Published on February 17, 2014 | by Ivo Aleixo0
Is it possible to separate the art from the artist?A candid conversation about the witty, funny films of Woody Allen will inevitably turn into an uncomfortable discussion about his personal life; more so than most other filmmakers, Woody’s private life seems to overshadow his half-a-century old, critically acclaimed career.
You could argue that, like a lot of notable artists, his best work is well in the past – Annie Hall and Manhattan, arguably his most famous films, both came out in the late ’70s. Yet, with his two most recent films, the consensus that Woody has returned to form has begun to crystallise.
First Midnight in Paris in 2011, which won him an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, was a box-office hit and remains his biggest financial success ever. Now there is Blue Jasmine, his latest film, which has received wide praise from critics and is up for three Academy Awards.
It might be worth pointing out that no one is less impressed by awards ceremonies than Woody himself; he doesn’t show up for any of them; while Annie Hall was winning him four Oscars, he wasn’t there to give an acceptance speech because he was busy playing the clarinet in some jazz club in New York.
Damaging allegationsMore importantly, this wave of praise for his recent films is coinciding with the renewal of damaging allegations about his private life – worthy of being an awkward, uncomfortable film in itself. Isn’t this the guy who left his wife and married their daughter?
Well … not really.
For what it is worth, some misconceptions should be clarified: Woody Allen and Mia Farrow were never married; Soon Yi wasn’t their adopted daughter, just Mia’s; nor was Soon Yi underage when she and Woody began their relationship.
Still, it’s all pretty messed up; if you’re creeped out by the idea of an old man sleeping with his girlfriend’s 19-year-old adopted daughter, welcome to the club.
On top of that, now we have Woody Allen and Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, accusing him of sexually abusing her in 1992, when she was seven years old.
Allen denies it and says it is a strategy conjured up by Farrow; he claims she is nothing more than a vengeful ex-lover holding a twenty-year-old grudge and that she has exploited Dylan into making the allegations by somehow brainwashing her into believing he did it.
Cloud of suspicion
Is the artist indistinguishable from his or her art or should we, as the audience, place some distance between the two and view them as totally different entities?
So how do you digest the information that Woody Allen may have sexually abused a child? Perhaps you will stress that the allegations may be false and point to the fact there has not been a trial or conviction, and that he may be wrongly accused.
Legally, Allen has been cleared of everything – everything except a cloud of suspicion. On the other hand, if the allegations are true, you are technically, albeit indirectly, supporting a paedophile and discrediting a potential rape victim.
The fact of the matter is we don’t know if he did it or not, so it all adds up to a vexing she-said, he-said dilemma; without knowing what actually happened, whichever side we take to be true won’t be anything more than an opinion of someone who was not there.
Such a messy conundrum welcomes the question of whether you should – or even can – separate the art from the artist. Is the artist indistinguishable from his or her art or should we, as the audience, place some distance between the two and view them as totally different entities?
If you are wondering whether despicable people can go on to create great art, the answer is – however uncomfortable it might be – an unequivocal yes.
The very phrasing of a question like “Is it possible to separate the art from the artist?” seems to imply that the artist has done something terrible and that we, as the audience, have to make a decision about how much we let it bother us.
And if you are wondering whether despicable people can go on to create great art, the answer is – however uncomfortable it might be – an unequivocal yes.
Salvador Dali supported fascism, Richard Wagner was a raging anti-Semite, and of the seven main women in Picasso’s life, two went mad and two committed suicide; Norman Mailer once stabbed one of his wives, and William S. Burroughs killed his wife by accidentally shooting her in the head.
It might take a bit of getting used to the idea that the history of great artists is sometimes also an index of nastiness and even criminal behaviour.
The question is also misleading for another reason – when it comes to judging a piece of art, words such as good or bad refer to its aesthetic merits, to which morality doesn’t always play in.
Great art can use horrible and awful things as its subject matter. Depicting something horrific – for instance, slavery in 12 Years a Slave – is by no means endorsing it.
The more important point here, though, is that the whole separating-art-from-the-artist issue is not just complex – it is also uncomfortable.
In the case of Woody Allen, our personal decision of whether or not he is guilty of committing a crime of the most deplorable nature is, at the end of the day, based on what we make of him as an artist.
The sad truth is that because we elevate artists to god-like heights, their body of work can end up functioning as a protective screen around their reputation that will stand even the most damaging allegations, and ultimately coax us into glossing over a catalogue of heinous sins.