Dispelling the Myth: On art and the artist – ‘Chester Debating Society’

I’ll begin with a story. 

I was born in 1993 and came of age in the late 2000s and early 2010s. At age nineteen I went to study film at University – something I was keenly passionate about. My first module was on Film Auteurs, basically, a fancy film studies term for a ‘director that has a certain recognisable style.’ The module had lectures on Wes Anderson, Federico Fellini, Quentin Tarantino, and Woody Allen. The latter became, in my first year, a filmmaker I came to admire. Annie HallCrimes and MisdemeanoursVicky Christina Barcelona, and many more were all consumed at a rapid rate. In the winter of 2013, I took a friend to see Blue Jasmine at the local arthouse cinema. The kind-of adaption of Tennessee Williams’s A Street Car Named Desire starred Cate Blanchett as a woman slowly unravelling in the wake of major life change. The role garnered Blanchett a lot of attention and the discussion that Allen wrote ‘great parts for women’ swirled across the new cycle. Then, on the 1st February, 2014 – mere days before Blanchett was poised to win Best Actress at that year’s Academy Awards ceremony – Dylan Farrow published an open letter in The New York Times

‘What’s your favourite Woody Allen movie?’ she wrote. ‘Before you answer, you should know: when I was seven years old, Woody Allen took me by the hand and led me into a dim, closet-like attic on the second floor of our house. He told me to lay on my stomach and play with my brother’s electric train set. Then he sexually assaulted me. He talked to me while he did it, whispering that I was a good girl, that this was our secret, promising that we’d go to Paris and I’d be a star in his movies. I remember staring at that toy train, focusing on it as it travelled in its circle around the attic. To this day, I find it difficult to look at toy trains.’ 

In the days that followed Farrow’s letter, I felt off-kilter. How had I been able to consume Allen’s work, read critical essays about his films, and buy his books without ever coming face to face with these allegations? I felt tricked by Allen. I had, in many ways, began to build my tastes because of him – searching for films where people talked fast in New York City apartments and walked around the city to blurry jazz. But I also felt tricked by society, how had we let this wither into obscurity? Ultimately, I felt sad. Mostly sad at the thought of Farrow having to carry this trauma with her while he was celebrated again and again. When I thought back to Manhattan, one of the first Allen films I watched, I felt queasy at the notion he is dating a high-school student when the film begins. I felt uncomfortable that the women he placed opposite his leading men were all substantially younger. I felt that the man, his actions and behaviours had done two things. Firstly, they had marred his films with a sense of unease and guilt and secondly, they illuminated all these issues I had chosen to by-pass in the first place – and with that came more guilt. 

The alleged sexual assault took place in 1993, the year I was born, and by the time I came to Woody Allen’s oeuvre at age nineteen, I was ignorant to this fact. I had been able to order his books, a boxset of his films, and read critical analysis of his female characters without coming face to face with these allegations. I had even been asked to write an assignment about him for my degree. By the time the letter was published Allen was one of the most revered and admired directors of the time. 

In the days that followed Farrow’s letter, I felt off-kilter. I felt tricked by Allen. I had, in many ways, began to build my tastes because of him – searching for films where people talked fast in New York City apartments and walked around the city to blurry jazz. But ultimately, I felt sad. Mostly, I felt the pain and braveness of what Farrow had written. When I thought back to Manhattan, one of the first Allen films I watched, I felt queasy at the notion he is dating a high-school student when the film begins. I felt uncomfortable that the women he placed opposite his leading men were all substantially younger. I felt that the man, his actions and behaviours had done two things. Firstly, they had marred his films with a sense of unease and guilt and secondly, they illuminated all these issues I had chosen to by-pass in the first place – and with that came more guilt. 

The sucess of Blue Jasmine, starring Cate Blanchett, sparked Dylan Farrow’s desire to write her open letter in which she called out, not only Allen but, actors who continued to work with him. Credit: SONY PICTURE CLASSICS.

Separating the art from the artist is not about theory or censorship, it’s about ourselves. We fall for and adore people who let us down, we build our personalities, our likes and dislikes around them until they cast their dark shadow across our morality and raise questions within us of how could I have adored that monster? If we decide then to separate the work from its creator are we not simply trying to relieve ourselves of guilt? We feel as though we have been tricked and as such we are angry at ourselves that we could ever have thought a rapist, an abuser, or a child molester could have been the greatest artist of our age? 

It is crucial to note, should the house vote against this motion and decide that the art and the artist cannot be separated, that we are not voting about the quality of the work, whether that work should continue to be exhibited, whether we condone boycotts, or banning. That, for me and you, is a personal issue that we have to reconcile with; what we do with the art of difficult men is different from allowing them to be separated from their work, to be judged separately from it. This debate is about acknowledging that the art and the artist are intertwined, forever-linked, and their work comes with baggage.

