Screens: We can’t separate art from the artist

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Chinatown stars Jack Nicholson and was the last film that director Roman Polanski made in the United States before fleeing the country while awaiting sentencing for unlawful sex with a minor. Polanski has been a fugitive from the U.S. criminal justice system since 1978. ©SNAP/Entertainment Pictures/ZUMAPRESS Chinatown stars Jack Nicholson and was the last film that director Roman Polanski made in the United States before fleeing the country while awaiting sentencing for unlawful sex with a minor. Polanski has been a fugitive from the U.S. criminal justice system since 1978. ©SNAP/Entertainment Pictures/ZUMAPRESS

The rise of Time’s Up, the movement challenging sexism, harassment and abuse against women in the entertainment industry, has led to a tone deaf, contemptible yet predictable backlash. Spend enough time on social media and you’ll see two main counterarguments: There’s a witch hunt by women seeking fame and money, or we should focus on the art, not the artists.

It’s horrifying that there are people willing to believe that an entire gender is making a fortune by risking careers and sacrificing privacy as opposed to men wielding their wealth and power against those who have neither. Other writers have tackled these counterarguments in great detail, so I’ll focus on the one that passes itself off as enlightened.

Separating art from artist is impossible as long as an artist receives credit and is enriched by a work’s success. But even if you could, why on earth would you want to? The drive for separation seems to be applied to today’s pop culture. If you try to separate history’s great works of art from their creators, you rob them of their intended depth. Boris Pasternak, James Baldwin, George Orwell, John Milton, Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy—take a class on any of these writers and you’ll learn everything there is to know about them. Frida Kahlo, Pablo Picasso, Michelangelo—good, bad, unsavory, it’s all relevant. There are aspects of their work that aren’t directly tied to their biography, but all had deeply felt beliefs and life experiences to convey. To say that one has nothing to do with the other is ahistorical.

If you argue for separation for living artists, are you defending their integrity or that of your DVD collection?

It feels like a reflexive defense for having enjoyed something created by a known perpetrator. It’s why Roman Polanski continues to work despite fear of extradition. No doubt a genius—Rosemary’s Baby is an unassailable horror classic, and his adaptation of Macbeth is perhaps the greatest filmic expression of catharsis—but if you can watch Chinatown, in which child rape is a central plot point, and ignore that he raped a child shortly after its release, forget what that says about Polanski. What does that say about you that you’ve convinced yourself the two are unrelated?

For Aziz Ansari, who did something “not as bad” as Polanski or Harvey Weinstein—perhaps it’s not exactly the same offense, but it’s part of the same conversation about power and consent—it is still a mistake to separate him and his behavior from “Master of None.” The show illustrates how easy it is to not be a creep while dating, yet Ansari took partial consent and used it as carte blanche, leaving a woman feeling violated. His art demanded we look at him in a certain light and use him as an embodiment of standards that he himself betrayed.

If you found meaning and intelligence in “Master of None,” or upon hearing the accusations against Joss Whedon of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and Matthew Weiner of “Mad Men,” and feel strange about these shows in retrospect, there is no shame in it. The shows belong to more writers and performers than just their creators.

Recognizing the value in someone’s work does not automatically make you complicit in its creator’s misdeeds, but suggesting we continue to employ and celebrate them as though nothing ever happened does. There are many ways to reconcile your relationship with art created by contemptible people—shun, acknowledge critically (I am a Jew who will rewatch Apocalypto at the drop of a hat, but Mel Gibson will never be off the hook). All are valid so long as the creator and his deeds remain firmly in your analysis. To do otherwise means not only that your priorities are backward, but that you’re just plain bad at understanding art.


Playing this week

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056

12 Strong, The Greatest Showman, I, Tonya, Ladybird, Maze Runner: The Death Cure, Paddington 2, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Winchester

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213

12 Strong, Den of Thieves, Darkest Hour, Forever My Girl, The Greatest Showman, Hostiles, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Lady Bird, Maze Runner: The Death Cure, Paddington 2, Phantom Thread, The Post, The Shape of Water, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Violet Crown Cinema
200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000

12 Strong, Call Me By Your Name, Darkest Hour, Faces Places, Hostiles, I, Tonya, Maze Runner: The Death Cure, Phantom Thread, The Post, The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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