Thought for Thursday – Can You Separate Artist and Art?

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This weekend we watched Woody Allen’s ‘Blue Jasmine’ … and it was just an amazing piece of cinema. It was visually captivating, with an incredible story that unfolded in circles, with deep characters that defied stereotypes even as they embraced them, subtle and moving dialogue and performances from actors that stand among their best work.

Also this weekend Dylan Farrow, Mia Farrow’s daughter Dylan published an open letter in the New York Times, for the first time personally addressing the sexual abuse she alleges Woody Allen committed against her. I strongly suggest you check it out.

Immediately I was confronted with a question – can you separate the artist from the art?

Some say ‘absolutely yes’ – after all, Picasso was an abusive adulterer who also abused his children. R. Kelly has more than a few child sex abuse allegations behind him. Bing Crosby was a ‘strict disciplinarian’ (read: he beat the crap out of his wife and kids). Sci-fi author Orson Scott Card is a outspoken homophobe, one of my favorite authors VS Naipaul has recently shown himself to be quite the misogynist. The more I learn about the great German composer Richard Wagner as a person, the more I loathe him.

These people have all created art that when looked at by itself represents a significant contribution, which some say should be enough. But for me it just isn’t so simple. First, let’s step back a bit:

Growing up Woody Allen was always one of my absolute favorite film makers. I loved Sleeper and Manhatten and Annie Hall all of which I saw on TV, and got to see Love and Death, Zelig, Hannah and Her Sisters, Stardust Memories and many more in the theaters. I really haven’t seen too many since the late 80s – partly as I was amongst those turned off by the allegations against him, and partly because with kids we saw fewer movies in theaters. But we rented Midnight in Paris and frankly Blue Jasmine was the absolute best movie we saw that came out of 2013. So from an artistic standpoint, he remains someone I hold in very regard … but as a person I think he is a scumbag and very likely a child molester.

Also growing up, information about celebrities was more sparse and controlled – unlike today where glancing at your Facebook feed will likely reveal personal information about celebrities and sports stars, back in the 70s and 80s you had to actually WANT to find out. And I really never cared.

But the rise of the Web in the 90s really changed our interactions with celebrities – from Bill Clinton to Princess Diana to Michael Jackson to Mike Tyson to Woody Allen and more … suddenly scandals were everywhere, and so were cameras.

After seeing the NYT letter I immediately thought about an article in The Onion (parody site) that came after his Golden Globe ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’. While the Onion is always funny, it is often very pointed … and few times has it struck such a nerve with me:

Oh, sure, you could try to defend me in an argument by saying, “Well, he was never convicted, and it’s possible that this little girl just made all that stuff up,” but, c’mon, anyone who says that is bound to sound like kind of an asshole, right? Even if your intentions are good, that line of argument does sort of make you look like you’re throwing a potential molestation victim under the bus in order to defend, at all costs, that funny, neurotic guy in the glasses who makes you laugh, doesn’t it? No, obviously you can’t do that. But then again, what are you going to do? Never watch Annie Hall again? Not to sound too conceited or anything, but you know you don’t want that.

The fact is, this isn’t a black-and-white issue. My gifts to the medium of film are unparalleled: Sleeper; Hannah And Her Sisters; and don’t forget Broadway Danny Rose, which is severely underrated! My alleged crimes are atrocious: sexual predation, molestation, pedophilia. I have produced scores of deftly funny yet poignant movies that have pushed the genre of film comedy into new and previously unexplored dimensions. On the other side of the coin, I left my longtime girlfriend for a girl 37 years my junior the same year I very likely, for all you know, digitally penetrated a 7-year-old girl. Are you about to go to bat for someone like that? Will you join a society that is willing not just to exonerate but also to celebrate a possible remorseless child molester just because he made Sweet And Lowdown?

And that is the crux of the issue – regardless of the ‘statute of limitations’, what is our responsibility as people? Do we draw a mental wall between art and artist … CAN we do that?

We know that the statement by Dylan Farrow isn’t all the data – there is all kinds of stuff that was said and done. There is no way we can know everything that happened, no way to truly prove things one way or the other. Woody Allen’s current wife (another of Farrow’s adoptive children, this time from Andre Previn) of nearly 20 years spoke out in a 1992 Newsweek article, and recently Dylan’s brother also added comments contradicting her story and painting a very different picture of ‘life under Mia’. Some have gone as far as to say that the root of the initial accusation was neither Woody Allen nor Dylan Farrow, but the adoptive mother working to plant false accusations for vindictive purposes.