As A.O. Scott wrote in The New York Times

‘One of the most powerful illusions encouraged by popular art is that its creators are people the rest of us know. This is not only because tales of their childhoods and news of their marriages and divorces feed our prurient appetites, or because we can peek into their lives on Instagram and Twitter. It’s also because they carry intimate baggage into their work and invite us to sort through the contents.’

A.O. Scott, ‘My Woody Allen Problem’, The New York Times. 2018.
Hannah Gadsby’s comedy special ‘Nanette’ (streaming on Netflix) was highly critical of the behaviour of bad men and how people justify letting them get away with it. Credit: Unknown.

The fact is, art does not exist in a vacuum, it is not introduced into the world fully formed in a box without a label. The best art wrestles with our world, conceptualises it, considers it, disputes it, dispels it, but to do that it is crucial to know who created it. For an artist their biography – their upbringing, social status, life experience, political beliefs, and so much more shape their views of the world, and it is through that vantage point, that little window through which they see the world, that they create art. Art exists because of the artist. To say that once the artist is finished and hands it out to society, it’s no longer theirs is a falsehood – especially as, for most of the artists I reference in this speech, the financial implications of said art continues to ring in their bank accounts. To that point, the art often discussed is of successful artists, often household names, people who use their name to sell the work. As comedian Hannah Gadsby put it, you don’t by a random cubist painting, ‘You buy a Picasso.’ It seems that artists are happy to separate themselves from the work if it relinquishes culpability or question but if their connection is what makes it sell for millions at an auction then, by all means, the art is well and truly theirs. 

Consider this, from Sarah Robbins in an essay for Carte Blanche

‘Whether or not to separate the art from the artist is often debated as though an abstract idea, yet, any decision produces tangible repercussions. Many discussions fail to consider that different responses may be warranted when focusing on the work of living artists, who use the power and platforms gained from their artistic success to cause harm.’

Sarah Robbins, ‘The Repercussions of Seperating the Art from the Living Artist’. Carte Blanche, 2019.

Think back then to Farrow’s allegation towards Allen: ‘promising that we’d go to Paris and I’d be a star in his movies.’ Think of Harvey Weinstein who used his success to coheres women, to intimidate them, to rape them without consequence. Or Louis C.K. who used his position as a well-known, critically adored comedian as security before he masturbated in front of young female colleagues without their consent. Think of Kevin Spacey, who used his fame and position to sexually abuse young male actors. The truth is the art these men were involved in gave them power, money, and, most importantly, protection against their predatory and abusive behaviour. Simply put, you cannot have it both ways. Artists cannot continue to use their art to attain certain privileges only to cry they are separate from it if their work begins to illuminate things about them.  

Comedian Louis C.K was fired from his various producing jobs and the release of his upcoming film ‘I Love You Daddy’ was cancelled in the wake of allegations against him. Credit: DENNIS VAN TINE

I ask you, how in our culture did we come to this point? The point at which we value art and a man’s perceived genius over the lives of the people they abuse, rape, harasses and intimidate. The theoretical idea of separating art from the artist isn’t new. It isn’t something that arose during the era of Me Too or any modern liberation movement but a conversation that’s been happening for decades. It feels astute to summarise that like money and power, the theoretical idea of separating the art from the artist is at its root about protection.

Most theorists, journalists, and even artists themselves refer to Roland Barthes’ essay from 1967, The Death of the Author

‘It will always be impossible to know, for the good reason that all writing is itself this special voice, consisting of several indiscernible voices, and that literature is precisely the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin: literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.’

Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’. 1967.

In the essay, Barthes argues that because fiction is fictional you cannot know whether you’re hearing the voice of the author or some wild creation. Ergo, once the work is in the hands of an audience the author is, theoretically, dead. Yes, some of that might be true, by any standards (other than work that explicitly non-fiction or autobiographical) to know that the content of the work is a reflection of the artist’s beliefs is difficult. 

However, in an essay written for The Cambridge Quarterly by J.C. Carlier and C.T. Watts, it is argued that Barthes The Death of the Author is in fact satire that has been widely misunderstood. It was a clear attempt to ‘challenge the labour-saving new orthodoxy by using a very traditional method: the method of satire.’ This orthodoxy was part of the ‘new critical’ ideas that sought to separate criticism of literature from so-called ‘author psychology’. 

The essay continues: 

‘On one page, Barthes lets his narrator deny the personal agency of the author (‘it is language which speaks, not the author’), yet on the very next page the same narrator solemnly announces that ‘Proust himself…was visibly concerned with the task of inexorably blurring… the relation between the writer and his characters’: a statement which, of course, concedes to the importance of seeing the author as distinctive creator. If we did not know the character of Proust, we would have no means of gauging his success in ‘blurring the relation’ between himself and the characters.’  

J.C. Carlier and C.T. Watts, ‘Roland Barthes’s Resurrection of the Author and the Redemption of Biography’. The Cambridge Quarterly, 2000.

