Should we celebrate disreputable artists like Woody Allen?

ABC Films

By Karen Yuan, Daily Arts Writer
Published February 9, 2014

When Alaric Hunt wrote for his novel’s bio that he was “currently serving a life sentence,” he wasn’t being figurative.

Hunt wrote his prize-winning novel, “Cuts Through Bone,” while imprisoned for starting a fire that killed a woman. The novel, which won a mystery-writing contest in January, also landed Hunt a publishing contract and a $10,000 advance. Rather than follow the adage of “write what you know,” Hunt wrote a private-eye story aided by information gleaned from “Law & Order” episodes.

Hunt is able to earn money from his book sales, which leads to this much-debated question: Should a criminal be allowed to profit from his writing? In this case, the art isn’t the artist — the novel’s content is not about Hunt’s past crimes. However, news of Hunt’s prize has distressed the family of his victim, Joyce Austin. In an interview with The New York Times, Joyce’s mother stated, “Knowing this creates a lot of emotions I don’t want to deal with.”

How separately should we view an artist and their work? The dilemma of Hunt and his novel echoes the controversy surrounding another author, Orson Scott Card. Though his books, which include the bestselling “Ender’s Game,” are wildly successful and widely loved, Card himself has proven to be both homophobic and racist in multiple interviews. These personal views aren’t reflected within “Ender’s Game,” but regardless, we read his books with the shadow of his beliefs cast over them.

The allegations of Woody Allen’s sexual abuse of his adopted daughter are the most recent and well-known of these controversies. Allen, unlike Hunt, hasn’t been punished for his alleged actions, but they’re also actions — much more than Card’s opinions or bigoted words. It feels painfully different.

Woody Allen has won multiple Oscars and directed movies such as “Blue Jasmine” (2013), “Midnight in Paris” (2011) and “Manhattan” (1979). People love these movies. On Rotten Tomatoes, “Blue Jasmine” is rated at 91 percent, “Midnight in Paris” at 93 percent and “Manhattan” at 98 percent. The Guardian has named him the most recognizable director in the history of film.

It’s always difficult to reconcile a beloved piece of work with an artist’s unsavory past. Our own ethics get called into question: If the prize judges knew Hunt’s background while reviewing his work, who’s to say someone else may have been selected as winner?

But how do we respond to an artist’s disrepute? Do we boycott his works by not buying them? Not watching or reading them at all? Actively ensuring others avoid his works? There aren’t clear guidelines for us, the duped audience.

However we do respond, it must recognize not only Allen, who has had a platform to speak to us for more than 50 years, but also Dylan Farrow, who has only reached out this month about the alleged abuse.

In Dylan Farrow’s open letter to the New York Times, she writes what we all need to read:

“Imagine your seven-year-old daughter being led into an attic by Woody Allen. Imagine she spends a lifetime stricken with nausea at the mention of his name. Imagine a world that celebrates her tormenter.

Are you imagining that? Now, what’s your favorite Woody Allen movie?”