News and Commentary – Art and Artists: Where We Stand

Can we treasure the work of artists whose behavior we vehemently disapprove of? Our short answer is yes. But keep reading. This is a question that must be reckoned with nowadays, given the recent (and continuing) avalanche of simply horrifying revelations of sexual harassment, and often much, much worse, by prominent, powerful men. 

Many of these episodes lend themselves to pretty straightforward resolutions: fire Charlie Rose, don’t vote for Roy Moore (this is not rocket science, people). Other cases strike us as more complex in assessing the severity of the transgression and weighing the appropriate consequences. (We strongly oppose, for example, removing old episodes of A Prairie Home Companion from the airwaves—firing is one thing, excommunication a harsher step; deleting from history simply smacks of Stalinism.)

But this is not our focus here. Ours is the narrower question about Art and Artists. For example: can you enjoy a song written by a murderer? If not, so much for the Sex Pistols. That may roll off your back (not one of my go-to bands, either), but can you buy a record produced by a murderer? (Think before you answer, because the murderer Phil Spector produced Let it Be, All Things Must Pass, and Imagine.) And those are extreme cases. What about something well short of murder, but still pretty upsetting? (Bob Marley and Miles Davis might be on the ropes here.) Sliding further down the scale of criminal justice, can you enjoy the work of an artist who, say, had sex with a minor? Well then, there goes Gloria Grahame (much worse than you think—you can look it up), Jerry Lee Lewis (married his thirteen year-old cousin), The Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, J. D. Salinger, the entire oeuvre of Charlie Chaplin—this list could go on, and on, and it would be very long.

The dispiriting truth is that so many people have done so many despicable things. Oliver Stone is a Putin apologist. May we still applaud Platoon? The stories about Errol Flynn are horrifying. Jack Warner’s betrayal of his brother Harry was so unspeakable it appears to have caused the latter’s severe stroke. Jack also apparently deserves to have his own wing in the casting couch Hall of Fame. And he named names before the House Un-American Activates Committee (HUAC). Do we set aside the entire Warner’s Catalogue (The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, for openers?)  Speaking of HUAC, Elia Kazan named names before the committee—this we will never forgive, and never forget. (As a powerful theater director, he also slept with young actresses that he was mentoring, if that bothers you more.) And here’s a case where art clearly intersects with a disgraced artist: the take home point of Kazan’s masterpiece, On the Waterfront (1954), is that it’s okay – even brave and noble – to rat on your friends. It is a despicable subtext of a movie that relentlessly stacks the cinematic deck to justify the unjustifiable. It is also a great film, one that we revere, and will continue to watch. 

Rationally and dispassionately, we know that some artists have done horrible things. After all, artists are people, and people are capable of monstrosities, large and small. Henry Ford was a virulent Anti-Semite whom the Nazis awarded the Grand Cross of the German Eagle in 1938. (It gets worse, you can look that up, too. Have you driven a Ford lately? Or do you prefer Mercedes? Err—never mind.) But when it comes to artists, our reaction can be more emotional, and visceral. I have a theory about that.

With artists, we may think that we have a relationship with them that we don’t actually have. This is probably not true for all types of of art – I suspect  that with most painters, composers, or even ballet dancers, we are less likely to feel that we “know” them – or to feel that the space between “them” and “us” is somehow diminished or transcended. Movie stars, on the other hand, can often project such a powerful image that it gives the illusion of intimacy, the idea that we somehow know them, or that we share affinities. That is part of the wonderful magic of the movies. (Wouldn’t it be delightful to have dinner with George Sanders? He seems so clever, so suave, so cunningly articulate. Maybe. But actually, we have no idea.) More generally, there is a certain type of artist – charismatic actors, or writer-directors who make “personal” films, singer-songwriters known for introspective, confessional albums, novelists who write character-driven studies in an identifiable, first person voice – whose work can seem so intimate and genuine that we easily might think that we know them. Or even that we develop a type of relationship with them. Pushing this point, I would speculate that in some cases we can come to see in these artists and characters reflections of the attributes we hope to find in the best imagined versions of ourselves.

In that case, harboring this illusory relationship, do we experience some second-hand guilt or shame when their misdeeds come to light (has your favorite rock star ever done something that embarrassed you)? Or do we burn with some sense of betrayal? It would be devastating to learn that Jerry Seinfeld did some unspeakable thing. But that instinct is presumptuous. Perhaps the harshest truth (for us, in the distant audience) is that, actually, we have no relationship with these people at all. No matter how personal, or confessional, or so obviously ripped from real life experiences (John Lennon’s first solo album, Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage)—these are works of art, not some academic archive. We don’t know these people. Those of us trained by Bob Dylan can recite these rules by heart—we can bleed along with Blood on the Tracks, but we don’t know him, he doesn’t know us, and he doesn’t owe us anything. We are rank strangers.

Still, that illusion of intimacy with certain artists is powerful—think of Belmondo staring at that poster of Bogie in Breathless. Some of us can spend decades of our lives in eager anticipation of that next movie, or next novel, or next album, from a favorite artist. What then is our relationship with that art, when the artist falls from grace? As an exercise, let’s consider a few of the figures in the headlines, in order to walk through some of these issues.

