Separating the Art from the Artist
Many years ago, while speaking with a good friend, I brought up a quote from Annie Hall that I found relevant to the conversation. Her reaction astonished me.
“Oh,” she sniffed, clearly having turned her ears off after I mentioned the film, “I don’t do Woody Allen.”
She further explained that it was not because of his polarizing cinematic persona, but his personal life. She refused to see his films because he married his former stepdaughter. Although she didn’t mention it at the time, he had also been accused of molesting his adopted seven-year old daughter, although the results of the investigation were inconclusive. Such alleged actions are at the very least, controversial. We’ll likely never know what really happened, but depending on what actually occurred, the alleged actions may be deplorable. However, despite these discomforting actions, he’s still considered a brilliant writer and director. Nevertheless, this doesn’t excuse his behavior by any means, but sometimes screwed-up, morally questionable people still do amazing things.
The idea especially comes up when discussing historical figures, when we look back at people through the lens of what is now considered “right” and “normal.” It’s not surprising to learn a writer from the 19th century is sexist or racist. To hold that against him would be pointless. We like to think we are individuals, untouched by the world around us, but the truth is, we are always, at least to some degree, products of our times. Are we going to stop using electricity because Benjamin Franklin had slaves? Of course not. Using electricity doesn’t equate to condoning slavery.
Perhaps there are lines in this area that shouldn’t be crossed, like notorious criminals who are able to sell their art from prison, not because they’re particularly talented, but because they’re infamous. Though the state has attempted to keep inmates from profiting from their art, which is only popular due to the heinous atrocities committed by the convicts, there are still loopholes that allow the prisoners to profit from the “murderabilia” as it is called.
So how do we navigate between these morally precarious situations? Artists used to have patrons, wealthy nobles who financially supported them so that they could achieve their artistic potential. Now the public is the patron. Individually we support whom we approve of by buying his or her products.
Art we buy gives us a choice between balancing morally murky situations with the desire to see what the artist has to offer. Perhaps not a perfect solution, but there isn’t one at all–art itself is a completely arbitrary matter, anyway.