I have a favorite Woody Allen film, as do most people. It's Bullets Over Broadway, his 1994 comedy. My favorite line is when Sheldon Flender explains his affair with his mentee's much-younger girlfriend. "An artist creates his own moral universe," Sheldon tells us. "The heart obeys its own rules." (And of course, you'll remember that Allen's heart wanted what it wanted, too.)
Now, I think that's bunk— an artist should play by the same rules as everyone else. But what does that matter to the work itself? In a review of a new biography of the famously bad tempered V.S. Naipaul, Sam Shulman explores why — and has this to say:
What does it matter that Larkin sneered in his letters and conversation (fearfully and fretfully, it seems to me) about foreigners and women, that Naipaul made selfish use of people from the beginning of his life, and no doubt continues to do so now? What does it matter that Dickens knew what it was like to be dependent and abandoned as a boy, but made sure that his wife would suffer the same fate? It is this. The weakness of character of Dickens, Larkin and Naipaul comes from the same source that drives their art (in contrast to Cheever's alcoholism and priapism does not). What drove the three writers to punish - to hurt quite a few people who were close to Dickens and (if French and Naipaul are right) virtually everyone who came within reach of Naipaul - drove them to their desk every day. Without Naipaul's ruthlessness about using others as means not ends, there would be no Naipaul.
This is broadly true, of course, our experience makes us what we are. But I wonder if there's a deeper moral issue here — this assumption that Shelden makes in Allen's film — art takes sacrifice, and sometimes the sacrifice is character. Shulman goes on to make the point, " ...if we can't be good - and it seems that we can't - then it's not a bad thing to try to make something out of what is missing in us, or at least to see how others do it." And in that, there's a lesson for all of us — great artist or not.