By Jim Morris
The question of whether we can separate the art from the artist has been much discussed for centuries. This current sexual harassment brouhaha that seems to preoccupy our news media compels us to visit, (or, for some of you, revisit) this question. Of course, character flaws and bad behavior extend far beyond sexual predation. They include, among other things, bigotry, various addictions and compulsions, non-sexual violent behavior like assault, mental torment and murder, as well as a host of other bad acts from embezzlement and thievery to bribery, plagiarism and combinations of deplorable behavior of which, one could argue, Hemingway and Picasso are prime examples.
There is a long list of elected officials, up to and including U.S. presidents and prime ministers, who were philanderers, bigots, misogynists, anti-Semites, homophobes, and on and on. Jefferson, Jackson, both Johnsons, Buchanan, Monroe, Polk, Wilson, Coolidge, FDR, Eisenhower, LBJ, Nixon, Bush, (the younger)—all of these presidents committed heinous acts during their terms in office. Many of our other most celebrated leaders and statesmen were guilty of these attitudes and behaviors. So, should we stop crediting such people for their accomplishments? Or at least reduce the amount of credit we give them? Should we delete mentions of these people and their contributions from our consciousnesses and history books because they were flawed in some of the ways I’ve just mentioned?
Similarly, there are many, many great artists in all corners of the creative arts world who were/are guilty of such bad behaviors and beliefs. T.S. Eliot, Edith Wharton, Richard Wagner, Roald Dahl, Renoir and Degas are just a few on a long list of anti-Semitic artists. Dr. Seuss was quite the bigot. If you widen the aperture to famous anti-Semitic people who made great contributions, the list includes Winston Churchill, Charles Lindbergh, Henry Ford and Walt Disney. And if you widen the aperture further, to include misogynists, racists, sexual predators and other deviants, well, forget about it.
The thing about rattling off a litany of bad people who have done great things is that, surely, this is just the tiny tip of a colossal iceberg much, or most, of which we will never glimpse. I have this argument often enough, usually triggered by the case of Mel Gibson. The consensus is that he’s anti-Semitic. I’ve never had this conversation with a Jewish person who didn’t express a commitment to boycotting his work. My point to them is that it seems a little disingenuous to advocate boycotting Mel Gibson movies, while unqualifiedly embracing the art produced by countless other people, some, (many), of whom are no doubt raging bigots or anti-Semitic or wife beaters, just because we don’t have specific knowledge about these flaws. If we’re not going to separate the art from the artist, doesn’t it then behoove us to devote ourselves to determining the moral character of every artist or politician before we can justifiably judge, or even just experience, their work? And in the absence of such knowledge, aren’t we obliged to withhold any judgment about their work?
Call me misanthropic, but I’m going to wager a guess that most people possess some degree of one of these character flaws, or have displayed the kind of bad behavior we’re talking about, somewhere on the bigotry continuum or the anti-Semitic continuum or the misogynistic continuum or some other bad behavior continuum. Am I obliged to cease enjoying art, or appreciating the achievements of politicians, business people, scientists and other accomplished public figures, simply because there could be a good chance that they are bigots or in some other way have behaved very badly toward others?
Take Roy Moore versus Al Franken. Assuming all of the accusations against these two men are true, does the fact that they’ve committed these acts, ranging from naughty to unconscionable, preclude them from serving effectively in the Senate, from authoring or at least supporting legislation that makes our country better? Does this question exist on a continuum? Perhaps, because Al Franken is funny, and we might like his politics, and his sins are less egregious than Roy Moore’s, we give ourselves permission to go a little easier on him than on Moore, who is apparently a pedophile, not merely a butt-grabber, and whose views and political positions are repugnant to us, regardless of his bad sexual behavior.
Or consider a more complicated situation than that of Roy Moore. Woody Allen has been recognized as one of the great writers and filmmakers of the last half century, right up until the controversy about his relationship with Dylan Farrow arose. Now much of the world assumes he’s a child molester. He categorically denies it. Dylan Farrow seems credible. Meanwhile, the list grows of those who are publicly distancing themselves from Allen, expressing guilt and regret about working on his films. I find it curious that many of these people are just now speaking up, since the controversy over Woody Allen’s relationships is not new, but that’s another issue. The most recent of these celebrities to speak up is young Timothee Chalamet, who says he’ll donate to some appropriate organizations, his pay from an upcoming Woody Allen movie, A Rainy Day in New York. He claims he doesn’t want to profit from that film. Of course, a cynic might think this is disingenuous since Timothee has already profited in less directly monetary ways from his work on the film. And one can’t help but wonder whether no one in his life mentioned Woody Allen’s presumed sordid past to Timothee before he accepted the role. But, again, that’s another discussion.
Not that you asked, but for me, a work of art is great or not, the political achievement or technological innovation or scientific discovery is great or not, entirely separate of whether it was produced by a saint, a despicable human being, a robot or a hippo. I don’t need to know anything about the creator of the work to be affected by that work and make my own judgment of its value or worth.
Going down the other path either immerses you in hypocrisy or impoverishes the world you allow yourself to experience. Or does it? To those of you who boycott Woody Allen and Mel Gibson movies, or refuse to listen to Wagner, laugh at Cosby, buy a Ford, or exclude from your life the work of some other person whose views or actions you despise, can you make a compelling argument for judging the talents’ work, whatever their field, through the lens of their character flaw, be it anti-Semitism, racial bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, whatever?