Harvey Weinstein. The preponderance of evidence supports the contention that he is a serial sexual assaulter. Can you still enjoy his productions, like Pulp Fiction, Shakespeare in Love, Velvet Goldmine, The Aviator, or (if you must), Project Runway: All Star Challenge? Are you putting a few coins in his pocket when you pay to watch one of these? Yes. That probably doesn’t make you squirm, because, unlike in the studio era, we don’t much associate films with their producers. We think it’s okay to watch, though you ought not invest in his next film should he call looking for new partners.

Bill Cosby. The preponderance of evidence strongly suggests that he is a serial rapist. Which is horrifying. And mind-blowing—in his spellbinding personal-storytelling performances as a standup comedian, and in his public persona more generally, he seemed like such a nice fellow. Which makes him a fine Exhibit A for the admonition “gee, I guess we actually didn’t know him at all.” But can you still watch his groundbreaking TV series I-Spy, or the outstanding seventies film Hickey and Boggs? Sure, even though when he appears you’ll likely have a similar reaction to seeing O. J. Simpson in The Towering Inferno or Capricorn One: “hey, there’s O. J., before he became a murderer.” (And in practice it will likely be harder to suspend disbelief enough to revisit Cosby in his “friendly family man” persona.)

Louis C. K. The much-admired comedian abused his enormous power by forcing several women to witness bizarre and surely terrifying acts of sexual exhibition, knowing that his victims would be inhibited from speaking out in fear for their career prospects. C. K. is another entertainer whose audience could easily (and willingly) blur the distinction between the artist and the act, given his confessional standup comedy and portrayal of a consistently recognizable, regular-guy character. Not a Weinstein or a Cosby, Louis C. K. nevertheless should, of course, face the consequences of his actions. But should recordings of his performances be withdrawn from circulation (as HBO has done)? Again, this we strongly oppose. Surely HBO ought not to hire him for a new comedy special. But should he never be allowed to perform in a nightclub again? Ten years from now? They give you less for manslaughter.         

Woody Allen. In a blindsiding move, in 1992 Allen took up with the daughter of his longtime girlfriend Mia Farrow. That rather sordid choice turned a portion of his long-standing audience against him. Many people did not just disapprove—they felt personally betrayed. In addition, here in particular the illusion that we might have a personal relationship with characters on the screen informed responses to his films, old and new. In particular (but not exclusively), vehement revisionist reassessments have been visited upon of one of Allen’s masterpieces, Manhattan (1979), which featured a relationship between a forty-two year-old man and a seventeen year-old girl. In contrast, few return to Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart (1971), a story of incest between a mother and her teenage son, to see “revealed truths” about that movie’s auteur, despite the fact that Murmur draws directly on some of Malle’s own childhood experiences (as far as we know, not the incest bit).

(A discussion of Allen in this context must also note that in the wake of the acrimonious legal struggle with Farrow that followed their split, Allen was accused of molesting his young daughter. The matter was investigated and no charges brought, but it remains an issue of bitter contestation, and hostile critics scour his films as if sifting through evidence. Realism demands that we recognize that anything is possible; liberalism requires us to always be cautious about guilt-by-accusation. It is impractical to rehearse the details in this short essay, but in our view the evidence available to the public is more consistent with Allen’s version of events.) 

Roman Polanski. We know for certain that in the 1970s Roman Polanski did a terrible thing (some aspects of the story are uncertain, but not the terrible part). He has also been accused of doing some other very bad things. (Ironically, Farrow is a staunch defender.) Is Polanski a bad guy? Quite possibly. Can you still watch Chinatown, one of the landmark films of the 1970s? Yes.

In sum, our position is, in almost every case, to distinguish between the art and the artist. We reach this position, firmly, on philosophical grounds, but also note that as a practical matter there would be little art left to treasure if we limited ourselves to the output of the saints. Consider some extreme cases – D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (racist propaganda); Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (she was Hitler’s court documentarian) – we’re not burning copies of either, or shunning the rest of their output (Griffith had a hand in inventing modern cinematic technique). In too many cases, if you scratch at the surface of many other artists, you might not like what you find. And waiting in line just behind the unambiguously awful are much more complex affairs. George Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris includes some gratuitously anti-Semitic and homophobic passages. (Having said that, I can almost hear the book being pulled from the shelves of school libraries.) But Orwell remains one of the most important, and most bravely anti-authoritarian writers of the twentieth century—and he should continue to be read, today more than ever. Cat Stevens at one point appeared to endorse calls to murder Salman Rushdie. Does this make “Where do the Children Play” a forbidden song? There are a few lines in Ozu’s The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (admittedly produced in the middle of the World War and under the shadow of militarist censorship) that seem friendly to Hitler—and one must acknowledge that the film implicitly endorses the brutal Japanese conquest of Manchuria. I am inclined to view those discomforting moments (which I felt in the pit of my stomach the first time around), in context. I look at the work of Ozu and see a liberal humanist. I’ve read a good bit about him, and that seems right. But am I projecting, because I love his movies? That is certainly possible. I would hate to learn that he was a bad man. But I would still treasure his movies.

Nevertheless, we need to be very wary of absolutes. If David Duke made a really good movie, I would probably not watch it. And our view is that you should feel free to draw your own lines in the sand as well. What we insist on, however, is the credo described by John Maynard Keynes in his greatest essay, My Early Beliefs: “We claimed the right to judge every individual case on the merits, and the wisdom, experience, and self-control to do so successfully.” 


Polanski Chinatowm

Roman Polanski in Chinatown