Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Separating art from artist: the lesson of Roman Polanski

On September 26, 2009, Roman Polanski, the acclaimed film director who's work includes cinematic jewels Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, and the Pianist, was arrested in Zurich, Switzerland, stemming from his conviction in 1977 for the rape of a 13-year-old girl. He is now facing extradition to the state of California.

Despite Polanski's tragic personal history (his mother died in a Nazi concentration camp; his wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson family), it is hard to work up any sympathy for a rapist who victimized a child.

Nor would I advocate doing so.

But here's my rhetorical question: Should the fallibility of the artist taint the art? That is, can or should we separate an artist's work from the artist himself?

Not so much...
There are countless examples of artists with unsavory behavior who nonetheless create magnificent works of art. Ernest Hemingway was an alcoholic and quite possibly a misogynist, but who can deny the brilliance of For Whom the Bell Tolls or The Old Man and the Sea?

Vincent Van Gogh's work pioneered the Expressionist movement among painters. But the man himself was a mental basket-case, his brain ravaged by untreated syphilis.

Or, on a more contemporary level, consider some of today's popular musicians and songwriters. My ex-brother-in-law is something of an autograph hound, and he often recounted stories of his encounters with today's musical celebrities. He found Bob Dylan and Paul Simon to be imperious and haughty; Ian Anderson, cold and distant; Stephen Stills, surly. But he remains a fan of all of them.

Van Gogh, who died childless, is said to have referred to his paintings as his progeny. And I think he was on to something. When an artist creates a work, in a sense, he gives it a life of its own, an identity in and of itself. The work is birthed, sent forth into the world to be interpreted and admired and, yes, owned by all of humanity.

So, I contend that it is completely consistent to admire an artist's work without endorsing or condemning the artist's person. In fact, I propose that it is essential to do so.

If the taint of our sins bereaves us --we, imperfect humans --of our right to imagine perfection... well, then we're left with nothing. What do you think?

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