Sophia Kaufman: Separating art from the artist: Take 200

Monday, March 13, 2017 - 6:14pm

Casey Affleck won an Oscar, so as per usual when a rich guy in Hollywood with serious sexual allegations against him wins something, everyone is revisiting the “can you separate the art from the artist” debate. Even weeks later, my Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of people giving their own takes on whether this separation is possible, necessary and appropriate.

This debate is not new, and even though it has been around for centuries, it feels fresh, as the current design of American society makes it almost impossible not to be constant consumers of media, or avoid the social implications of everything we do.

Do I believe that I can like a movie without liking the heinous things its director has done? Yes. I can adore the opening sequence of “Manhattan” while still despising Woody Allen (though admittedly those emotions may be heightened for me by virtue of being a native New Yorker who really doesn’t like seeing him around town). But this debate isn’t as simple as it is made out to be; it holds more questions than just whether it’s possible to draw a line between artist and artwork.

The fundamental question at the root of this debate is whether we as a society believe that a person who has committed a crime — assuming for simplicity’s sake that the crime isn’t something banal like jaywalking — should be allowed to participate in the production of art. Opinions on this often depend on the crime itself, the perpetrator, the kind of art they want to produce, their current status of incarceration or punishment and their attitude (i.e., level of remorse). The follow-up question is whether they should be allowed to reap the benefits of others consuming their art, and the third is whether the rest of us should want to consume it at all.

But the reality of this debate in current contexts, and the reason I’m sure no one is confused as to why I’m writing about it within the framework of a Gender and Media column, is because nowadays when people talk about separating the art from the artist, they are almost always talking about sexual misconduct — because it is only within the realm of sexual misconduct that we have a supposed gray area the size of an ocean. No other kind of behavior or crime elicits such a passionate rush by the masses to this gray area where people sit and argue whether something does or does not count as assault, whether someone is or is not a rapist, whether she was or was not “asking for it” by her dress, her behavior, her intoxication, her agreement to work on that film or with this director. When it comes to allegations of sexual harassment or assault — against Casey Affleck, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Nate Parker, the list goes on and on — everyone seems to jump to defend their art while simultaneously diminishing the severity of or questioning the validity of the accusations.

I’m not just talking about Casey Affleck, or the women who have come out with their stories about his behavior. I’m talking about the rampant harassment and assault that women in this particular male-dominated, art-based industry still face. I’m talking about the patriarchal power structures so deeply entrenched they leave women who do make it in the door— actors, writers, assistants, directors and those who do the invisible, non-artistic work — vulnerable not only to these kinds of things but also to a boys club that protects their own. The rate of fake accusations of rape and abuse is incredibly low, but our society views those as more dangerous to our precious art world than the literal safety and well-being of the women involved.

Another aspect missing from current discussions about this debate is that there’s an obvious reflection of people’s ingrained attitudes towards women in the art that they make. People write what they know. Woody Allen knows how to be an old guy going after women half his age, so that’s what he writes. That’s why so many of his movies are so damn predictable: Beautiful young ingenue blinks at a cynical, grizzled man twice her age, who suddenly realizes that he can embrace life again. Many people believe the allegations of rape against Nate Parker to be true — and if they are, is it really a surprise that a man who has committed sexual assault directs a film in which the rape of women is used solely as a plot device to further the arcs of the heroic men?  Is it really a surprise that a male-dominated industry produces films in which women are still often written as two-dimensional archetypes — and when they aren’t, the writers are asked why they write such “strong female characters?” Is it really a surprise that the film industry is one of the biggest contributors to rape culture, when so many movies sexualize the lack of consent?

The most visceral example I can think of that shows how ingrained attitudes towards women is manifested in the production of art is the rape scene in Bertolucci’s film “Last Tango in Paris,” in which Marlon Brando plays a character who rapes Maria Schneider, using a stick of butter for lubrication. In the past year, it has come out that this scene wasn’t filmed with Schneider’s full consent; she was only informed of how they planned to film the scene once she arrived on set, and didn’t consent to the butter, but felt at the time she couldn’t say anything, as she was young and new and Brando and Bertolucci were stars. Bertolucci, in a revolting display of dehumanization, didn’t deny this; he defended his decision by saying he, “... wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress. I wanted her to react humiliated.” Instead of trusting that she was a capable actor and treating her like a fellow professional, he targeted the pain he thought she would feel as a woman, for whom the fear of gendered violence is a constant reality. His lack of respect for women was directly translated into the production of his art.

Last year, Lady Gaga brought survivors of sexual assault onstage as she sang a song about survival, and they received a standing ovation and several hugs from the celebrities in the audience. But that’s not nearly enough. I’m still waiting for someone to get up on the that stage and hold everyone in the audience accountable for their normalization of sexual harassment in the industry, that is both bolstered and reflected in the kinds of subtle misogyny still present in the films that they make. We shouldn’t be angry about Casey Affleck winning an Oscar; that’s just the natural culmination of the atmosphere in which women are often still expected to put up or shut up. It’s not that Affleck’s artistic performance itself is tarnished by his behavior; it’s that people shouldn’t want to work with him in the first place, or support someone who acts that way.

Fully separating the art from the artist is a seductive position; it allows us to be voracious consumers of art that is inhibited only by our own tastes  — and for the vast majority of us, our strained wallets — so we fool ourselves into thinking it’s really that simple. If you believe that art, from conception to production to consumption, is inherently political, as I and most of the people I know do, then it isn’t that simple. It can’t be. This argument isn’t about whether the morality of the artist affects the intrinsic quality of the art; what people are really asking is if we should let our perception of the artist inform or affect our perception of the art. If you want to pretend it’s possible to separate the art from the artist, despite the fact that you literally can’t, as the art is a reflection of the artist’s experiences, as has been proven time and again, fine. But don’t pretend you can separate either the art or the artist from the inherently patriarchal power structures in which they are both already ingrained. 

Silence can be deafening in more ways than one. The silence that so often meets these women when they take the brave step of bringing the behavior of these men to light is repulsive. And Brie Larson’s silence — her refusal to clap for Affleck on national TV — was brave, but it was drowned out. I’m still waiting for us to get to a place where Casey Affleck would have been left standing up there, holding the weight of that trophy in his sweaty hands, looking out over a sea of stony faces, with a deafening silence ringing in his ears.