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August 23, 2006


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Juicy and difficult question Isaac. Each of your numbered examples makes me feel a slightly different way towards the more general question of artist's responsibility. For example, I get so angry at critics of Woody Allen who refuse now to evaluate his films except on a basis of his own perceived nymphomaniac persona. I also don't think we should stop watching nor respect, artistically, Roman Polanski.

But at the same time, as I was reading your first couple of bullet points. I find it very difficult to divorce the artist from himself. The best example is to look at writers. The struggles of their life informed their work and made their work. For example, Tennessee Williams, Bertolt Brecht, Tony Kushner, Sarah Kane, etc. etc.

it is a truly courageous act to be a great writer because it takes much more than craft. It is giving of yourself. Including the horrors and atrocities. You have a responsibility, therefore, to the work, and therefore to the audience/reader. This responsibility is truthful exploration. It is risk. The most successful work, whether you are a writer, director, actor, painter, etc. Carries the heart of the creator inside of it. By using it as the raw material to create, he/she no longer owns it. It becomes perspective. The artist's responsibility, for me at least, is the act of risk-taking and giving of oneself. And that can be purely aesthetic, political, social, or personal.


I respond at length here:



So far as personal behavior goes, I must say that an artist in the temporal, phenomenal, "real" world (that is, "real" in the common sense term, though that's far from the only one there is), bears the same responsibility and obligation for her personal behavior as anybody else, artist, academic or auditor. Nobody gets a "pass" here, one must bear responsibility for one's actions. The individual reader or auditor must determine his or her own reaction to what he or she knows (or doesn't know) about the creator of the work. There's no rule that will tell us what our reaction will be. Nor should there be such a rule.

Of course some elements of an artist's background will have more direct relevance to her work than others. But largely this is seminar-table talk, a higher form of gossip, little more. Frankly we can't know what drove either Barthes or Kane to suicide. To think we do, to try to discover this in the work, is sheer arrogance, playing amateur psychologist. The fact is we don't, we never will. But we do have the work. Shouldn't we focus on that instead?


Hm. Well.

(A) "Bad" according to whom? Me? Charles Isherwood? You? Camille Paglia? If a work of art is bad, it will be according to an aesthetic, or a taste for the work, not because of the behavior of the person who created it, or whether we care for that person or not.

(B) I think Lee's sexism is covered in a great deal of criticism of his work. But nobody's accusing Lee of mistreating women in his personal life. (Unless I haven't been following the celebrity news closely enough.)

(C) I don't think there is a double standard. Polanski remains subject to arrest if he sets foot in the United States. Jack Henry Abbott remains in prison. Mel Gibson must attend AA meetings (there's no law in the United States against anti-semitism). In the meantime, Bill Clinton faced impeachment hearings for his adulterous affair. It looks like the Enron folks will serve at least some time in jail.

And if there is a double standard, it's a double standard that applies to celebrities, not artists, but it doesn't seem to have obliged them to ditch punishment for their wrongdoing. Martha Stewart did time, regardless of whether people thought she should be given a pass. So I'm just not sure that this is true.


Let me try to make my Roman Polanski point a little clearer, since I obviously have mucked up the job of making the point:

Let us say that there was a really great cabinet maker nearby you. Not the best, mind you, but quite good at the prices he charges. And, let us just say for the sake of argument, that he makes cabinets in a somewhat distinctive style. You find out, at some point, that while living in another country, he raped a teenage girl and then fled to the United States.

You *might* (I would guess) be inclined not to buy cabinets from him, to take your business elsewhere.

But no one (that i know of, including myself) thinks that you shouldn't go see Polanski movies becuase he raped a little girl and didn't serve out his jail sentence. What is the difference? In both cases, the crime is wholly irrelevant to what the person does for a living. So why does Polanski get a pass for making movies that we wouldn't extend to the cabinetmaker?

These are real questions, and I think they might be being read as rhetorical. I really am wondering what it is about artists that isn't true of cabinetmakers (or plumbers, or politicians, or CEOs of home furnishing companies or whatever). And yes, I also acknowledge that perhaps you would say "fuck it, I like the cabinets, and what he did has no relevance here" but I think we all know that we would at least have the impulse to cancel our order and take our business elsewhere...


