Words by Karli Settimio
“What about you? Did you have a little crush on him?” are the seemingly innocent words that were written by Woody Allen in his 1980 film, Stardust Memories. The character, Sandy, modeled after Allen himself, asks his girlfriend this question in reference to her feelings about her father as a young girl. Maybe some viewers and critics might view this as a quirky exchange between characters on a taboo subject, but knowing the accusations against Allen, these words might have a more chilling effect. Even with the public knowing his wildly inappropriate relationship with underage girls (including his daughters), Woody Allen remains one of the most critically acclaimed writers and directors of our time.
The dilemma that Woody Allen fans face is not a new one. Many people have been conflicted over issues of figuring out a way to compartmentalize who the artist is with their art. I have had this problem for some time. Rosemary’s Baby is one of my favorite horror films and I used to rant and rave about how great is before hearing the not-so-new news that Roman Polanski raped a 13-year-old girl. After this shocking revelation and some careful deliberation and thought, I have come to some conclusions regarding liking art made by bad people.
There are some instances where it appears to be impossible to separate the artist from the art. A perfect example of this would be Woody Allen, since most of his films are inspired by his own life, and some of his characters are even inspired by himself. Woody Allen and his characters are nihilists who struggle to understand why moral boundaries exist for them. He and his characters often complain life is purposeless and act out in ways that disregard others, but makes sure to justify it with an existentialist point of view. Woody Allen’s characters objectify women and carry on relationships with underage girls. Feeling a kinship with some of his specific films is like feeling a kinship with the man himself. R. Kelly, writer and producer of the single, Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, has had several allegations of sexual relations with a minor. Is it appropriate to appreciate his music knowing his inappropriate relationships with underage girls possibly inspired the sexual nature of his music?
The newest crisis related to this phenomenon deals with The Cosby Show. Is it justified to support the show and not the man? The Cosby Show brings up issues that are even more complex. The show itself could be considered one of the most influential television shows in history and episodes of it have been inducted into The Library of Congress. The Cosby Show combated negative stereotypes of people of color and has been a significant positive force for race relations in the U.S. Most likely, the show will not be able to separate itself from Bill Cosby’s rape scandal in years to come. However, Cliff Huxtable – the fictional character that Cosby plays on the show – is not Bill Cosby. Appreciating Cliff’s qualities are not the same as appreciating Cosby himself. The consequences of this otherwise positive show being affiliated with sexual assault is solely to blame on Cosby himself.
But how do sexual assault survivors feel? As important as The Cosby Show was to the world, can we ever look at it again with the same perspective? Anyone watching The Cosby Show now would be inevitably reminded of Bill Cosby’s actions. Just imagine how the women he assaulted would feel watching it. Dylan Farrow, the alleged survivor of assault by Woody Allen, certainly has strong feelings about the lack of attentiveness the media has given to the charges of assault Woody Allen faced. She has lived her life overwhelmed and haunted by praises of Woody Allen’s work. The issue is even more convoluted by survivors who do not always feel like society should condemn these artists. Samantha Geimer, the woman who was raped by Roman Polanski in 1977 when she was 13, wrote an op-ep piece for the New York Times saying, “No one needs to worry about me…. Mr. Polanski and his films should be honored according to the quality of the work.”
Ultimately, a person has to make their own calculations on how to integrate an artist’s personal life into their work. However, it is extremely important to take into account how the artist’s personal life affects his or her art. We should be critical in our consumption of any media, but especially when we are made aware of issues with the artist. For years, Bill Cosby put himself in the position of a moral authoritarian over the black community. In his now infamous Pound Cake speech, Cosby blamed unarmed black people for getting shot by the police years before his sexual assault allegations even surfaced, saying, “People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake! And then we all run out and are outraged, ‘The cops shouldn’t have shot him.’ What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?” Does his hypocrisy change things for people who still wish to enjoy The Cosby Show? Surely some people find it despicable for Cliff Huxtable to be teaching children lessons on how to behave.
Often we become unaware of certain issues with people since our knowledge is so determined by mainstream media. Does anyone seem to care that Matthew Broderick killed a mother and daughter with his negligent driving? No one really seems to know. However, many years later, people still talk about Polanski’s case to the point where Samantha Grier still deals with harassment from paparazzi anytime Polanski raises a finger. Just as it is important to be critical of art, it is important to be critical of the public perception of certain artists, no matter what the court of public opinion says.
There are lines people need to decide if they will cross. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an adulterer. Does that affect how people view his work? Does that make his accomplishments somehow lesser? To the vast majority of people, the answer is no. When people do decide that they will continue to watch Roman Polanski’s films or The Cosby Show, there are some things they should do as a responsible viewer. Understand why you like or dislike something, acknowledge what was done and do not make any excuses on someone’s behalf. Make sure to sympathize with the other perspective and understand that there are people who cannot watch or enjoy the things these people make, which is completely justified.
The biggest reason people defend these artists is denial and repression. People make conscious and unconscious choices to forget the bad. Ignoring the issue is the worst thing we can do because we send a message that this type of behavior is acceptable and that victims do not matter. You do not have to be a bad person for still enjoying The Cosby Show or Rosemary’s Baby, but take into consideration why you like certain things. Do you enjoy Woody Allen films because of his provocative dialogue on issues of consent? Do you like his careless attitude towards others that is presented in a humorous way?
Remember that people are complicated and that the things people do and create are just one part of a whole. Sometimes, supporting the art is supporting the artist and in cases like Roman Polanski or Bill Cosby, that should be avoided as best we can. Society should not excuse bad behavior based on work these people do. Perhaps Woody Allen should not have gotten the lifetime achievement award in 2014 without any mention of the terrible things he has done.
So, can you separate the artist from the art? Probably not, but that does not mean that it is irresponsible to enjoy the art of certain less-than-favorable artists as long as it is done in a responsible way.