Does one need a certain moral flexibility in order to separate the art from the artist? For surely if the artist is the purveyor of said endeavour, then that is just as corrupt and damned as the hand that brought it into being. Or is it?
One thing that has been established beyond any doubt is that on the 11th March 1977, Roman Polanski was arrested in Los Angeles and charged with the drugging and raping of a 13-year-old girl. A subsequent plea bargain reduced the charge and Polanski plead guilty to unlawful sex with a minor. But when he learned that the expected probation was likely to instead be amended to a prison term, the director fled to Paris, never to return to the United States.
As a director, Roman Polanski has been responsible for his fair share of classic films. Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown and The Pianist often top ‘best of’ lists and he continues to make films to this day, despite a number of extradition requests by US authorities. Polanski is still celebrated as a cinematic great, which would be fair enough were it not for the myopic view of critical film circles (fans as well), whereby the art is indeed separated from the artist.
Now, before you go off on one about my tarring everyone with the same brush, consider for a moment, the case of Victor Salva. The director of the the Jeepers Creepers trilogy was arrested following production of he horror movie Clownhouse and charged with ‘lewd and lascivious conduct, oral copulation with a person under 14 and procuring a child for pornography.’
After serving prison time, Salva was bizarrely allowed to work with children again, notably on his next studio movie, Powder. However, in an even more disturbing twist, the third and most recent film in the Jeepers Creepers franchise included a plot thread regarding a young female character’s difficulties with her stepfather. The original cut included the line: “Can you blame him though? I mean look at her. The heart wants what it wants, am I right?” This was subsequently removed from the theatrical release.
Notwithstanding the question as to whether a convicted pedophile should be afforded opportunities to make movies, much less work with children, the controversy surrounding Salva remains. Protests over the director’s continued employment in the motion picture industry caused the cancellation of the world premiere of Jeepers Creepers 3 and the film’s release to Netflix set off a torrent of comments on the streaming site regarding Salva’s past.
Polanski, meanwhile, suffers none of the same enmity. In fact, the Guardian ran a story earlier this year that asks why the man is still so revered. Whatever your thoughts on this, Polanski’s films are more popular than ever. Personally, I have no great claim to fandom when it comes to his oeuvre. I’ve seen about four of his films in total, including the most obvious; Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, et al. One I keep coming back to, however, is Repulsion.
Obviously, given everything I have already spoken of, could I (indeed, should I) separate art from the artist and watch the film? Am I supporting a convicted child rapist by sitting down to enjoy Repulsion? The same question arises with Woody Allen (allegedly), Eric Gill, even Caravaggio. As revelations of sexual and emotional misconduct in the entertainment industry continue to pile up, it’s becoming ever more difficult to trust our artistic heroes. It’s a sad state of affairs, though important that this information is brought to light and the guilty are punished. Had Polanski committed his crime today, would his attempts to flee justice proved futile? There would most certainly have been an incredible amount of media interest and the possible/probably swift end to his career.
It’s interesting – as I sat down to write this, I had fully intended to talk more about the film and whether I’d missed a classic, but maybe sometimes the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.
In order to enjoy the art, do we have to empathise with the artist? The short answer is no. But it will inevitably colour our engagement with it, and that may ultimately compel us to avert our gaze. It’s well worth reading this article (that @StrangeEdenArt shared with me via Twitter) with quotes from Polanski’s victim. it may surprise you. What are your thoughts?