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Separating Art from the Artist

Woody Allen’s recent Golden Globe lifetime achievement award brought to light some pretty uncomfortable most-likely-truths about the celebrated writer/director and it got me thinking about the amount of great material generated by known assholes, and the dilemma that presents to a conscientious audience.

First in my mind is Orson Scott Card, author of Ender’s Game and its several sequels. Even though sci-fi features prominently in my life I was way late to that game. I didn’t read his books until right around when they announced the movie would be made. I loved them, of course. The first book is a great story and one I wish I’d read when I was Ender’s age. But the real meat of the series starts with the next book, Speaker for the Dead. This story was Card’s true intention and Ender’s Game was only a necessary prequel to introduce the world, and what a world it is. The speaker of the dead is a sort of undertaker/public speaker who learns about the recently deceased, all the ugly bumps and beauties, and presents them to the community, no secrets withheld. It can be difficult but cathartic. Card also introduces a classification system for alien life that, like the writing of Arthur C. Clarke, seems like something we should actually adopt should we ever be fortunate/doomed enough to encounter said life. This is truly universal thinking.

How surprising and shameful, then, to learn of Card’s personal beliefs and his direct role in suffocating gay marriage rights in California. How difficult it is to stop myself from telling everyone how wonderful his stories are when I know where the dollars spent on those stories will end up. What troubles me most is how unrelated his famed series is from his own personal beliefs. To read them is not to be ingrained with some subtle form of homophobia—quite the opposite.

I think also of Roman Polanski, someone else who creates things very much aligned with my interests but has spent his entire life fleeing from a heinous and well-publicized act, whose most famous works don’t reflect that act. To my knowledge, anyway; I’m certainly no Polanski buff. We’re still presented with a similar dilemma.

We do have a few examples of people convicted, if not in actual court, then the court of public opinion, of crimes that do seep into their work. I present to you the only thing you ever need to read about R. Kelly. I had every intention of watching Trapped in the Closet for the same reasons I love The Room, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. Sure, I’d be laughing at him, but I won’t ever be able to look at him without thinking “this is a man who preys on teenage girls and pays their families to shut up.”

I saw Powder with some of my guy friends when I was 15. While I enjoyed most of the movie, there was an unsettling aspect to Powder’s secret glances at the normal boys doing things like playing sports, topless, or showering, topless, that my friends and I all sensed but couldn’t quite place. Years later I found out that the writer & director, Victor Salva, is a convicted child molester. Well, there you go.

The list of shitty people who’ve made great art is almost endless, and in many cases the problems presented to the audience are few. To go to a museum and look at a painting by someone long dead who beat his wife, say, is not to give money to a known wife-beater. But to pay to see something knowing that at least part of your dollar will end up in the wallet of known homophobe? To celebrate the career of a person who by every account needed sexually assaulted a little girl, his own little girl? To jam out to a track about sex by a guy who’s probably talking about a 16-year-old?

I don’t have many answers here. I still love Braveheart, and I saw Machete Kills in the theatre (Mel Gibson is the villain). Gibson seems to be as sorry for what he said as anyone is who gets busted for something like that, but I have my doubts. Granted, getting drunk and saying horribly anti-Semitic things isn’t quite on the scale of using your personal wealth to insure a whole segment of the population is denied its basic rights, but it’s still there. I loved Blue Jasmine. At the time I saw it I only knew about the Soon Yi thing, and as weird and disturbing as that is I could more or less separate that from the film I was watching. But knowing that he most likely molested a seven-year-old who is his own daughter—I’m not sure what to do with that information.

History is filled with deviants and criminals putting out great art because of, or in spite of, their problems. Do we discredit what those works say about humanity because of the actions of their creators? I certainly don’t want to sound like an apologist, and I can forgive if forgiveness is sought and a true change of course is undertaken. But that’s not the case for a lot of these people, and it leaves a grimy film on everything they do.


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