David Lister: Do an artist's crimes reflect on their art?

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The Independent Online

I quite like the song "I'm the Leader of the Gang (I Am!)", though I prefer "Hello! Hello! I'm Back Again". Both are quite jolly and rousing in a rock'n'roll retro sort of way, but of the two, I would argue that "Hello! Hello! I'm Back Again" has the stronger interaction between singer and backing group and a catchier chorus line.

And 10 years ago my view may have prompted a couple of minutes of flippant conversation and some merriment at distant memories of glam rock. Now, of course, professing to have any affection for either of those two harmless pop songs is both politically and culturally incorrect. They were both hits for Gary Glitter.

An American football team that had "I'm the Leader of the Gang (I Am!)" as its team song and played it as the team took to the field has found a less contentious tune. I doubt that there's much of his music being played in Britain either. Though I haven't done a scientific survey, I'd be willing to bet that few if any radio stations in Britain are currently playing any of the Glitter oeuvre. And doesn't your heart go out to his erstwhile backing group, the Glitter Band, innocent of any crime, and happily carving out a nice little earner of a separate career in the pubs until Gary became a monster. Who'd hire them now?

The case of Gary Glitter has set me thinking about the difficulty of separating art from the character and crimes of the artist. Gary Glitter is a despicable man, guilty of a vile crime, but does that make the tunes any less jolly than they were before his arrests?

It reminded me of a similar dilemma over an infinitely superior artist a few years ago. The novelist Arthur Koestler, whose moving books exposing the tyranny of Stalin's Russia were set texts at schools and universities, was himself exposed in the late Nineties, some years after his death, as a former rapist. I was involved in reporting on that, and in one of the most upsetting interviews I have undertaken, I talked to Jill Craigie, the film-maker and wife of Michael Foot, and one of Koestler's victims when he was their house guest. Ms Craigie recalled the incident in some distress, and I would not have found it easy that evening to go home and snuggle up to a book by Koestler.

The situation with him was rather more complicated than it is with Glitter, as Koestler implicitly set himself up in his books as a humanitarian. His private life was a massive contradiction of such a stance. It was not altogether surprising that students at one university successfully demanded that a bust of him be removed. His texts were no different than when they wrote essays about them or when literary critics raved over them. But I can see that one might not wish to gaze on the image of a man with such a personal history, even if one keeps a certain regard for his work.

It is whether to maintain a regard for the work that is the key question. There are many, many cases besides Koestler and Glitter, of novelists, playwrights, artists and musicians whose private lives would not stand up to scrutiny – and former rolling Stone Bill Wyman, pictured, must still wonder how his relationship with a 13-year-old girl in 1983 failed to bring down acrimony on him or the band. It's hard to imagine that public opinion would be so lax today. Benjamin Britten, rightly revered as our greatest opera composer, was known to have infatuations with adolescent boys. Time, place, publicity and social climate can all play a part in who is vilified and who is not.

Artists can be unsavoury people. But, how far should we go in damning the work because of the unsavoury and sometimes criminal nature of its creator? It's the hardest cultural decision. But once you go down the questionable route of rewriting cultural history and reversing one's own personal tastes because of the life of the artist, the list of offenders and proscribed works might be a very long one.

The art and the artist have to be kept in separate compartments, distasteful as it sometimes is.

We are not a muse

One might have thought there had been enough books about Bob Dylan, but one forthcoming tome might be something special. It's certainly the one that Dylanologists have been waiting for. It is the memoir of Suze Rotolo, Dylan's girlfriend and muse in the early Sixties, and the girl he is photographed with on the cover of his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan.

In an interview this week, Ms Rotolo, who has rarely spoken about Dylan in the past 45 years, said that in the social climate of the time, she felt rather belittled as Dylan's girl friend, unable to find an outlet for her own work (she was an artist), and seen as an appendage to him. "I certainly felt that, as his girlfriend, I disappeared and became a nonentity. Even if he didn't see me that way, that's what happened. That was always a struggle," she says.

It's a fair point. But it would be equally fair, if not very chivalrous, to point out that it is not her work as an artist that has won her a lucrative book contract. It is her role as a girl-friend. Life's funny, isn't it, Suze.

You had to be there, obviously...

I once wrote an article from Edinburgh bewailing the lack of women comics. The comedy critic from Time Out magazine wrote in response (and with a straight face): "David Lister should expose himself to more female comedians."

I chuckled at that one. But I find that I rarely chuckle at comedy reviews. At this time of year every newspaper is full of them, as all the comedians of Britain are concentrated on the Fringe in August. But, sadly, stand-up comedy does not stand up very well in print. Reading that a comic told a hilarious routine about his DVD collection or about driving in his Mini along the M6, you feel that you really had to be there.

For the comedy critic, of course, it's a no-win. You either give away the jokes, in which case neither the comedian nor future audiences will thank you; or you describe "routines" and "situations" and they rarely raise a smile on the page.

I'm not sure what the answer is. I guess I'll have to expose myself to more comedy critics.