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January 31, 2011

Separating Art and Artists, and a Super Bowl Pick

Can we separate the artwork and the artist, the performance from the performer? Should we?

Can the artist's behavior render their art unworthy, or does the product or performance stand on its own merits regardless of the artist's notoriety?

Performers, writers, athletes, they're all artists.
Is the movie you watched still great after you learn it's a Mel Gibson project?
Is Cosmo Kramer still funny after Michael Richards went off?

One of these artists is different from the others,
One of these performers is different from the rest.


One of these artists is nicer than the others,
Can you guess?

(please click on the button of the nicest performer)
Roman Polanski is the nicest of the three.
Woody Allen is the nicest of the three.
Ben Roethlisberger is the nicest of the three.

I realize that good people can disagree on the matter of separating the performer from the performance.

I can't watch Roman Polanski movies.
I can't enjoy Woody Allen's work.

I can't support Ben Roethlisberger, the team that puts him on the stage, or the entertainment business that profits from his work.

I hope the Green Bay Packers win this weekend's bit of entertainment.
I hope that young coed in Georgia is doing all right.


Mark said...

When I separate the art from the artist, I am doing it for myself, not for the artist. I selfishly want to enjoy the art and would rather not make a statement about the sins of the artist.
It’s not an ends-justifies-the-means argument. It’s more an argument that humans are mult-dimensional. You don’t have to celebrate the whole person.
I knew a woman, an attractive woman, who was disabled via trauma or disease so that she could no longer walk. She became a spiteful and deceitful person and brought much misery upon those around her. Years after I knew her, she won a gold medal, gained national attention, and was revered by many who knew her only through the mass media. My immediate reaction was to devalue every gold medalist I had ever admired. Indeed, I began think less of all superlative achievements done by humans of every stripe, as I was now burdened with the knowledge that I might be admiring a person who harbors a darkness, a misanthropy, an irredeemable flaw. No more Olympics for me.
Ben Roethlisberger is perhaps a sexual predator, perhaps a sexual pervert, or perhaps a misguided man-child. Society imposes some sanctions, but many of us feel that he got away with rape. Would we feel differently about his popular redemption on the football field if he had suffered greater sanctions? And if so, doesn’t that say more about us than it does about him?
Over time, I let go of my self-imposed restrictive view of great achievers, opted to celebrate their victories and relegate their sins to the scorn of others and the interior dialogue of the sinner. I made more room in myself for joy than for judgment.

Brewster said...

None of the above.

Felix Dzerzhinsky said...

I have to say, I think your Super Bowl preference is silly, because it is not as if the Packers are immune to having players whose conduct is questionable. If we're going to start picking sports teams based on the moral rectitude of professional athletes, then we might as well get it over with and abolish the NFL. I'd challenge you to name a NFL team without a single perpetrator of domestic violence, for instance, and there is no reason that sexual assault of a stranger should be considered worse than domestic violence.

I do believe that it is possible, even necessary to separate the personal behavior and/or repugnant politics of an artist on the one hand from the aesthetic appreciation of works of art on the other. If we don't do that, we might as well give up on most art, too. Imposing these kinds of litmus tests on art or sports is more often than not a recipe for cultural decay and is a sign of social weakness and repression. There's still an informal ban on Wagner in Israel. Daniel Barenboim has pointed out that this is not based on real revulsion at the composer's anti-Semitism or on Hitler's promotion of his music; rather, it is tied up with the general social intolerance in the country as it tries to hold on to the Palestinian territories despite the oft-expressed will of the inhabitants and growing international condemnation.

Selective, targeted cultural boycotts are appropriate: for instance, the way apartheid South Africa was banished from international sports. But this sort of arbitrary rejection of a cultural product based on the conduct of one performer (and ignoring the misdeeds of others) gets us nowhere.

It is also unfair to put what Woody Allen did in the same category as what Roman Polanski and Ben Roethlisberger did, by the way. And I say this based on the facts of the matter, not because I admire his work more than I do that of the other two (although I do).

Vannevar said...

Hello Mr. D, I agree with just about everything you wrote.

The SuperBowl preference is extremely silly, it's just my shallow response to being in a city that's poxy insane with Black & Gold fever. I don't care about the Super Bowl, and I don't know anything about the Packers except that they're not the Steelers. I wouldn't mind seeing the Steelers lose, more than I'm eager to see anybody win.

I agree that Woody Allen is of a different, higher category than the other two. I would say that Tiger Woods is also in a higher category than Polanski-Roethlisberger. Allen-Woods did dubious things with sober, willing adults. Polanski-Roethlisberger were in positions of relative power and relied on drugs/alcohol.

I have always seen greatness in Woody Allen's work and the way he developed sophisticated characters facing common problems (in a manner similar to Ernst Lubitsch's dramas), but I cannot get past the lover's-daughter thing.

I wonder if the bond between art-and-artist is strong only when the work is recent and bound up in a cult of personality. We have ancient works where we know nothing of the artist; we appreciate them on their own merits. Contemporary works from a notorious artist come tainted with the ethos of the artist; perhaps only time and mortality's removal of the artist permit the art to be truly evaluated on its own.

I failed to address the other sides of the coin: There are atrocious works of art that come from nominally civilized artists; Nabokov's Lolita comes to mind. There are lousy works of art that come from wonderful individuals, and they are not redeemed by the artist's virtue (for instance, Winston Churcill's paintings).

Thank you for your thoughful comment, Mr. D, and please accept my compliments on your blog.

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