Upon winning the Oscar for his performance in 1999’s American Beauty, a story about a suburban “Joe” who rebels against the oppressive shackles of his domesticated existence by leching after a teenage girl, actor Kevin Spacey unveiled before the world the depths whereby his character, Lester Burnham, reflected the turmoil in his soul.
“To my friends, for pointing out my worst qualities. I know you do it because you love me, and that’s why I love playing Lester, because we got to see all of his worst qualities and we still grew to love him,” Spacey said from the stage as his voice trembled on the edge of tears. “This movie to me is about how any single act by any single person put out of context, is damnable.” Echoing the film’s commandment to “Look Closer,” it was here that Spacey then insisted that a shift in perspective could alter the appearance of this damnable act to something immaculate and beautiful, thereby redeeming it: “But the joy of this movie is that it is real beauty, and we found real beauty in this extraordinary script.”
Whether or not those “worst qualities” pertained to Spacey’s now-alleged sexual predation of minors and other men will forever remain a mystery, as will the impetus that spurred Spacey’s soul into choosing for its mirror a film that portrays suburban Americans as helpless dunces trapped in a cage of quiet desperation, and whose liberty comes in the embrace of crude indecency at the expense of moral fortitude. A film that asks us to “Look Closer” into a world where the only two seemingly happy people in this wasteland of existence are the friendly gay couple next door; a world where the few puffs of a joint can transform a floating bag into a masterpiece to rival the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo was sorely mistaken; why slave away on a scaffold for four years when all he needed was an illegal substance, a gust of wind and a piece of trash. Whatever the stirring in Spacey’s soul that compelled him to play Lester Burnham — a truth reserved only for the Almighty — by his own admission, the character reflected something deep within himself he desired to lay bare before the world, as if searching for redemption in the ugliness of an objectively indecent act. Perhaps if we all just looked a little closer, we’d see there’s “real beauty” to be found.
Lest I be accused of picking on Spacey here, likewise, other artists of checkered moral backgrounds, both alleged and verified, have used their work as outlets to make sense of their concupiscible oddities. From Manhattan to Whatever Works to his upcoming A Rainy Day In New York, a film about a sexual relationship between a 40-year-old man and a 15-year-old girl, Woody Allen routinely uses his art as a platform to make sense of his infatuation with the taboo. Brett Ratner, though certainly not of the same artistic caliber as Allen, set himself on expressing his deep admiration for Playboy kingpin Hugh Hefner by directing a glowing biopic about his rise to become America’s most beloved pimp. It should also be noted here that the screenwriter of American Beauty, Alan Ball went on to create HBO’s True Blood, a pornographic anti-Christian celebration of evil that had the misogynistic courtesy to refer to conservative women as “Republicunts” in one episode.
Their art reflects themselves.
In his “Letter to Artists,” Pope Saint John Paul II illuminated the inseparable relationship inherent between the soul of an artist and their finished work. Of this, the Pope wrote:
The distinction between the moral and artistic aspects is fundamental, but no less important is the connection between them. Each conditions the other in a profound way. In producing a work, artists express themselves to the point where their work becomes a unique disclosure of their own being, of what they are and of how they are what they are. And there are endless examples of this in human history. In shaping a masterpiece, the artist not only summons his work into being, but also in some way reveals his own personality by means of it. For him art offers both a new dimension and an exceptional mode of expression for his spiritual growth. Through his works, the artist speaks to others and communicates with them. The history of art, therefore, is not only a story of works produced but also a story of men and women. Works of art speak of their authors; they enable us to know their inner life, and they reveal the original contribution which artists offer to the history of culture.
By this understanding, neither the artist’s disposition nor the values inherent within their work are mutually exclusive. Like a husband conjoining to his wife in matrimony for the service of procreation, they are wholly complementary. To say that a work of art reflects not on the soul of its maker or their governing values is to say that a child’s recalcitrance reflects not on the character of their parents. What that leaves us with in a culture whose artists hold up some of the worst of human indecencies as values to be applauded, perhaps even emulated, is a culture devoid of what its citizens need the most: the affirmation of existence.
The artistic legacy of medieval Europe, from its majestic cathedrals to its enchanting architecture, demonstrates that the best artists use their skills to serve as a mouthpiece for God for the sake of bestowing dignity onto the masses, reminding them of their worth, their purpose, their inherent goodness, despite their pain and suffering. Like lovemaking, the creation of art is an immensely selfless act that becomes corrupted the moment the artist focuses on affirming themselves over their audience. This can manifest itself in a multitude of ways: narcissistic self-expression (avant garde), commercialization (blockbusters), utilitarianism (modern architecture). Contrary to the modern myth that artists achieve a rounded excellence apart from their moral improprieties — the myth often suggests those improprieties aid in their excellence — modern artists will fail miserably to create works that affirm existence so long as they live like that of corrupt elites. The steady drop in theatre attendance, television ratings and overall disdain the average citizen has for artists readily show this.
None of this suggests that modern artists — a celebrity class that Plato may have referred to as a quasi-cultural guardian — must be perfect models of saintly virtue. While the heart may desire such utopian fantasies — does God not ask all His children to become saints? — reality dictates that an impossibility. Nor does it suggest that the faithful create a sort of cultural inquisition, whereby they examine the master behind each masterpiece and expel the works of those whose lives were less than pure. What it does suggest, however, is that the faithful must become aware that the projectors of those shadows on the walls to their cave are up to no good. They must truly look closer and forcefully demand that the projectors change their act or cede all control to a new class of guardians …
Better the latter than the former.