OK, so this is about Paul Gauguin

When Williams made this argument for what he called moral luck, it provoked huge controversy. Wasn\’t an act either moral or immoral, regardless of the consequences?

Would Gauguin\’s abandonment of his family have been justifiable if he\’d drowned on the way to Tahiti? Or if he\’d been simply a bad watercolourist? The argument is being made that because he produced great art as a result then it was OK.

Bit morally suspect really….the ends justify the means, no?

Would Lenin and Stalin\’s massacres of tens of millions have been justified if communism had in fact arrived? Pol Pot\’s of a third of the population if agrarian socialism had in fact turned out to be what made everyone happy?

You see the problem and I don\’t see that there\’s a let out because great art rather than the perfect society was created (although of course I do see the difference between abandoning a Danish wife in Denmark with her five children and rounding up millions into camps).

But we cannot simply turn around and insist that the end never justifies the means either. Millions died defeating Hitler and that\’s generally regarded as morally just. (Generally, for there are those who insist that that end does not justify violence.)

Not sure there\’s anywhere to go with this well known moral conundrum except to say that I\’m deeply unconvinced that artists have any more of a get out clause than the rest of us.

7 thoughts on “OK, so this is about Paul Gauguin”

  1. Two questions here: is the art good? Is the artist good? If the answers are respectively yes, and no, the good art does not, of course, give the artist a let out for being a bad person. But neither (which is what people fret about) does the artist’s bad behaviour have anything to do with the quality of the art. Examples: Caravaggio, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gesualdo. The same applies to artists’ politics and sexuality: many a leftie watches John Wayne movies (especially ‘The Searchers’) with gritted teeth; and I expect some classical music lovers are even now uncomfortable the fact that Tchaikovsky was a woofter.

  2. “I expect some classical music lovers are even now uncomfortable the fact that Tchaikovsky was a woofter.” Name one.

  3. “I expect some classical music lovers are even now uncomfortable the fact that Tchaikovsky was a woofter.” Name one.

    My 78 year old Dad for one.

    I personally have no problem with an Artist being a first class painter/composer/sculptor and being a first class shit. One doesn’t justify the other, nor does it nulify it.

  4. I’m not obliged to , dearieme. It’s an expectation, not an accusation. Anyway, Serf has helpfully gone half way towards answering your knee (if that’s the peccant part) jerk reaction.

  5. A slightly similar case: is it OK, or at least forgivable, for Roman Polanski to rape children, because he is such a great film-maker?

    In Polanski’s case, I suppose one reason why it is OK is that he’s a fugitive of American justice. If he’d ran away from, say, Cuba, it would have been more condemnable.

  6. The argument against Gauguin’s actions is not so much “the end cannot justify the means” as it is that people have agency. Bernard Williams is essentially making a utilitarian argument – that the happiness Gauguin created with his art outweighs the unhappiness he caused to his family, and so he acted morally. But this is almost a reductio ad absurdum of utilitarian thinking – by calling Gauguin morally “lucky” he’s now using “moral” and “immoral” not as any kind of guide to our actions, but mere retrospective labelling. We cannot possibly have any kind of duty to get morally lucky – and indeed this is one of the classic critiques of utilitarianism, that we almost never know what will lead to the greatest happiness for the greatest number, so telling us to maximise that is no kind of moral instruction at all.

    A better way of looking at Gauguin’s actions would be through the prism of agency, i.e. what were his rights, duties, etc.

    1) Most people would say that he has a very strong duty to look after his family.
    2) Most people would not say that he has a duty to create art, that it’s merely a wish.
    3) Hence he was acting very selfishly to abandon his family and sail half-way around the world to pursue his dream of being a painter.

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