By Olivia Rodriguez Molinero
Content warning: sexual assault and domestic abuse
If it is discovered that a renowned artist has behaved wickedly, should his art be hidden from public view? Society today is far less willing to tolerate intolerance, so does it then follow that we should boycott the work of such artists? This dilemma extends to all forms of culture, but in recent years many notable cases have arisen in film and music.
In film, one particular figure who springs to mind is Roman Polanski. Polanski is a lauded and award-winning Polish-French film director and fugitive from justice. In 1977, Polanski was arrested and charged with drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl. He pleaded guilty to the lesser offence of ‘unlawful sex with a minor’. The following year, after learning that the judge was planning to reject his plea deal, he fled to Paris. Several other women have since accused Polanski of raping them when they were teenagers.
Polanski was announced as the winner of the Academy Award for Best Director in 2003. In a short YouTube clip of the ceremony, Martin Scorsese is one of the first to offer a standing ovation, followed shortly after by Meryl Streep, Adrien Brody and Harvey Weinstein among others. It is an unabashed display of admiration for Polanski. Furthermore, many actors, including Harrison Ford, Johnny Depp, Ewan McGregor and Kate Winslet, have appeared in Polanski movies in the decades since his conviction. Yet, when the Harvey Weinstein story broke in 2017, the movie industry was shocked to ‘discover’ that someone who was known to so many of them could be a rapist. Had they known, many actors claimed that they never would have worked with him. Not that Hollywood could ever be viewed as a paradigm of virtue, this contrast in reaction is interesting nonetheless.
This issue, of course, extends beyond the film industry. Chris Brown, for example, was charged in March 2009 with felony assault after an altercation with his then-girlfriend Rihanna. Brown pleaded guilty a few months later and accepted a plea deal of community service, five years of probation and domestic violence counselling. Nonetheless, people continue to buy and listen to his records. Morrissey, the prominent frontman of the 80s band The Smiths, has courted controversy with his views. When condemning the problems relating to animal abuse in China, he said: “You can’t help but feel that the Chinese are a subspecies”. As with Brown, people continue to listen to his music. Should their music be removed from radio stations and streaming services? Or should people be granted the choice?
According to singer Nick Cave, “despite how upsetting Morrissey’s views may be”, people should still be allowed to listen to his music: “Personally, when I write a song and release it to the public, I feel it stops being my song… The integrity of the song now rests not with the artist, but with the listener… Morrissey’s political opinion becomes irrelevant. Whatever inanities he may postulate, we cannot overlook the fact that he has written a vast and extraordinary catalogue, which has enhanced the lives of his many fans beyond recognition”. A counter-argument might be that by buying and downloading their music, the public is supporting not only their artistic and creative talents, but their identity as public figures – racist views and all. That, in this way, the art cannot ever really be separated from the artist.
How does one reconcile love of the art with moral disgust for the artist? Which feeling should take precedence? It would, I think, be wrong to tell someone what films and songs they were and were not allowed to experience. If someone wants to watch a Polanski film or listen to a Chris Brown or Morrissey song, they should be allowed to do so. I personally could not watch a Polanski film because of what I know about him, but that is a choice that I have made, and a choice I am grateful to have been able to make. It is not for us to decide, or even legislate for, how people should respond to moral questions. I don’t think it benefits anyone to simply stop watching Polanski films or listening to Morrissey music, particularly if their work has a positive impact on people. Instead, we should be aware of the context surrounding the creators. I think that we are intelligent enough to simultaneously enjoy a film, an album or a work of art and know that the person who created it was or is a hateful person. Otherwise, in the words of Susannah Butter we risk “falling victim to a cult of purity”.
Image: Rafael Yaghobzadeh/AP