Can We Divorce the Art from the Artist?
Updated: Sep 27, 2021
This post was originally published at smerconish.com
The on-going revelations of men’s sexual impropriety, ranging from tasteless comments to physical assaults, has unequivocally changed the way we view the world around and how as individuals we respond to these changes. While the offenses have come from every part of society, from politics to sports, from medicine to education, from the famous to the anonymous, nowhere has the impact been greater than on the arts: television, movies, literature and music.
These cases of serial abuses in Hollywood have a particularly personal impact because often, these creators have touched us personally. We all watch TV, go movies and listen to music. In today’s society of social media and 24-hour tabloid journalism, we often feel as if our creative artists are almost part of our family. When one of them goes rouge we take it personally
And therein lies the problem. Should an individual’s personal failures, diminish the quality and appreciation of his work? To be clear, I’m not talking about future work. If someone has sexually harassed another individual or done worse, or has displayed racist, homophobic or anti-Semitic conduct, then there is no question that companies have the right to dismiss them from whatever project they are engaged in, and depending upon the nature of their actions, possibly ostracized from the industry, perhaps permanently.
The question is what about their catalogue of work? Is Pulp Fiction no longer a transitional film because Harvey Weinstein produced it? Should future viewers not watch or enjoy it because of Weinstein’s history? Is The Usual Suspects no longer one of the best examples of a Neo-Noir film because Kevin Spacey was one of the stars? Perhaps more pressingly: should these films no longer be used as cinematic examples in film schools? That might sound extreme to some. But for others, it’s not only the correct path to take, but paints anyone who strays from that path as being tacitly accepting of their aberrant actions.
Actors have it most difficult because they are their art, and in cases, such as Bill Cosby and The Cosby Show, a complete disowning of the material is understandable, as the show was based on the both audience’s personal adoration of Cosby himself as well as his portrayal of Cliff Huxtable as the paragon of virtue and decency. Watching him now evokes somewhat of the same feeling as when you allow your creepy uncle into your house.
But let’s move past the easy options. What about the work of a gifted, guilty actor who is disappears into to the role, such as Spacey’s work in The Usual Suspects? Yes, it’s his face and when he first appears on screen you might say, “oh, that’s Kevin Spacey,” but after a few minutes, he is no longer Kevin Spacey, he is Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint. Of course as Lester Burnham in American Beauty, his character preyed on an underage girl, so with the benefit of hindsight, he’s no longer disappearing into a character but rather exhibiting his own hidden character. Needless to say, both characters are someone that no one would want to be around, but do we need to avoid them both, or only the one that touches on reality?
What about those whose face is not a part of their work? When you think of Chinatown, another one of great all time films, you think of Jack Nicholson’s work. But that work was shepherded along by Roman Polanski an admitted pedophile. Should directing the film impact a viewer’s comfort level with the film as much as if he had been the star?
Television writer James Harmon Brown says, “It probably isn’t fair, but I can watch Chinatown without immediately connecting it to director Roman Polanski sodomizing a 13-year-old girl,” adding in the caveat, that “When I do think about it, I feel the same way I did when I tried to watch Manhattan recently. An Academy Award nominated movie about a grown man having an affair with a 17-year-old high school student. I was repulsed by the obvious pedophilia which was dismissed at the time as just Woody Allen being Woody Allen.” Would those same feelings exist towards the movie if Gene Wilder was the actor and Allen only wrote and directed? How does Allen’s behavior impact one’s appreciation of Annie Hall, in which all romantic coupling is age appropriate? Does the knowledge of Allen’s future behavior mean that Take the Money and Run is no longer funny?
Taking it a step further, if one insists on applying the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine, where great work is disdained because of its association to someone who demonstrated abhorrent behavior, even if that connection isn’t overtly discernable, such as in the case of a producer like Weinstein, you’re going ultimately back yourself into a corner you didn’t see coming. You’ll end up silencing The Beatles.
How do The Beatles wind up in this mess you ask? Having ended their work together they left behind hours of material that was too good to just discard, they gave it to producer Phil Spector, who is solely responsible for all the lush strings that gave the album Let It Be the sound that The Beatles themselves never envisioned, most notably the classic “The Long And Winding Road.” Not only did Spector physically and sexually abuse women, but he actually shot and killed one. Many people I know seem ready to quick get rid of Spacey and Weinstein and their art. But The Beatles? Not so much.
Ultimately, it all comes down to individual choice. However, as we continue to discover more about the behavior of artist long gone, notables such as Alfred Hitchcock, J.D. Salinger, Degas, T.S. Eliot, William Golding, Pablo Picasso and Frank Miller, a collective group of misogynists, racists, anti-Semites, and physically violent individuals, if there ever was one, and conflate the horrendousness of their personal actions with the majesty of their creative spark, we run the risk of denying our souls the artistic nourishment it needs.
Shakespare wrote, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” Perhaps when it comes to the appreciation of artistic endeavors created by deeply flawed individuals, we should be burying the creator but allowing their vision to live on. Maybe, we can even learn lessons from the art of flawed men.