Tim Lott: Lord of the flies undone

The point of an artist is not to live a morally spotless life

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The news that William Golding attempted to "rape" a 15-year-old girl when he was 18 years old once again lengthens the roll-call of artists who have found their reputations under attack following revelations about their private morality.

Ezra Pound, T S Eliot, J M Barrie, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Leni Riefenstahl, Woody Allen and Roman Polanski are just a few of those who have been accused of or have demonstrably committed acts of personal morality that most of us might find questionable or repellent.

This kind of censure tends to be most intense within the "respectable" or higher arts. I doubt that a revelation that a teenage Keith Richards had tried to have "heavy sex", as Golding termed it – the word "rape" may have been deployed by Golding with a certain irony – with a libidinous 15-year-old would have made headlines of the same tone. Especially as, in Golding's case, the girl came back later voluntarily to continue the relationship and request that Golding's father viewed them at it through binoculars. We expect a certain probity from our sages.

Many seem to be of the opinion that bad behaviour makes the artist less worthwhile as an artist. I find this incomprehensible. The point of an artist, whatever else it may be, is not to live a morally spotless life, or even a relatively decent one.

The function of an artist may well arise from an ethical impulse and find an appropriately ethical expression. To state the obvious, Lord of The Flies carries a deeply moral message – or to put it more precisely, a message about the nature of morality.

But the deeper need is not for the artist to do or be "good" but to explore the nature of reality as he or she perceives it. This may have something to do with morality in the widest sense – but it certainly has nothing to do with personal morality or "decent" behaviour.

Art is an impulse that comes from somewhere else entirely. One of the most powerful poems I have ever read – one might even say one of the best I have read – is "I Surmise the Sun is Wounding Me" by the vicious Serb warlord Radovan Karadzic. It is a good poem – though technically mediocre – because it is honest and un-self-deceiving. In its uncompromising purity of expression and frightening egoism you can see directly into the mind of evil.

But you don't have to be cruel to write a poem about cruelty, any more than you need to be good to write a book with a moral message. The two are not necessarily connected. Admittedly, it would be unlikely that Seamus Heaney after his death turned out to be a selfish, callow bastard who enjoyed hurting puppies. I suspect that people who are artistically sensitive tend to be more moral than not. But would it make any difference if this were not the case?

The wish that our artists are "good" people is a childish wish, one that has everything do with our need for heroes clad in the shining armour of virtue – perhaps combined with a deep-rooted desire to express a certain vengeful puritanism on those who are cleverer, more insightful or more talented than ourselves.

The problem isn't solely with the public's perception of artists, but also with some artists' hope of how they will be perceived by the public. Writers, for instance, who are terrified of writing anything in their books that will reflect badly on them as people I suspect are likely to be mediocre writers. Moral panics about writers feed that timidity. The desire to be approved of is corrosive for an artist, because it gets in the way of truth. And the hope by the public that artists are "good" is poison – for exactly the same reason.

Tim Lott's memoir 'The Scent of Dried Roses' is re-issued by Penguin Modern Classics this month


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