The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Great art isn’t always made by good people, but this is getting ridiculous

Nicholas Nixon, in a 2010 photo at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, retired last month as a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. (Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Perhaps because I have fallen in love with the work of so many writers and artists who were less than great moral role models, I spend a lot of time — perhaps too much — trying to keep aesthetics and ethics apart in my mind. I haven’t wanted to fall into the naivete of expecting great art to be made by good people.

This stance has occasionally made me feel mature, worldly, wised up, like a Gauloise-smoking European rolling his eyes at America’s hang-up with moral purity, its obsession with what has lately been called “virtue signaling.”

But today I am feeling naive.

When I read about the alleged behavior of the photographer Nicholas Nixon with his students, I was, like countless others, dismayed. Nixon, 70, one of America’s best-known photographers, retired last month from a long-term position as a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. I had only recently written glowing things about his work. I had once or twice conversed about art with him. I found him to be sympathetic, sensitive and humane.

Honestly, I didn’t need him to be. I have had poignant, memorable conversations with other artists who were far from being moral exemplars. And many, maybe even most, of my favorite artists from eras past seem to have been, by today’s standards, moral train wrecks.

But my impression of Nixon as a person somehow consolidated my sense that his work, too, was deeply humane. Was I wrong?

I am at a loss.

Thousands, possibly millions, of people have been transfixed by and even wept in front of Nixon’s photographs of his wife and her three sisters, taken annually for four decades, and shown around the world. Others have been deeply moved by his photographs of AIDS patients, of blind schoolchildren, of Nixon’s own family and so on.

His photographs seem so full of compassion and empathy and dignity and of something close to love. They seem wise, and good, and . . . and . . . And now, I, like his other admirers, must square them with reports of him asking students to analyze pictures of his penis, getting his students to pose nude and recounting erotic dreams about them in emails. It’s too much.

The Nixon news comes on top of revelations about heroes of contemporary culture, from conductor James Levine to architect Richard Meier, that have been triggered by the #MeToo movement. The shame that so often gets displaced and cruelly heaped on victims is now falling squarely where it belongs: on powerful men who apparently can’t control themselves.

Tolstoy was smart on the subject of the moral fiber of artists. In the 1870s, Tolstoy’s contemporaries were beginning to claim that with religion on the wane, art should take its place and that artists should take over from priests as moral and spiritual guides.

Tolstoy wasn’t buying it. “How could artists, who in his experience were usually bad and immoral people, act as moral guides to humankind?”

I laughed when I read this in an essay on Tolstoy by J.M. Coetzee. Tolstoy was so right.

I’ve never wanted to excuse immoral behavior in artists, but I’ve never been particularly surprised by it either. Why not?

There’s no simple answer. My instinct is just that much of the power of art comes from artists’ ability to address truth and reality from outside the framework of conventional morality. We often don’t want to admit — modern liberals in particular don’t like to admit — that our contemporary codes of morality are narrower and more blinkered than they appear from within.

Art can remind us of this. It is often at its most powerful when in revolt against what bohemians and Marxists alike call “bourgeois morality.” And it can remind us that although moral codes keep changing, the big themes — sex and power and birth and death — are fairly constant. These themes — our shared human truths — can be tough and chewy and are not always easy to assimilate within moral systems we can all agree on. That’s one reason we need art.

Where in the political sphere there is a necessary push toward the simplicity of slogans (it often takes effective slogans, or hashtags, to make things happen), art is a sphere where we can grapple with the true complexity of things.

When it comes to sexuality, for instance, art can acknowledge that there is often as much pathos as cause for outrage. It’s not one thing or the other; both responses hold. But they emerge out of different frames of reference. When, for instance, a famous artist in his 80s says something gross and demeaning to a young woman who is volunteering to model for him, my sympathy is 100 percent with her. I abhor and condemn his behavior.

But from another point of view: Wow, what a pathetic situation! If you read it in a short story by Alice Munro, it would make you reflect grimly on male sexuality. As a man, I know — as I think most adult women know — that there are deep, deep reservoirs of pathos in male sexuality. It’s a subject art can explore with a frankness and honesty usually missing from the political sphere.

But right now, all this “subtle” thinking feels redundant. With this news about Nixon, coming on top of such a cascade of revelations about men who had seemed so admirable, so insightful, and who have turned out to be so hypocritical, such thoughts make me feel like an apologist, an enabler.

My inclination to look for moral complexity and gray areas, to smell pathos where others see malice, in short, to make excuses, has this morning gone out the window. Nixon’s behavior, if the reports are true, is simply wrong. It is creepy, and morally blind. It’s that very blindness, that insensitivity, when you consider how humane and compassionate his photographs are, that is most baffling.

I believe that art has its own life, independent of the people who make it. And I know that artists are, at least as much as the rest of us, complex creatures. I don’t enjoy damning anyone. I am an art critic, not an ethics panel.

I only want to register my dismay.