August 6, 2013

Separating the Art from the Artist. Or Not.

Filed under: Movies,Real Life — DB @ 4:15 pm

While scrolling through my Facebook wall on Saturday, I came across a post in which a friend — to protect the innocent, let’s call this person Hermione — explained that she had once stated her refusal to see a certain artist’s films in the theater because she did not agree with the person’s life choices. Upon hearing that remark, a colleague responded, “Hate the artist, not the art.” To which Hermione asked her Facebook community, isn’t an artist inextricably linked to his or her art? She added that the artist in question is Woody Allen, and that with Allen’s new movie Blue Jasmine currently earning strong reviews, big box office (“big” for an independent film) and major Oscar buzz for Cate Blanchett, the debate was once again on her mind. It’s a valid question, which elicited about 60 responses from her friends. I read through them all with great interest, and decided that since I’ve given the topic some thought myself in the past, I would raise it here where I could expound on it more than I could on Facebook.

An artist is inextricably linked to their art simply by having created it, but I don’t think the art necessarily speaks to the opinions of the artist. The creation may be a story that reflects an entirely different set of values than those of the artist. In fact, I think this is a mistake we make too often when we consume a story, whether in a book, a song, or a film. We assume that it correlates to the author’s own morality or viewpoint. But sometimes, an artist wants to tell a story of vile people doing vile things that they themselves would never do in reality. Eminem may not have lived the purest life as a young man, but he sings about an awful lot of unsettling things that I think it’s safe to say he never actually did. Colin Meloy, lead singer of my beloved Decemberists, might have been in a dark place when he wrote “The Rake’s Song” — in which a selfish widower who despises his three young children murders them all and feels totally fine about it — but I don’t think Meloy is promoting or condoning filicide. (He’s written some perfectly sweet and lovely songs too; don’t judge him by “The Rake’s Song”, which is about as dark as he gets.)

The Woody Allen situation is different, of course. The problem people have with Allen — the problem relevant to this discussion, at least — is not that his movies contain themes or ideas that make them uncomfortable, but rather that Allen himself has done things that trouble them. They don’t want to spend their money supporting someone whose actions they find so offensive, for doing so would be tantamount to excusing these things. Or the money is irrelevant, and they just can’t enjoy the work because their personal feelings are too strong. It’s an absolutely reasonable stance to take, and the point of this post is not to argue for or against it, since there is no right or wrong answer. It’s a decision every consumer has to make based on their own feelings. Many of Hermione’s Facebook friends agreed with her and said they do not go to see Allen’s movies. Others said they are able to separate their feelings about Allen from their enjoyment of his films. Some brought up Roman Polanski as another artist who poses the same conundrum.

I fall into the latter category. I don’t let an artist’s real life circumstances interfere with my desire to see their work. “Don’t let” may not be the best way to phrase it, actually, since I never made a conscious decision about it. I simply don’t have trouble appreciating this movie or that because of what its star, director, location manager, etc. has done. I’m a Woody Allen fan, so however sketchy some of his off-screen behavior may be, I’m not going to stop watching his movies. If Roman Polanski has a movie out that interests me, I’m going to see it regardless of his past inappropriate conduct. Ditto for Mel Gibson. Yes, I’m troubled by many of the things he’s said and done in recent years. But I can’t bring myself to reject Lethal Weapon or Braveheart because of it, nor am I going to boycott future works of his that look appealing. I’m sure there are some people who don’t understand how I could continue to support the career of such a person. All I can say is that for me, the work is the work. By avoiding it, I’m only punishing myself. Those that think they’re impacting the artist’s financial rewards by withholding patronage are kidding themselves, but if it makes them feel better, I won’t argue it. I’ll just say that if that’s their sole reason for avoiding something that they would otherwise choose to experience, the loss is theirs, not the artist’s. (And for these people, I’m curious: does your opinion change once the artist has passed away?) If the reason is not monetary, but instead an inability to watch that person’s work without thinking about who they truly are and experiencing some degree of disgust, then they should stand by that, as long as that feeling outweighs their interest in the movie, album, book, etc. I’m not sure what it says about me, if anything, but I have no problem separating my opinions. I can still happily watch The Naked Gun without dwelling on O.J. Simpson’s crimes, or see David Lynch’s Lost Highway and be creeped out by Robert Blake’s character, but not by the man himself and the murder for which he was convicted. When I listen to “Unchained Melody”, “Be My Baby”, “Imagine” or “My Sweet Lord”, I don’t think about Phil Spector serving time for murder (though in truth, I don’t think I knew Spector was involved in any of those songs before watching the recent HBO movie with Al Pacino).