But aren't there calls to boycott Gibson's films? Haven't there been calls to boycott Polanski's? Just as there might be decisions to go to Ikea instead?



I think it might be helpful to, rather than look at whether a few people have boycotted Gibson's or Polanski's films, to look at ourselves. I wouldn't go to the cabinet maker and give him my business. I will go to a Polanski film, or a Gibson movie (so long as it is a light action comedy, the only the thing he's any good at).

I, however, don't understand this double standard. I would guess I'm not alone in this. Perhaps we can explore this rather than dismissing it as nonexistant because not everyone reacts this way.


Ah. Yes, well, for that, yes, we do need each of us to explore our own consciences. Didn't mean to hijack the conversation. Apologies.


It's okay... I think you thought I was making an argument, and that the questions I was asking were rhetorical, that I was essentially saying (but doing it in a cowardly fashion) "Artists have a responsibility to be good people and we should boycott those who aren't". It's an understandable mistake, as I accidentally kind of said that about a week ago.

But I'm really wondering what our assumptions are, and whether they should be questioned...

so I guess my question for you, George, is... do you have this same double standard? Why? What is it that makes an artist's work special and thus divorced (on some level) from the choices they make as a human being?


I think the double-standard can be explained by supply-and-demand. We can get cabinets lots of places. We can only get Polanski films from Polanski.

At this point, the only way Americans can punish Polanski for his crime is through economics: damage his career by refusing to see his films. People who go to see Roman Polanski films (people including me, I suppose) are making at least a passive decision that the importance of what they get from Polanski's art outweighs the need to punish him for his crime, because we don't have the option of going anywhere else for the same art.

I'm not saying this is the right or morally appropriate decision for us all to be making; I think it's debateable. I think Polanski's films have probably done some good in the world. Enough to outweigh his crime? For my money, there's no such thing as "outweighing." He did the crime and that always exists. If Polanski cures cancer this week it still doesn't excuse the bad thing he did. One has nothing to do with the other.


I think I come closest to Mac's opinion. At the same time, I won't refuse to see even such films as "Triumph of the Will" and "The Birth of a Nation" because of their hateful content. In fact, it's because of their hateful content--the influence this form of propaganda has had on other art--that makes it urgent that one sees and can recognize how one is being manipulated to accept a certain ideological agenda.

For me, in any case, knowing that certain scenes in "Star Wars" were influenced by the Riefenstahl film will lead me to consider the ideological basis of the "Star Wars" mythology (and even to call it a "mythology" is a political act; I don't agree that it's a mythology at all) and how it's being presented filmically, cinematically. I don't imagine there's any such thing as a "totalitarian camera angle" or mise-en-scene. But it is the ideological use of such techniques in the service of suspending disbelief or entering into the "realistic" experience of these films that, I believe, it's important to question rather than swallow whole.


"For example, I get so angry at critics of Woody Allen who refuse now to evaluate his films except on a basis of his own perceived nymphomaniac persona."

Mmmm. I don't know.

Can you really watch Crimes and Misdemeanors or Match Point and resist those scandals of Allen's informing your reading of the films? (In Match Point Allen doesn't even appear, and yet the allegations of his real-life situations seep through to the film's very core.) I guess I don't get as angry at critics who do the same because I can empathize. I am not actively looking for those connections, they just happen.

I admire both those films and I do not think they are lesser films because of the allegations. However, I find it impossible when watching them to not feel in closer conversation with Allen the man... and feel very uncomfortable about it. Which, in a weird way I guess, could make them better films.

On the other hand, I can still watch Annie Hall and laugh hysterically and not feel those connections at all.


And again we get back to the work as the key player.

There's two different questions and definitions of "responsibility" happening here. The artist's responsibility as a member of society (the Polanski, Gibson argument) and an artist's responsibility to the work --> to the audience. To me, that additional exchange creates what is less of a double standard and more a separated conversation. I've already discussed the second. Of the first, I have a hard time boycotting per say, up to the point that the atrocities of a personal life bleed into the actual work. Even inside of the networked world, we can only know so much, and to what extent are we informed enough of someone's personal life to judge them from afar to the point where the work is unwatchable before it is even watched? It's a sticky question.

