The front page of the Sunday Week in Review featured arts reporter Randy Kennedy's take on revelations that civil rights photographer Ernest Withers had a double life as an FBI informant, which has caused strife and heartbreak in the liberal press, including the Times: "Life, In The Way Of Art ."
In posing questions of whether art should be examined through the prism of the artist's life, Kennedy talked in terms of "betrayal," comparing what Withers did to artist Larry Rivers compelling his teenage daughters to appear naked in films, the painter Caravaggio's "murderous temper," or poet T. S. Eliot's "anti-Semitism."
Another example that Kennedy found just as troublesome as those: Elia Kazan, director of "On the Waterfront," "East of Eden," and other classics, soiling his Hollywood reputation by "naming names" of Communists to the House Un-American Activities Commission.
Kazan, who died in 2003, was denounced by the left and Hollywood liberals for answering questions in the 1950s about who supported Stalin's worldwide tyranny, naming eight persons who were Communists in the mid-1930s, when he himself belonged to the Communist Party.
The revelation that he spied on the very leaders who gave him unequaled access to the movement's inner workings, published this month by The Commercial Appeal in Memphis after a two-year investigation, has shocked many friends and admirers of Withers. He died in 2007 after a long, distinguished career that also included taking important images of Negro League baseball and of the pioneers of the blues.
There has been no shortage of reminders recently about the rockiness of this terrain. In July, word came that the painter Larry Rivers - no paragon of virtue, but generally seen as a kind of genial playboy of the New York School - had pressured his two adolescent daughters into appearing in films and videos in which the girls were naked or topless, interviewed by their father about their developing breasts.
This news cast a shadow over perceptions of his work, but should it, any more than Picasso's deep misogyny or Caravaggio's murderous temper has over theirs? Any more than T. S. Eliot's anti-Semitism or Rimbaud's probable connection to the African slave trade has over their poetry?
Or in an example with closer parallels to Withers, should we think "On the Waterfront" a lesser movie, or even see it in a different light, because it was directed and written by two men, Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg, who named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee?
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