But for me that fails the ‘Occam’s Razor’ test … or the ‘sniff test’, or any other ‘basic BS test’ you can muster. When it comes down to it, in my own mind I believe that Woody Allen molested the little girl, or was in some way inappropriate. Weighing the possibilities, I come down to only three:
– Woody Allen is completely guilty of the abhorrent molestation described.
– Mia Farrow fabricated the story, planted the memories and paraded her children to the media in a bizarre attempt at retribution.
– Woody Allen behaved inappropriately but not to the extent described, but Farrow elaborated the story and pressed it to ruin Allen and make sure her kids were never forced to see him again.

And of those #2 seems wildly improbable. That leaves us with the strong likelihood that Allen behaved inappropriately with a very young child, and also likely due to his power and influence (and when this happened) was not charged. And now the statute of limitations has long passed, meaning that all we have is articles and denials.

Oh yeah, and a woman who is now 28 and has spent more than 20 years living in the shadow of experiences that no child should ever have to endure.

So as a person I have little use for Woody Allen; the image I held of him during my youth and early adult years is forever shattered. And I think the thought of a statute of limitations for rape or child abuse is just wrong – the victim suffers for the rest of their life, but the criminal has a limited window to get caught? Makes no sense.

And as another article, this time in Salon states:

I think any man in his 50s who takes up with his girlfriend’s teenage daughter – the sibling of his own three children — is pretty goddamn creepy. But I know being creepy alone doesn’t make someone a pedophile. In fact, as Ayelet Waldman mused aloud on Twitter, being involved with a teenager and molesting a child are “2 different pathologies.”

But again we are drawn back to the original question: does this matter to his art? Surprisingly it hasn’t impacted the quality – his so-called ‘second act’, after Hannah and Her Sisters and until the early 2000s, was filled with sporadic and uneven work and ever-falling critical and commercial reception. And now in his ‘third act’ at 78, he is producing his best movies in decades, movies that explore and examine the human spirit without having to look directly at him anymore. Perhaps removing himself as actor was one of his best moves, as it allows us that separation.

The Chicago Tribune took on the duality of art and artist this week, with the thought that so many of the artists are flawed that we would lose pretty much all art if we started filtering based on whether or not they are role models. This is how they concluded:

Just as reading Ernest Hemingway is not the same as agreeing with his bullying, brutish life choices. Because the lives of these artists are not their work, and their work is not their lives. Not entirely. Perhaps it’s just a lie I tell myself.

But it’s a necessary lie; otherwise, once the background checks are finished, the brevity of the list of acceptable art by acceptable artists would be another crime.

I remain conflicted but guess that is true – I love the orchestral music of Wagner, think everyone should read ‘A Bend in the River’ by Nobel Prize winner Naipaul, and believe that ‘Love and Death’ and ‘Blue Jasmine’ are great works of cinema … but that doesn’t mean I have any desire to meet or shake hands with their creators, or that their great contributions to the arts would stop me from calling then ‘effing scumbags’ if I met them in person.

What do you think? Can you separate art from the artist, or once you know sordid details of an artists can you no longer experience their art?

14 thoughts on “Thought for Thursday – Can You Separate Artist and Art?

  1. Good question.

    I haven’t seen that many Woody Allen movies.

    Certainly though when he gets professional accolades like Oscar nominations and such, there is a subjective component to these. I do wonder why his colleagues will recognize him over someone else, given his background.

    As far as separating the art from the artist, from my own perspective I don’t spend that much money on entertainment. In my case behavior such as his turns me away from spending any money on his products. I suspect I’m not the only one who feels that way.

    I’m not sure exactly why art has different rules than the rest of the world though. A teacher or physician would not continue to rally around his colleague if these sorts of accusations surfaced…why does Hollywood?

    • Actually from what I have seen, the ‘rallying’ happens anywhere that you have someone who is accused of things without rock-solid evidence. I have seen it with teachers, police, firemen, local politicians, doctors, dentists, coaches and so on. For me one of the huge differences is that ‘normal’ people have to actually deal with the issues, but celebrities have the ability to leave the country, buy off witnesses, and so on and never have to deal with the issues! It is disgusting … and disgusting how victims often become the accused.

      • haha … you made me spend my entire run thinking about this. 🙂 The reality is that some teachers (or police or whatever) would certainly rally … but could you imagine that at a ‘parent’s night’ or Honor Society meeting or whatever that the principal would stand up and say ‘we want to recognize ‘teacher X’ … or that he (yes, intentionally gendered) would get ‘teacher of the year’ as an accused molester? Um, no.

        There really is a double standard, and an attempt to enforce the ‘separation of art and artist’ that just doesn’t happen to the same extent elsewhere in life.