Brian Santana

I think it is difficult to be able to presume that we can really understand or "know" any of the artists mentioned above. Sure we can have the facts of their indiscretions, what they "did," but life is often much more complex than the mere facts. What would our knowledge be based on--newspaper and gossip column reports?

For instance, I'm still not sure whether the recent Grass revelation is an act of supreme courage or mere opportunism (since he revealed the information on the eve of his new book). There are strong arguments that could be made on both fronts. I could speculate, of course, but I'm certain that only Grass knows his true motivations. For the record, I would like to believe the former rather than the latter.

I think Polanski is an interesting case. He committed a reprehensible crime that can never be excused under any circumstance. But, he has also experienced more personal traumas than most of us could claim in a hundred lifetimes: from being orphaned and surviving the Holocaust to having his wife and unborn child brutally murdered, just to name a few. Let me be clear: these experiences in no way justify his behavior, but if you are going to examine and scrutinize his life experiences, as a way of understanding or criticizing his work, then you should look at the whole picture.

I think an artist's life experiences can reveal interesting qualities within a work, but I also believe that anytime you focus on such aspects you are treading on very slippery ground. For instance, the fact that Polanski's first film after his wife and unborn child's murder was Macbeth (arguably the coldest and most violent version ever put on screen) perhaps adds an interesting dimension to ones viewing experience with the film. Similarly, Polanski's own experiences as an orphan, attempting to survive in the streets during the Holocaust, perhaps adds an extra dimension to the viewing experience of watching his recent adaptation of Oliver Twist. That said, such focuses rarely add up to much more. Both films could be enjoyed, criticized, and analyzed without the benefit of any of the aforementioned knowledge. Such stories are interesting side notes, but the works have a life of their own and exist outside the scope of the author's biography, artistic intent, and life experiences.

I do think this is a fascinating question. The issues you raise are ones that each individual must answer for his or herself.

For me, I try (note the use of the word "try"- because there are some cases when it is very difficult to do so) to appreciate an artist's work for what it is without dragging their personal lives into it. There are, of course, various degrees of transgression, but no transgression can negate what they have accomplished in their respective medium.


See, I've never thought of Dune as being a "virulently reactionary anti-female book", so much as it is a virulently reactionary anti-Bene Gesserit book. (The Bene Gesserits aren't the only women in the book. And they are a form of fascist entity like the Harkonnens, only coming from a more sexual/spiritual angle.)

I firmly believe that one of the main reasons we're able to call Shakespeare one of, if not THE, greatest playright in Western culture is because we know so little about the details of his life. We HAVE to evaluate his work based on its own merits.

I think the responsibility of the artist is to distill their experiences of the world through the filter of the self. To use the self as a prism with which to break up the white light of experience into every color they can muster, and to give it back to the audience or onlooker in such a way that's experiential. And hopefully shed some new light on those experiences in the process.

In my experience, and to use your example, I wouldn't boycott the cabinet maker, but I'd be damn sure not to allow my daughter to spend any unsupervised time around him. I feel the same about Polanski. I'm interested in the art he makes, and moreso I'd be interested in finding out what made such a man do what he did. That story, told by him -- especially in the medium of film -- would be fascinating and would probably teach me something about him and about myself. Whether or not I know it's "autobiographical" doesn't mean that much to me, except to bestow upon him some form of expert status on the subject which I don't really need in order to appreciate the art.

The difference between Gunter Grass and Pope Benedict is that Grass writes stories, while the Pope is in charge of setting a moral standard by which millions of others are expected to live, or else face punishment. Not that I care too much, as I'm not Catholic.

-- Patrick


I used to think that a work of art was “good” because it possessed some ineffable quality that let me know I lived in the same universe of value and meaning as the artist or the work itself. Its existence affirmed my own. I still think on some level art serves that function. Guernica is an example of an artist at his best expressing what is worst in all of us.

