Love the Art, Hate the Artist?

polanski and allen
Roman Polanski with Woody Allen

How much does or should the private life of an artist play into our appreciation or disparagement of their art? There was the recent dustup over Woody Allen and the Golden Globe award via Twitter from his former family. There have been many writers, musicians, painters, actors, etc. with abhorrent views and/or actions over the centuries. Wagner’s view of Jews was in concert with Hitler’s; there’s long been speculation about Lewis Carroll‘s pedophilia; R Kelly allegedly exploits underage girls; Chris Brown battered; Vanity Fair reports indications that Woody Allen molested his then 7 year old daughter and he certainly married his step-daughter; Roman Polanski pled guilty to raping a 13 year old girl. Or as this article on Jezebel asks, which is worse, Polanski doing it or Hollywood’s embrace of him despite it? Messy, stomach-churning stuff, yet many still go to their movies, attend the concerts, and so on. Wagner are Carroll are both long dead – but do you buy the CD or pay the movie admission for the work from someone current who’s done (or alleged to have done) something abhorrent? Are you then contributing to the fortune that in turn may influence the investigations or case?

These things are uncomfortable. They are not simple. They require thinking from a society that seems hell-bent on not thinking, on only being entertained. But we must think and not rely on the sound bite.  Easier said than done.

Art is a mystery. Artists are often a mess. Sometimes the work itself makes you want to take a shower. Sometimes it’s the news reports about the creator of that work. Sometimes people do evil things.  One of the very best books for beginning to understand some of this is M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil. Hint: narcissism. We need to come to terms with the fact that pedophiles or assaulters or bigots can write great things, perform amazing music, build something of beauty. We don’t like to think so. It is more comfortable to think of the predator as twisted and ugly, but traditionally Lucifer was a beautiful angel of light.

If there is no prosecution, no confession, no clear answer, it is up to the audience to decide individually. In his excellent book on child abuse, The Stop Child Molestation Book: What Ordinary People Can Do In Their Everyday Lives to Save 3 Million Children, Dr. Gene G. Abel asserts we can stop child molestation if we decide to and he lays out the guidelines. But can we stop child abuse (or other forms) while celebrating abusers? What do you think? Do you separate the art from the artist and is there ever a point when that is no longer possible?


talent ≠ character

In the wake of the John Galliano incident, I spent way too much time procrastinating regarding my own writing by reading comments about JG and getting depressed. First, it shouldn’t, but it surprised me how many people were willing to overlook and make excuses for his ugly remarks or not understand how he could hold those views in light of his talent. Seriously?

That’s like saying, “You make pretty dresses (books, music, art, etc) so you must be all pretty inside too.”

Then there were those who eviscerated Mel Gibson and somehow thought this was different. Um, no. Whatever your political, sexual or faith orientation, a bigot is a bigot. Blaming it on his inebriation? Mental illness? Come on. Try lack of character. Lack of good character. Just because someone writes great music or novels or designs or acts well, doesn’t mean anything about what kind of person they are. I’m not sure how this fairy tale took root in our culture (lots of blame to go around including the Romantics to Hollywood movies), but it’s demonstrably wrong. Coco Chanel: compelling rags to riches story, iconic designs and she was not only a Nazi sympathizer but collaborator and notorious anti-Semite. Wagner, another anti-Semite, yet his music has endured. Others are blogging about this and noting the difference between the art and the artist.

And I’m not alone in thinking about what Woody Allen said: “People worship talent and it’s so ridiculous. Talent is something you’re born with, like Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] is born tall. That’s why so many talented people are sh*theels.”                         …and then he married his step-daughter.

So once again, talent does not equal good character. Fame does not equal good character.

It is, however, a worthwhile endeavor to improve your own character as your improve your writing (or other art) because you do not have to be an unhappy, miserable jerk to create something wonderful and worthwhile…or controversial. Truly controversial, not merely shocking. I know plenty of now-sober writers whose decision to set aside the bottle or needle has no doubt extended their years to work, improved the quality of their life and relationships, and given them the clarity we all need to create art that creates connection.