Hitler & Somerset Maugham: The Secret Lives of Artists

Some years ago the Museum of Fine Art in Boston displayed Adolf Hitler’s personal artwork.  I decided to go only to finally resolve an intractable personal dilemma that I simply found unbearable: can evil portray anything lasting?  What is the status of one’s craft when the proposing artist holds unimaginable beliefs?  Is their a permanent relation between art and morality?  I found little to be proud of as I resolved what seemed intractable.

Throughout the museum and its display I emphatically tried to engage Hitler’s portraits objectively.  I simply could not ‘get over’ the enormity of his evil.  Nor could I enjoy his paintings, for I found them quaint and unloving in tone, texture and ideal.  Towards the end of my trip I noticed an idea welling up inside me that I remained afraid to acknowledge:  art is autonomous, it can live multiple lives.

The Marxist aesthetic so ardently effected by Brecht, Lukacs, and legions of others remained both passive and agile enough to give enduring form to evil.  A man can listen to Mozart in the morning and retain his duties in camp!  High art or craft was no bulwark against the raging pathologies that overcame Europe.  I found little clarity when I rummaged through the lives of writers.  Hadn’t Robert Frost been derelict as both husband and father?  And what of Hopkins’ desire for the young?  I recognized a sad truth about humanness:  the craft of great art, either as song, poem or painting may require great vice!  But I doubt whether such autonomy can remain final in any analysis of training either artistic perception or great craft.

Perhaps I could find resolve when I rummage over the life and writings of great authors.  Perhaps the reciprocal relation between language and moral norms is more lasting for the craft of writers than others.  Over a career that spanned an astonishing eight decades, Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) may give us a glimpse of how to approach the nuptial relating claims between high art and moral refinement.

Somerset Maugham wrote and lived in an age of both great abundance and reversal.  Gone was Empire, so Maugham never acquired the archaic glimpse of a Kipling.  I believe he was too much a realist to find comfort in past fictions.  With his stormy marriage, his attentiveness to his daughter Lisa, his world wide travels, literary quarrels, generosity to younger writers and his furtive homosexuality provides a template from which to find direction in our ethical, moral dilemma.

Maugham’s late memoir ‘Looking Back’ (1962) gives formal insight to how faith can enhance both artistic desire and craft.  This was no Michel Focault.  Maugham’s artistic genius worked the quotidian ruthlessly.  And despite his polished British manners he retained a Christian outlook that dominated his craft throughout his life.  A complicated man with enormous breadth of artistic vision who never hid from his failures.  They informed his artistic passion in manner of Evelyn Waugh.

If Maugham can provide insight to an age old qualm questioning how high moral reserves are refined in high culture, we can ask and find our way through the limited autonomy that is art.  What did I learn in Boston?  We ought not to seek from limited disciplines an earnest that only grace can provide.

About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
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2 Responses to Hitler & Somerset Maugham: The Secret Lives of Artists

  1. Steve says:

    A bit of half-remembered doggerel comes to mind, which harks back to your post on original sin:

    There’s so much good in the worst of us
    And so much bad in the best of us
    That it ill behoves the best of us
    to cast a stone at the rest of us.

    I may not have remembered it correctly, but I think of Graham Greene’s whisky priest.

  2. Wow, I like it, its definitely good and correct about any ardent view of original sin.

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