That said, I’ve come around to the view that it matters not one bit whether I agree with a work of art or not. Agreement is not a prerequisite for value in either direction. You’ve already said, it’s easy to dismiss art as either “good” or “bad,” but what do you mean? What determines your judgment? It’s difficult to interrogate our personal subjectivity. However, it is possible – Brecht built a theatrical form around it. Exceptional critics have risen to the occasion (not many, not often, but they exist).

In matters of morality and quality, I’ve noticed that often, we question an artist’s values when a work is “bad.” For me, Woody Allen at his best is invisible, at his worst all his personal proclivities are on full display to the detriment of the work. That says as much about my values as it does about his.

Why can artists be terrible people? Because it’s expected of us. It’s expected that we will be crazy, abusive, infantile all in the service of our art. Personally, I can’t abide by that. I’ve made a choice as an human being/artist to treat people in my life well. I also have a responsibility to my art and I can tell you, personally, on some occasions it’s very seductive to sacrifice my personal life (my children, my husband, my friends, my personal well-being) to the work. I’ve made a choice not to. I can’t make that choice for everyone. But it does define the artists I’m willing to work with and those I won’t make allowances for.

Steven Gridley

If Polanski did cure cancer would you refuse to use the cure as a punishment to Polanski? My grandmother is a racist. Flat out. Should I refuse to eat her scrambled eggs? Shakespeare was anti-semitic and a misogynist. Should we refuse to read his plays? At some point in this equation it seems like the only people we’re punishing is ourselves. Moral values are constantly changing. Can I blame my grandmother for being born in at a certain time in a certain place and adopting the attitudes of her home town? At what point does this ‘responsibilities of an artist’ become my ‘responsibility to punish’ those who have done wrong? If a cabinet maker rapes a girl I’d call the police. Buying or not buying the cabinet has nothing to do with that person’s responsibility to society. I suppose if I’m disturbed enough by his actions then the cabinet will no longer be attractive to me, but boycotting his product is beside the point.

That is one of the greatest traits of creation and a distinction I think is important to make. The artistic or creative work is immune to the sins of its creator and will be judged on its own merits. For that reason creation can becomes a redeeming act. Murderers can write books from behind bars. Racists can paint landscapes. If we judge a work of art on the morals or actions of the artist then we have demeaned the artistic process and made artists nothing more than moral “pushers” advocating various good causes.

In fact, I think it’s great that Polanski makes movies and that Grass writes books. Any artistic pursuit forces one to confront themselves, their faults, their loves, hates. And why shouldn’t I investigate their work? A cure for cancer is still a cure for cancer!

Lucas Krech

Implicit in this question is the assumption that artists are somehow seperate if not above "the masses." I am not sure I believe that. Anyone is accountable for their actions regardlesss of their chosen profession. But the product of their labor is not inherently tied to their personal actions.

Jess Barr

I've been following this discussion that started half a year ago and find it intriguing.

I think the key to this discussion is knowledge:

As long as we as audience don't know that Polanski raped this 13 year old we see the work for what we knew about Polanski before. This might show him at a sympathetic angle, given that his wife and unborn child were brutally murdered. The simple fact of imbibing data colours our perception of his work.

If we were to find out that the alegations weren't true but the rape would be a more of a illicit love type situation, our view of Polanski would shift again. And so it goes.

There is no neutrality in the analysis of art if too much is known about the artist, the context. If there is any neutrality at all.

So as an artist i have the responsibility of the audience seeing my work either a.) as the extension of myself and my own personality (that's what some copyright theoriticians say) in as far as my personality is revealed to the audience or b.) not expose my audience to my personal life at all (example being gorillaz).

As an audience member if i know about Polanski and his rape that is rape I cannot enjoy his movies in the same way. His work become a journey into the mind of a sick man, a kind of artistic freak show, as with Sarah Kane's work. It remains entertaining but in a rather voyeuristic way. If i had not known about his past i might have seen them in a different light.

An artist is a carrier of ideas- a kind of public vehicle. A private artist is an ineffectual one. There is no way to separate an artist from his work in the western world.

In the east however, where communal art is still part of daily life art is an expression of community rather than individuality. There Polanskis work would be seen as an artefact of the "jewish tribe", and thus a kind of extension of the common culture rather than the personal good or bad.





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