        Which is partly why I included that last bit from the Tribune “it is a little lie we tell ourselves.” Because, yeah, it is.

  2. An excellent post and a tough question. 99.7% of rape victims do not false report and it is estimated that over 50% of rapes aren’t reported, so I am inclined to believe the accusations. As to separating the art from the artists, this is a tougher question. Rape and especially child rape is something that is so abhorrent to me that I have difficulty separating it. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to watch a Woody Allen movie again.

    Excellent and thought provoking post. I don’t know that there is a “right answer.” I think we just have to make decisions based in how we feel and refrain from judging others for their choices!

    • Very good point … and that is much of what I am trying to say. By default I believe accusations – because if there is one thing our society has shown, it is that female sex assault victims need to prepare to become the accused themselves. But I really dislike how often stars like Woody Allen avoid prosecution. None of us will ever know the truth, but I know I wish he had to defend himself in court.

  3. This is one I have been following as a long time fan of Woody Allen movies. (I’m pretty sure we saw Zelig together way back when and perhaps others.) One thing that has been bugging me is the presumed guilt of Allen. Sure, I suspect he is the molester they say he is and the way we treat victims could be vastly improved, yet I also know that people are falsely accused from time to time. There are simply delusional people out there (we see more and more people with mental health issues where I teach as many more get enough help to make it further in life), not to mention the pressure to arrest someone when a crime has definitely been committed (a friend of mine’s brother in law was just railroaded in a high profile murder case in AZ. No opinion on his guilt, just on the trial.) While outright fraud might be uncommon, it’s not unheard of and the facts of this case do not seem clear-cut so far.

    As for the general question, I can separate the art from the artist to a large extent. A significant number of artists have some personal issues that contribute to the art. Woody Allen’s neuroses as an example. I try not to support people or corporations (supposedly not the same as people, right?) who I know are reprehensible in some way, but I can still appreciate their art, much in the same way I don’t disregard some bit of science just because it was done by someone whose morals I don’t like. (Heisenberg, e.g.)

    So I don’t see this keeping me from ever seeing any of his movies ever again. Although if it’s looking like he is guilty, I’ll probably try to avoid giving him any of my entertainment dollars. But I understand when others can’t separate the two, as that’s their prerogative.

    • Presumption of guilt is definitely a troubling thing to me as well – we know that Mia Farrow basically went ballistic and had already shown troubled behavior in her other marriages / long term couplings. We also have pretty reliable info that she coached the kids pretty hard about hating Woody Allen, so even on supervised visits he would constantly hear those things. So there is definitely plenty of crazy to go around … and Allen’s own new article this weekend says some things that throw even more confusion into the mix. Definitely not clear cut.

      But I do have an issue with the extent to which money buys freedom from laws in our country. There is absolutely no question in my mind that some guy working at the Best Buy accused the same way would have ended up in jail. But an actor or athlete? Not even charged.

      I also know I am much better separating art and artists when the artist is dead … which I know is hypocritical as well!

      • Ah,now I see you did respond – damn spam filter. Sometimes even quarantines messages from family members who haven’t changed an email address in years.

        Money is big factor. You got a solution to that one? Be interesting if it weren’t past the statute on this one as Mia Farrow can probably afford high powered lawyers, too.

        I agree dead is much easier to rationalize. (“I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations.”) At least it eliminates the money factor and sometimes allows for the “different times” defense. Also depends to some extent on the medium. A sequence of musical notes by a racist just doesn’t feel the same as written words that more directly convey meaning, whether directly related or not, or even worse looking at the face of an actor like Woody Allen on the big screen where you are constantly reminded of who we’re talking about. At least his directing is much better than his acting, so any movies I might see are likely to be the ones without him as a lead.

      • So agree – can’t go a week without a rationalization! (is it sad quoting movies that are 30+ years old and haven’t traveled into the present, or a tribute to our memories not quite failing yet?)

        Money is huge – and for me the ‘celebrity problem’ is only the tip of the iceberg. Not to get political, but it reminds me that many people are very much fooling themselves thinking that the concept of ‘all men are created equal’ held by the ‘Founding Fathers’ is VERY different than the context we have today. The concept that there is a specific group that is ‘more equal’ is pretty much our basis of government … actually it is more that there are broad swaths that aren’t even worthy of consideration 😉

  4. Pathetic only if that’s the extent of my repertoire. But I’m not much of an either/or kind of guy, so I’ll also take it as an indication of maintaining cognitive ability. Besides that one qualifies as classic at this point.

    Every once in while a celebrity crime is so obvious and/or egregious that they can’t avoid trial, although, even then, the sentences are ridiculously light.

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