The art or the artist, that is the question

Queensboro Bridge New York City, featured in Woody Allen's MANHATTAN
New York’s Queensboro Bridge Photo by Fraser Mummery

Woody Allen’s 1979 film MANHATTAN is an elegant rhapsody; a cinematic wonder of jazzy dialogue, lush black-and-white photography, and profound immaturity regarding girls and women. The artist, whose character in MANHATTAN falls in full-hearted love with an adolescent, would later have an affair with and marry his wife’s adopted daughter. He would also be accused of sexual abuse by another adopted daughter, who was also an adolescent at the time of the alleged abuse.

Allen is usually the first example of the ‘art vs artist’ debate, which comes down to the following question: can the misdeeds of the artist be separated from the art they make? Roman Polanski raped a 12-year-old, but he also made the classic thriller REPULSION. Louis C.K. masturbated in front of several women without their consent, but he also made the consistently sharp and insightful sitcom ‘Louie’. R. Kelly had sex with underage women and married one when she was 15, but he also made the unique hip-hop opus ‘Trapped In The Closet’, hot and fresh out the kitchen.

In the post-Weinstein era, now that no one can ignore their conscience while turning a blind eye to sexual harassment, there’s a lot of hand-wringing going on. History is full of people who did abhorrent things and made great (or at least memorable) art. What are we to do?

The question is actually a lot simpler than writers of prevaricating thinkpieces would have us believe. Instead of getting hung up on the scales of justice — on one hand this but on the other hand that — let’s focus on one of the key issues here.

A good number of our social norms are designed to limit harm. Sexually harassing a colleague is frowned upon socially because it might negatively affect the victim’s professional and personal life. Having sex with an underage child is frowned upon socially because the underdeveloped brain and body of the child may not be able to cope with or comprehend the intensity of the act, and the power imbalance inherent in any adult-child relationship is problematic. Murder is frowned upon socially because wilfully ending another person’s life is an affront to the very idea of society.

Many of these social norms are applied into law. If you’re going to have sex with a child, the courts will incarcerate you and put you on a list for the rest of your life. It’s a simple, inarguable outcome of an act that contravenes the values of basically every society.

To say that art can be separated from the artist is to say that in the creation and presentation of art, social norms are not relevant. Let us not talk of Rachel Weisz’s horror at having her breast groped, unscripted, by Dustin Hoffman in CONFIDENCE; let us instead consider the genuine shock conjured by Hoffman with an ad lib. Let us not talk of Maria Schneider’s appalled feelings of violation at an unscripted rape scene in LAST TANGO IN PARIS; let us instead isolate the depth of emotion Bernardo Bertolucci manufactured when he sprung it on her.

The question, again: can you separate the art from the artist? Does a great piece of art take precedence over its maker’s violation of social norms?

Well. If your response is ‘the art matters more’, I have a question for you: are you kidding me? Anthony Rapp has lived through decades of confusion and trauma after Kevin Spacey tried to force himself on him when Rapp was 14 years old, but you’d rather not talk about it because you really liked Spacey in THE USUAL SUSPECTS? Lana Clarkson had her life snuffed out by Phil Spector’s gun-wielding hand, but can’t we just focus on the genius of the Wall of Sound?

It need not be a zero-sum game. All art is filtered through the context in which we absorb it: our own life and experience, our mental state at the time, the news of the day, the other works referenced by the art, and the deeds of the artist.

It’s similar to the ‘politics should not interfere in sport’ argument. Our world would be pleasantly stuffy and genteel if athletes could compete solely within the confines of their chosen field, freed from the burdens of political trivialities like nuclear threats and institutional torture. But athletes do not cease to belong to society the moment they step across the white line. They know it, and so do those watching. Ask Serena Williams if context matters, or Caster Semenya, or Henry Olonga. Just as politics intrudes on the field of play, the artist’s sins are bundled with the art they produce.

Why, then, do so many people struggle with this question? Why are our social media feeds littered with good folks agonising over whether they should hide their precious DVD of CHINATOWN? The answer is that it’s hard – hard to reconcile one’s admiration for the work with one’s revulsion for the artist. MANHATTAN seems an easy one: where I once found Isaac’s attraction to Tracy – sweet, young, unimpeachable Tracy – understandable and even worthy, I now find it an unpleasant fever dream of a man with an unhealthy fascination for teenage girls. But what about DOGVILLE, which I find so bleakly insightful about the human condition, and so aesthetically inspired, but whose director has consistently subjected leading women to traumatic on-set conditions? What about ENDER’S GAME, a fascinating and morally confronting book, royalties from which support the author’s crusade against gay marriage? One side of you is saying ‘can’t we just appreciate a great piece of art?’ And the other is saying, ‘oh, so child sexual abuse is okay now?’