This correct reading of Barthes essay allows the valid argument of looking at work through the prism of the artist. For example, the argument that Woody Allen’s continued casting of younger women to play opposite his substantially older male leads can be viewed through the allegations of molestation against children and his relationship with Soon-Yi and that is an entirely valid critique. Or that, in his play ‘Honeymoon Motel’, Allen chose to include a joke about molestation – specifically chastising a female character for once again bringing up their experience even going so far as to discuss the number of fingers with which she was molested. The same can be said of Louis C.K. who chose to have a female character deliver a monologue about masturbating in front of someone without their consent all the while, behind the scenes, C.K was doing just that to his female colleagues. Or Roman Polanski’s, who has himself tried to draw comparisons between his multiple rape allegations and his newest film regarding a man falsely imprisoned via doctored evidence. 

Roman Polanski’s latest film, An Officer and a Spy, was the topic of intense debate when it won the Grand Jury Prize at the Canne Film Festival in 2019. Credit: NICOLAS GUERIN

But if this whole theory is indeed a myth then why do people believe in it so steadfastly? Why is it so prominent an idea? The answer, I believe is two-fold: 

Firstly, an audience, critic, or any other average joe might find solace in the theory as it relieves them of guilt. It selfishly allows them to consume the art of bad men without having to consider it’s wider cultural implications. 

And secondly, and most importantly, the men it benefits created the argument. The simple fact is that separating the art from the artist is an argument rooted in gender and as we transition into an era in which men are held accountable for their actions this is becoming even more apparent. For years the actions of men were treated as insignificant as long as they continued to make good ‘art’. In some cases, their unruly and inappropriate behaviour was written off as the consequence of genius, as part of a patriarchal structure built to defend and protect these men. Why? Because men built the system of art and culture. 

You might say that this speech has been focused on men. What about the women who do bad things? Well, frankly, if I thought this motion considered them I would reference them. But women do not enjoy the same protections as men when it comes to their actions. When, in fact, if a woman acted in even remotely like any of the men I’ve referenced, then her career would be over quicker than you can click your fingers. The fact is, men have created this myth, this luxury of being separate from their art while women, people of colour, and other minorities are solidly chained to theirs.

To return, once again, to A.O. Scott in The New York Times

‘The separation of art and artist is proclaimed — rather desperately, it seems to me — as if it were a philosophical principle, rather than a cultural habit buttressed by shopworn academic dogma. But the notion that art belongs to a zone of human experience somehow distinct from other human experiences is both conceptually incoherent and intellectually crippling. Art belongs to life, and anyone — critic, creator or fan — who has devoted his or her life to art knows as much.’ 

A.O. Scott, ‘My Woody Allen Problem’. The New York Times, 2018.

Art is an extension of the artist. It is their experience, their life, their vantage point, their worldview, condensed into a painting, a character, the frame of a film. To separate it is to render it soulless, without intention, and without context. It is to render the role of the artist moot, to assign them as unimportant. Even work that is created anonymously hinges on its connection to the artist. Like Banksy, their work is taken from the walls on which it’s painted and sold to the highest bidder because it’s one of his. 

Art is an extension of the artist. It is their experience, their life, their vantage point, their worldview, condensed into a painting, a character, the frame of a film. To separate it is to render it soulless, without intention, and without context. It is to render the role of the artist moot, to assign them as unimportant. Even work that is created anonymously hinges on its connection to the artist. Like Banksy, their work is taken from the walls on which it’s painted and sold to the highest bidder because it’s one of his. 

The art and the artist are inseparable. One cannot exist without the other. One cannot be properly judged without the other. It is a myth that they could ever be separate. A myth sought to preserve the ‘genius’ of bad men, to allow them to create art and behave badly. And so, I’ll leave you with this quote from writer Roxane Gay: 

‘We can no longer worship at the altar of creative genius while ignoring the price all too often paid for that genius. In truth, we should have learned this lesson long ago, but we have a cultural fascination with creative and powerful men who are also “mercurial” or “volatile,” with men who behave badly. 

These men are given wide berth. Their prominence grants them a certain amount of immunity. We forgive their trespasses because they create such brilliant work, because they are so charismatic, because there is such an allure to people who defy cultural conventions, who dare to do whatever they want. Whether we’re talking about Bill Cosby or Woody Allen or Roman Polanski or Johnny Depp or Kevin Spacey or Harvey Weinstein or Russell Simmons or any man who has built his success on the backs of women and men whose suffering was ignored for the sake of that success, it’s time to say that there is no artistic work, no legacy so great that we choose to look the other way.’

Roxane Gay, ‘Can I Enjoy the Art but Denounce the Artist?’. Marie Claire, 2018.

This speech was first presented on the 12th November 2019 at the Chester Debating Society for which the motion was ‘The House Believes an Artists Behvahiour Can Be Seperated From Thier Art.’

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