In the past few days, two news stories have reminded us that artists are also flawed human beings. One such story is very much in the mainstream: Roman Polanski's arrest in Switzerland. Since his arrest — and to the dismay of many — fellow filmmakers from Michael Mann to Jonathan Demme have come to the director's defense in the form of a petition asking for his release.
In yesterday's New York Times news blog, Room for Debate, a piece called "The Polanski Uproar" culled commentary from lawyers, professors and art critics.
In one example from the blog, Jay Parini opines:
Can one really separate the art from the man or woman who creates that art? The answer is yes, definitely.
There are many examples in history — too many — of great artists who were terribly flawed human beings, behaving very badly and hurting those around them. If anything, audiences easily make this distinction. Nobody looks at a Picasso painting in a museum and says, "I should not take this work seriously because Picasso cheated on his many wives and was abusive to his son."
Being an artist has absolutely nothing — nothing — to do with one's personal behavior. Wonderful human beings can be dreadful poets, painters, filmmakers, musicians. They usually are. The reverse is equally true: hideous people can make great art. Wagner is a case in point. He was a magnificent composer, but his personal failings — including a huge streak of anti-Semitism — were reprehensible. His vileness as a man has no bearing on his greatness as a composer. It's just another subject.
Another view comes from Geraldine Ferraro:
Polanski was convicted of a serious crime in the '70s. He chose to abscond to France and because he had money and connections, has lived a charmed life, unhindered by his obligations to society. The message is, rich guys can get away with anything ... or wait — is it only rich guys with friends in Hollywood? The statute of limitations for rape does not toll simply because 31 years has passed. And victims cannot "forgive" the rapist. The criminal justice system is meant to protect all of us.
The second news story that I want to mention is on a much smaller scale, though perhaps more pertinent to this blog and to the world that I — and you — inhabit. But I also want to preface this by saying that the incident I'm about to discuss is not in any way tantamount (not even close!) in its criminality or egregiousness to the Polanski one. It is, however, worth examining.
As reported by Brooklyn Vegan and Pitchfork, last Friday, Sept. 25, there was an alleged fight between Nathan Williams (a.k.a. Wavves) and Jared Swilley from Black Lips. A statement from Swilley suggests that the physical altercation may have actually been between Wavves' manager and Swilley. Swilley's statement is as follows:
First of all, I just wanna say that Wavves was NOT involved in that fight. That faggot didn't even touch me.
I've never "come after" that kid, it wasn't four a.m., that wasn't my girlfriend, no one was spitting, and I didn't attack him. I don't give a s—- about that kid and his music.
What happened was, after we finished our set I went to Daddy's with some friends and saw that faggot from Wavves talking to a photographer friend of mine. The only thing I did was walk up to him and say "You're that faggot from Wavves and I don't like you". He smiled a bit but didn't say anything.
After that, I went outside and saw their tour manager hanging around with some guys. They started getting all chuckles with me and so I told them I wasn't gonna have it. After that, Wavves tour manager hit me square in the face with a bottle. Blood started pouring out and six dudes f——— started kicking me until I blacked out.
All I remember is getting hit with the bottle and my friends dragging me to another bar. They wrapped my head up until I looked like a Confederate soldier. So yeah, I lost the fight.
I also missed three flights. I've been in the airport all day having stewardesses cleaning my head because it kept cracking open. You can't go on board if you're bleeding.
Bottom line is that faggot from Wavves didn't even hit me. Never touched me. And he should've, cuz he had a free shot. He's coming to Atlanta October 3rd and we're gonna get ugly on him. We're gonna destroy their van, we're gonna destroy their faces, we're gonna get crazy on em'. Nasty style.
If you read through the comment threads, as I did, you will find that many people have a problem with Swilley's pervasive use of the word "faggot." I, for the record, have a problem with it, as well.
And despite the wide gap in literal offensiveness between Polanski's actual crimes and Swilley's ugly words, some might toss out their Black Lips records and yet continue to watch Rosemary's Baby. Why is that?
Perhaps it's easier to separate the art from the artist within the forgiving lens of hindsight. (It's a lot easier to forgive and forget if the artists lived and died well before our time.) And maybe we make exception for the supposed great ones, or those time-tested artists — exceptions that we wouldn't make for those we consider our peers.
There are also the ethical lines, based on our own histories and experiences, that each of us draws in the sand. These lines, when crossed by our most cherished or worshipped artists, may result in an outright rejection of them. Or, if their mishap doesn't affect us personally, we might be able to overlook it. For others, and thus far I am among this group, I do find it relatively easy to separate art from artist. However, that is not to say that I don't think the artist should be held accountable. Swilley needs a dictionary, and to find a new insult, but Polanski's actions are indefensible.
So, where do you draw the line? And, when it comes to music and other art forms, can you separate the actions of the creator from that which they've created?