Opinion: Separating the art from the artist

In the wake of public allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct made against Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K. and many other powerful men in the entertainment industry and further afield; the spotlight has been cast on an age-old question once again. Can art be separated from the artist? And more importantly, should it?

It is not an easy question to answer and very much an individual one, a matter of personal ethics. But, as is the case all too often, there are factions of society who feel that their position on the matter is the correct one and excoriate and chastise those with differing opinions. After reading numerous opinion pieces in the wake of the controversies and scouring their comment sections it has become apparent that there are three general responses to the question.

Can the artist be separated from the art? The answers are: yes, no and sometimes.

I feel that I’m able to enjoy a piece of art without thinking about the people who created it or their backgrounds. I’m able to leave behind the real world’s baggage. It’s easy for me because, fortunately, I am ignorant and in this case ignorance really is bliss. Of course being oblivious to the reprehensible, alleged or proven, actions of others is nothing to be proud of but it affords me the luxury of being able to consume and appreciate art solely on its merits.

The best way to illustrate this ignorance would be to contrast my knowledge of, let’s say, cinema with that of a film critic or cinephile. When I say baggage, I really mean knowledge of real-world events. Film critics or cinephiles ostensibly have an inordinate amount of knowledge of the film industry, they know its inner workings, trivial facts and of course, the baser nature of some of the individuals who work in film. They bring this baggage with them whenever they see a film. I use the example of film and cinema because film directors and alleged (in Allen’s case) defilers of children Woody Allen and Roman Polanski are two polarising figures closely associated with the question of separating art from artist and now we can add former executive and producer extraordinaire, now disgraced sexual deviant Harvey Weinstein’s name to the mix.

Woody Allen at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival

Allen and Polanski are considered auteurs by many and monsters by some. The idea is that their films reflect their personal vision, so the argument could be made that man, or monster if you so choose, and the art is inseparable. The animosity towards Allen stems from allegations made by his former life partner Mia Farrow, who alleges that Allen molested her daughter, Dylan Farrow when she was seven years old. Allen began an affair with another of Mia Farrow’s daughters while they were still romantically involved, the adopted Soon-Yi Previn who he eventually married in 1997.

Roman Polanski was arrested in 1977 and charged with five offences against 13-year old Samantha Gailey. The grand jury charged Polanski with 1. Rape by use of drugs, 2. Perversion, 3. Sodomy, 4. Lewd and lascivious act upon a child under fourteen and 5. Furnishing a controlled substance to a minor. Polanski initially pleads not guilty to all charges but later entered a plea bargain, in which agreed to plead guilty to a charge of ‘engaging in unlawful sexual intercourse’ in exchange for the dismissal of the five initial charges. When he discovered that he was likely to serve time in prison, as well as face deportation, Polanski fled the country and has been avoiding countries likely to extradite him to the U.S. since 1978.

Many people refuse to see and support anything directed or associated with these men and that is their prerogative. Knowing what I know now, would I watch Midnight in Paris, the only Woody Allen film I’ve seen, again? Yes, I would because I see no correlation between the film and the director’s personal life. While Allen was never formally convicted of the charges, this is obviously a moral risk because as Jake Flanagin puts it, “At worst, Allen molested his adopted daughter; at best, he has a history of wildly inappropriate behaviour toward underage or barely legal women.

Midnight in Paris (2011) is about a modern day screenwriter who is ‘magically’ transported to Paris of the 1920s Jazz Age (the setting of one of my favourite books — A Moveable Feast) where he revels with his literary idols, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. All relationships in the movie are run of the mill and ‘age-appropriate’. In one of Allen’s more critically acclaimed movies, Manhattan (1979), which he directed, co-wrote and played the lead role in things become troubling when the content of the film is conflated with the allegations against Allen. In the film, Allen plays a 42-year old who is in a relationship with a 17-year old girl, that’s a fictional 25 year age difference. In reality, the age gap between Allen and his current spouse, Soon-Yi Previn, is 35 years.

In Claire Dederer’s piece on this subject, What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?, she states that the use of the term ‘we’ in critical writing is a form of escapism, a shrugging off of responsibility, so I’ll refrain from using it any further and will speak only for myself.

Even without the baggage, I find the idea of a middle-aged man sleeping with a high school student creepy. When Allen’s baggage is added to this it becomes outright disturbing, predatory even. And yet, when compared to the anal rape Polanski is accused of, it pales in comparison and that’s only if I give Allen the benefit of the doubt with regard to the molestation allegations. Be that as it may, I’d still watch Manhattan or Rosemary’s Baby if the opportunity presents itself. The only situation in which I can see myself actively boycotting an artist’s work is if my consumption of it enables the artist to continue the abuse, as I hardly pay to see a movie I wouldn’t be patronizing the filmmakers. The argument could be made that when dealing with individuals as revered as these directors that simply watching and discussing their work is enabling them.

I do not have a clear-cut answer to this question, any decisions I make will be on a case-by-case basis. I admire those who are sure of themselves and have steadfastly drawn their line in the sand and stuck with it. I have not found this line yet, wherever it may be. But, I agree with Thaddeus Howze insofar as, “This question is a matter of personal relativism; an issue of how you feel about an artist, his views, her behaviours, her belief systems and how much or little they affect how you see their artwork.” If anything, I will probably draw several individual lines (especially with regard to boycotting work) for different artists even at the risk of being a hypocrite because all art has not had the same impact on me. Therefore, I refuse to employ a blanket rule.

Your mileage may vary, to quote Howze again, “you have to decide how YOU feel and let each person come to their own conclusion about the said artist and said art.” This sentiment has been echoed by many critics. That’s it in a nutshell: afford people the chance to make their own decisions about where they stand, if you feel the need to publicly declare that you’ll be boycotting an artist or artwork you had no intention of engaging with in the first place for kudos on social media, that’s cool, you’re entitled to do so.

However, spare a thought firstly, for the victims subjected to abuse while endeavouring to create this art, when you cast aside an entire work because of the actions of one individual (I’m looking at you Weinstein) you are disregarding the work of the victims too. And secondly, for the fans and the quandary that the corrosion of the artists behind beloved works places them in.

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