We are complex beings, capable of holding many things in our minds at once. You can watch [x] knowing that [y] did [z]. Absolutely, you can. But you’re lying to yourself if you think the deeds of the artist have no bearing on the art. They should sit uncomfortably alongside the work, elbowing their way into your thoughts. Go ahead and praise LAST TANGO IN PARIS if you must, but be ready to have a conversation about how Bertolucci traumatised Schneider in his pursuit of artistic ecstasy. The art can still be great, whatever the context, but a person still made it, and they bring all their baggage to it. There is no separation.

Still feeling uneasy? There are other things you can do. Watch films directed by women. Read books by first-time authors. Pay attention to artists who use their celebrity to speak out against injustice and seek out their work. Their art won’t all be as memorable as ANNIE HALL, but some of it will stick with you for good reasons, and some of it will be as great as anything caveated by its maker’s transgressions. There is gold this side of the moral horizon.


Manhattan (1979) (R)

IMDb / Ebert 1 / Ebert 2
Written by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman
Directed by Woody Allen

“You’re so beautiful, I can hardly keep my eyes on the meter…” So says Allen’s Isaac Davis in Manhattan, as a cab takes him and his date through the New York streets. It’s typical of a film which accentuates all human neuroses and cynical attitudes and places them front and centre – not to be celebrated, but to be acknowledged, something of a warts-and-all approach that doesn’t romanticise but leaves room for real romance. It’s deeply autobiographical, clearly, but I think it’s relevant to many of us.

Isaac is the central focus of the film. He’s nerdy, articulate, funny, neurotic – all these adjectives that have been applied to Allen over the years. He has no trouble finding women, but his relentless critical evaluations of relationships seem to derail them before they have a chance to be anything more than just sex and temporary companionship. Indeed, Isaac talks for almost the entire movie – he says so much so fast that it’s kind of hard to keep up with at first, but you get used to it as it goes on. In fact, I could say the same thing of the whole movie: I found it somewhat annoying at first, with its self-righteous, overly cerebral and incredibly narcissistic characters. That’s just who these people are, though. It isn’t as stagy as it first seems – there are people just like these in the real world, we know them, in a lot of ways we are them.

So it’s a film about relationships, but without any of the sappy nonsense we usually see in films. There are no sentimental moments, no turning points, and there is no real happy ending. People are right for each other in some ways, but totally incompatible in others. And of course, a relationship between two people encompasses more than just the people in it – others affect it directly or indirectly, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. No matter how open you are, there’s always more beneath the surface. To be honest, I could’ve just quoted dialogue to convey all this information. There’s so much of it, and so much of it is good. Funny, clever, and true, and delivered quickly but effectively by all members of the cast, particularly Allen and Diane Keaton (who had worked together before). Very occasionally the talking stops, and the ensuing silences are wonderfully used – characters have reached a point where words won’t do anymore, they just kind of look at each other, and it’s beautiful.

It’s not just a good screenplay, though. Allen’s decision to film in black and white was audacious, but tremendously effective; some sequences are almost completely without light, such that it is hard to make out what is happening on screen and you have to use the character’s voices to guide you, drawing attention to the excellent dialogue. The other brave choice he made was to shoot mostly from mid- or long-range, very rarely in close-up; rather than removing the audience from the action, it somehow makes it more real, more involving. Close-ups can make for great cinema, but that isn’t really what this script calls for – while not quite gritty realism, it’s a world that strongly reflects our own, and our lives are frequently composed of talking across a room or a table. So that’s what happens here. I really liked that.

As always, though, I have reservations. Some scenes end abruptly, some fall completely flat; most importantly, the final scene is a disappointment. It contains probably the weakest dialogue in the whole movie, and departs in tone from the rest of the film, when we should continue to be swept along in the entertainment. It doesn’t provide a conclusion, but that’s okay (and is often a good thing); what is not okay is that it doesn’t really leave any questions, either. All that had gone before was so engaging and thought-provoking, to end on that note feels very much like an anti-climax. It isn’t enough to sabotage the whole film, but it is bit of a let down.

This was my first Allen film. I’ll certainly be seeing more, particularly with the rave reviews of his latest, Match Point. Based on interviews I’ve read, he seems content to feel mediocre – he’s under no illusions that he’s become very much wiser over the years, and I guess that attitude shows in his films. In no way does he come across as superior; he’s just another guy making do with whatever happens. Manhattan, however, is an excellent reflection of the mediocrity of life. The Gershwin soundtrack is fantastic, too.