The art of biography

Saturday 19 October, 3.30pm until 5.00pm, Hammerson Room Literature Wars

Should biographers aim to give us a warts and all account of their subjects’ private lives, or can there be justification for leaving some secrets in the past? Is there a need, as some suggest, during Britten’s centenary to confront the ambiguities over the composer’s relationship with children when we celebrate work such as Peter Grimes? Does the endless speculation over the identity of Shakespeare, or the turbulent relationship of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, suggest that it will always be impossible to separate the artist from the art? Does continuing to admire the work of Wagner or Eric Gill risk condoning the often reprehensible views and acts of the creator? Similarly, even when the artist’s lives may be inspiring or admirable, can this emphasis risk undermining or overshadowing their achievements? Is biography the only way in which we can place art within its specific context?

Kate Bassett
theatre critic and arts journalist; author, In Two Minds: a biography of Jonathan Miller

John Bridcut
film-maker, Britten's Endgame; author, Britten's Children

Gerry Feehily
Europe editor, Courrier International; author, Gunk

Frances Spalding
professor of art history, Newcastle University; author, The Bloomsbury Group and John Piper, Myfanwy Piper: lives in art

David Bowden
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer

Produced by
David Bowden associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer
Recommended readings
Wagner bicentenary: the music is still what matters most

Forget the stories, the words, the stagings and the politics. The 200th anniversay of Wagner's birth is the perfect time to get into the music of the man who changed opera for good

Martin Kettle, Guardian, 22 May 2013

The idea of 'ethical art' is nonsense. We have to separate art from life

We'd be wrong to let the sordid revelations about Graham Ovenden's sex life colour our appreciation of his work

Rachel Cooke, Guardian, 7 April 2013

Why we must talk about Britten's boys

Benjamin Britten was a great composer but, post-Savile, we cannot ignore his obsession with children

Martin Kettle, Guardian, 21 November 2012

Can the art of a paedophile be celebrated?

A victim of a paedophile teacher has asked for his music textbooks for children to be banned. Does the work, or the art, of someone who has committed such a crime have to be condemned?

Finlo Rohrer, BBC, 5 September 2007

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