Simpson, Blake and Spector may be extreme cases, but there are many famous people who have engaged in behavior that some might find troubling. Where do we draw the line about what we’ll tolerate? I ask that not as a defiant challenge intended to trip anyone up on their own morals, but as a legitimate query. In 1965, at the height of his James Bond fame, Sean Connery gave an interview to Playboy in which he said there was nothing wrong with slapping a woman in extreme circumstances. Christian Bale was involved in a highly publicized incident a few years back on the set of Terminator: Salvation, where he unleashed a profanity-filled tirade on the cinematographer, who was moving around during a scene and causing Bale to become distracted from his performance. Russell Crowe was known to exhibit bad behavior earlier in his career, including a 2005 incident in which he threw a phone at a hotel employee. In 2007, Alec Baldwin left his 11 year-old daughter an enraged voicemail complete with name calling. While directing Three Kings in the late 90’s, director David O. Russell was allegedly abusive to crew members, prompting star George Clooney to confront him about his inappropriate behavior and reportedly leading the two men to blows. A few years later, Russell and Lily Tomlin got into a heated feud while shooting I ♥ Huckabees that escalated to the point of Russell screaming and kicking equipment around the set. Another incident between the two showed that Tomlin was just as capable of bad behavior. Winona Ryder shoplifted. Eddie Murphy and Hugh Grant were caught with prostitutes. These are just a few examples of bad behavior gone public. Who knows how many other artists, from filmmakers to writers to musicians, have abused co-workers verbally or physically, or engaged in other actions that might be a turn-off to fans. I’m sure if we knew about all the cases of womanizing or infidelities among professional creative types, we would end up with a list many pages long.

Now for the record, Crowe and Russell have apologized for their actions, and seem to have mellowed out considerably. Clooney and Russell even made up after years of lingering animosity. As for Bale, his outburst seemed to be a one-time episode. More to the point, most of these offenses are certainly less serious than those attached to Polanski, and most are less questionable than the things Allen has done. (In her Facebook conversation, Hermione noted that it was not just Allen’s history with Soon Yi Previn that made her uncomfortable, but also other accusations leveled by Mia Farrow in her autobiography, which Hermione acknowledges is one-sided and strongly biased.) But my point in raising all of these examples is to illustrate that artists — like anyone else — display all manner of bad behavior and poor choices. Sometimes chronically, sometimes just once (as far as we know). So anyone who has such a problem with Allen, Polanski, Mel Gibson, etc. that they refuse to support that person’s work is completely entitled to do so. But it’s not unreasonable that if you’re going to make moral judgements on an artist for one thing, you have to ask yourself where you draw the line for other offenses, and be prepared to not necessarily like your answer.

Another consideration to keep in mind in nearly all these cases involving famous people’s crimes and misdemeanors (see what I did there?), is that we rarely know the whole story. We aren’t witnesses to these events, and have no idea what the full picture would reveal. The media can be biased, and the entertainment media in particular loves to bring down the very people they make such efforts to anoint. Equally important to consider is that people are not necessarily defined only by their uglier characteristics. Whatever Woody Allen has done privately, consider that as an artist, he has provided actresses and audiences with some of the most compelling and rich female characters on film in the last 30-plus years, if not of all time. In a movie landscape that is increasingly driven by action movies and comedies that put men front and center, isn’t Allen’s consistent ability and desire to write so well for women something worth celebrating? There might be other artists who have contributed to society in positive ways that don’t get the attention devoted to their more embarrassing or disturbing episodes and tendencies. Only in the fictional works created by the artists we hold to such high standards are the lines between good and bad so clear. In real life — and in the more complex and morally ambiguous movie worlds that filmmakers like Allen and Polanski occupy — we dwell in shades of grey. Think of Matt Dillon’s character in the movie Crash. (Yes, I realize I’m using a fictional character to make an actual point, but I’ve said many times that I’m incapable of connecting to reality without using movies.) Dillon plays a racist policeman who, early on, pulls over a black couple and then crosses a line when frisking the wife. Yeah, he’s that guy. But he’s also a son who watches with helpless, heartbroken frustration as his aging father deals with medical problems that go untreated due to insurance denials. And of course, he later risks his life to save the same woman he pulled over, rescuing her from a burning car before it explodes. The lesson, which that whole (often derided) movie puts forth, is that we’re quick to pass judgement on people without knowing their full story.

I’ll wind down the topic with what I’ve always considered one of the most challenging examples of this art vs. artist quandary. Elia Kazan is the pioneering theater and film director whose work in the latter medium includes A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, East of Eden and A Face in the Crowd. He is a founder of the Actor’s Studio, and is widely regarded as the greatest director of actors in history. Dozens of outstanding performers who went on to long careers were first introduced, either in theater or on film, by Kazan. Marlon Brando, James Dean, Warren Beatty and Eva Marie Saint were among the most prominent, but his discoveries also included great character actors like Pat Hingle and Rip Torn. He also directed the original Broadway productions of Death of a Salesman, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Streetcar. Without a doubt, Kazan is one of the most significant and influential artists of the 20th century.

