside of the room knows what happened, and given his state on that night, I doubt Andre does either. What I can tell you, is that I’ve been in the apt where it happened, and pushing someone out of one of those windows would not be easy. “Throwing” would be nearly impossible. Though I don’t know what happened, and can not account for Andre’s actions, it is ethically questionable and manipulative to use the example without accounting for the full range of facts.

In the case of Joan Burroughs, again people love to jump
on that one, but always omit the fact that most accounts state that she put the
apple on her own head, and told WB to shoot. It doesn’t excuse his
actions, but it does change the story a little… and present it in a different light.

-Bradford Bailey


I think the question could be easily turned around and inverted: Is it unethical to expect that artists’ live up to a public image of morality? A culture associating praise for morality and praise for the talent of an artist automatically and quickly plunges artists into a new level of compulsory extraversion and the neoliberal marketing of character. Forcing artists to show that they are good or kind citizens would amount to a culture of smear-journalism. Such a moralist meritocracy would allow a misinformed and misled public into making similar demands of artists as are required of politicians campaigning for public office. A politician is typically expected to project morality, in the United States both Obama and Trump are under pressure to tell a press conference of their preferred Bible verses, to be seen as ‘‘family men’’ or good with children. Expecting morality to coincide with praise for work leads to total decadence.
Here is a quote from Susan Sontag’s “Fascinating Fascism”: Part of the impetus behind Riefenstahl’s recent promotion to the status of a cultural monument surely is owing to the fact that she is a woman. In the roll call that runs from Germaine Dulac and Dorothy Arzner to Vera Chytilova, Agnès Varda, Mai Zetterling, Shirley Clarke, et al., Riefenstahl stands out as the only woman director who has done work likely to turn up on lists of the Twenty Greatest Films Of All Time. The 1973 New York Film Festival poster, made by a well-known artist who is also a feminist, shows a blond doll-woman whose right breast is encircled by three names: Agnes Leni Shirley. Feminists would feel a pang at having to sacrifice the one woman who made films that everybody acknowledges to be firstrate."
Sontag defends and repudiates Leni Riefenstahl–the Jewish American intellectual is able to admit to the quality and power of Riefenstahl’s movies, without ever allowing the feminists to let Riefenstahl off the hook for her direct involvement in Nazism in the Gestapo’s Propaganda Ministry.