Woody Allen
Andreas Tai [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Can we separate the life and work of artists?

What happens when we learn that a person whose creative work we admire supports causes we find offensive, or has engaged in acts contrary to our values? Does this change our opinion of their work? Ronan Farrow’s renewed accusations this week in a Hollywood Reporter article that his father, the director Woody Allen, molested his sister Dylan open a window for reflection on these issues.

It’s important to note that Allen has not been charged with any crime: Farrow’s are only allegations, first put forth in the early 1990s. As I write, Allen is in Cannes, where his new film, “Café Society,” has the prestigious opening night spot at the famous French film festival. Coming at a peak moment of his father’s career, Farrow’s piece is ostensibly meant as a call to look beyond the glamour, on and off screen, and consider the weight of the private sphere.

History is full of people who have created beautiful and awe-inspiring things for causes that we today might find reprehensible. Leni Riefenstahl was by all accounts a very talented documentary filmmaker, but she worked for Adolf Hitler. And a long line of people made incredible work while holding private convictions or engaging in acts that we might find abominable. If the allegations were proved true, Allen would be in this latter category.

And while it’s fruitless to apply today’s standards to people who lived in the past, we can choose what to do with the information once we have it.
First, we have to decide if we care. Does it change your experience of a Le Corbusier building to know that when it was built the modernist architect was a convinced fascist?

Or what about the artist Pablo Picasso? When you know he beat his wives and lovers, does it change how you view his paintings, especially the many that feature women?

Today’s complex media landscape multiplies these dilemmas. If one of your favorite artists or stars tweets something racist or sexist, will that carry over to how you think about him or her as performer? Or what if you like a song, then watch the video and find it so saturated with violence and sexism that you change the channel? This happened to me at the gym the other day. I still have the song in my music library. Will I feel differently when I listen to it again?

Of course, if we feel strongly enough, we can boycott that person’s work. This was the fate of the 19th-century German composer Richard Wagner, who authored anti-Semitic essays along with his musical masterpieces, which include operas some believe caricature Jews. Even though Theodor Herzl, a founder of Zionism, loved Wagner, so did Hitler. So the state of Israel unofficially banned performances of his work until 2012. Did Wagner’s music change that year? No, but in that case it became acceptable to put aside the politics and just appreciate the music.

American society seems to be going in a different direction.

Read the entire essay at CNN

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