But of course, these achievements are not all that he’s known for. Kazan is also infamous for his 1952 testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, during which he named names of fellow artists who had been connected to the Communist party. All of the names he provided were already known to the committee, but his appearance as a friendly witness was nevertheless seen by many as a betrayal. His testimony may not have directly led to any blacklisting, but his cooperation upheld Joe McCarthy’s institutional witch-hunt that ended countless careers in Hollywood and beyond. If Kazan had refused to testify or name names, his ability to make films might have ended, but his thriving career in New York theater would likely have continued unaffected. He also had enough clout that if he had challenged HUAC, he might have helped put an end to its despicable activities. Instead, he played ball and saw his good fortune continue to flourish while others saw theirs evaporate. And yet, a mere two years later, Kazan was given the Academy Award for Best Director (his second) for On the Waterfront, a movie that deals with the consequences of informing and which has been interpreted by many as Kazan’s attempt to justify his actions regarding HUAC. When you think about how political the Oscars are known to be, and how many factors other than the movie itself make their way into people’s voting process, Kazan’s 1954 win is stunning. But here was a case where even in the wake of his controversial action, the film community still saw fit to recognize his artistic achievement. And although he went on to continued success and many accolades, including a Kennedy Center Honor in 1982, some organizations, such as the American Film Institute, refused to celebrate him later in his life. His appearance before HUAC — and his refusal over the years to apologize or admit that it was a mistake — were stains that many could not forgive or forget. So when it was announced that Kazan would be presented with an Honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement in 1999, the reaction was unsurprisingly divisive. The Academy’s decision stirred up long-dormant feelings about the McCarthy and blacklist years, with those critical of the selection pointing out that (among other things), Kazan had already won two Oscars, making this an unnecessary tribute. The Academy’s position was that Kazan was being honored for his work, not his politics or his personal behavior, although many other Honorary Oscar recipients over the years were cited for their offscreen morality and good deeds as well as their contributions to cinema. (That includes Kirk Douglas, who received a similar award three years earlier, and whose accomplishments as mentioned by presenter Steven Spielberg included helping to “hammer the blacklist to pieces.”) When Kazan’s Oscar night moment came and he took the stage, many in the room gave him a standing ovation, while others remained defiantly in their seats, arms folded. Some stayed seated but still clapped.

Would you have stood and applauded for the artist? Or would you have stayed in your seat and clasped your hands, protesting the man? Elia Kazan, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Mel Gibson…the circumstances around each one are different, but the question that we ask ourselves as fans of the art they all practice is essentially the same. I’m not blind to the real life factors that cloud these artists’ reputations, but my desire to experience their work ultimately trumps all. For others, it’s an understandable and recurring debate.


  1. Very timely, Dave — this quandary also applies to the upcoming sci-fi film Ender’s Game, based on the classic by Mormon writer Orson Scott Card, whose aggressive anti-gay-rights stances have many former fans talking boycott. Personally, I’m going to swallow hard and go see that film, because I just need to know if an unquestionably great story can be pulled off on the big screen. But I do feel slightly conflicted about it, since Card’s vociferous support of causes I detest is pretty gross. In the end, I come down on your side of this argument.

    Comment by Alpine McGregor — August 6, 2013 @ 5:26 pm | Reply

    • You know, I forgot about the Ender’s Game controversy when I was writing this, although I’ve definitely followed it. In my mind, the difference with that situation is that from what I’ve gathered, Orson Scott Card has no connection to the movie other than that he wrote the source material. I suppose that he might get a token Executive Producer credit or something like that, but I don’t think he had anything to do with the movie. He got paid when he sold the film rights, so it’s not like ticket sale profits are going into his pocket. I’ve never read the book, but my understanding is that none of the story’s themes or events reflect his backwards views on homosexuality and gay marriage, and that in fact it offers a positive message. So I’m not sure who the boycotters think they’re standing against. But like I say in the post, if seeing the movie doesn’t sit right with them, boycott away!

      Comment by DB — August 6, 2013 @ 7:16 pm | Reply

  2. Oh this subject has been a divider of sorts..It came up with Pete Rose not being in the Baseball Hall of fame..His art was baseball and he was great..now take picasso. .. to many and myself not a nice person..Yet his works are shown in the finest museums in the world..so I think you must separate the art (film, painting, sports,,whatever their genius) from the person …Ms T

    Comment by Connie Tavanis — August 7, 2013 @ 1:08 pm | Reply

    • The question is definitely applicable to athletes, Ms. T, you’re right. Pete Rose is a great example. It becomes really interesting when you talk to people about whose behavior they have a problem with and whose behavior they can overlook for the sake of enjoying the ball game, the painting, the movie, the book, etc.

      Comment by DB — August 7, 2013 @ 3:36 pm | Reply

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