Madeleine Gaudin: What happens when bad people make good art?

Tuesday, October 4, 2016 - 4:41pm

The question isn’t whether it can happen. It can happen — it happens all the time. The canon of male genius is full of rapists, abusers, racists and anti-Semites. The question is what are we — as consumers of art — supposed to do with it? What happens to good art when its creator is a bad person?

At the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, “The Birth of a Nation” was bought by Fox Searchlight Pictures for a record setting $17.5 million. The film instantly shot to the top of award show conversation and hyped as one of fall’s best films.

Seventeen years earlier, the film’s director and star, Nate Parker, was accused, along with the film’s co-writer Jean Celestin, of raping an unconscious classmate while at Pennsylvania State University. The news resurfaced around the time of the film’s acquisition by Fox Searchlight with the added information that the victim, who remains anonymous, had committed suicide in 2012.

The tone surrounding the film changed dramatically. Posters advertising the film in L.A. were spray-painted with the word “Rapist.” People wrote op-eds and penned Facebook statuses. The world tweeted, texted and did something they almost never do: they believed the victim. 

Calls were made to boycott the film, and that’s when things got even more morally complex. That call asked the question: can you separate the art from its artist?

I’m going to break all the rules of making a good argument with this one, and say both “yes” and “no.” Art can stand on its own. You don’t need to know who directed a movie or wrote a story or painted a painting to recognize it as good art. Art stands alone through anonymity born of ignorance all the time. For the knowledgeable consumer, the distinction is harder to make. It becomes more of a conscious decision.

On Friday, “The Birth of a Nation” will open at movie theaters across the country. I don’t know if boycotting the film is the right way to reconcile the evils of its creator. Art is not its artist, but it must be viewed through the lens of its artist. “The Birth of a Nation” is not Nate Parker’s rape case. But understanding the pieces of an artist’s life — whether criminal or otherwise — is necessary to fully understanding the art that person creates. Nate Parker and the art he makes is the product of everything that has ever happened to him, the sum of all his experiences, both the good and the bad.

I understand people who won’t see this film in theaters because they don’t want Parker to get any of their money. That makes sense to me. I support the camp of people who would rather save the eight dollars and find the movie online. But I don’t agree that because the filmmaker is a “bad” person, their art should not be consumed.

Part of my disagreement, I think, comes from the fact that this widespread uproar hasn’t been pointed in the same degree towards the art of other accused rapists. Nate Parker isn’t the first man to commit a sexual assault, and he’s not the first man to make a movie. He’s also not the first man to do both. Convicted rapist Roman Polanski won an Oscar 25 years after his victim first came forward. Accused child molester Woody Allen is still around and sometimes people still pay attention to him. No one boycotts either of these filmmakers.

Perhaps it’s Parker’s youth, and even more likely it’s his race, that stirs such an intense (although not wholly undeserved) reaction from the public. I’m happy that people are upset about an issue that so often and so easily gets excused when it comes to celebrities. But I’m having a hard time believing this anger comes from a pure place of support for survivors of sexual assault.

Perhaps still, the anger is aimed less at Parker’s crime and more at his — and by extension his film’s — failure to do everything it was supposed to do. “The Birth of a Nation” was supposed to be revolutionary, it was supposed to win awards, it was supposed to change the way people think. But then its creator was outed as the type of person we like to think is incapable of making something that does those things.

But that does not mean the film is no longer what it once was — what it was before we knew who its creator was. Nate Parker may be a bad person, but he is a bad person who made a good movie. Because as awful as it may feel to admit it, those two things can coexist.

If you want to be mad, be mad. I’m mad. I’m mad that Parker’s victim was made a victim; I’m mad she wasn’t supported or believed. If you’re angry, ask yourself what you are angry at. Are you angry that Parker sexually assaulted his college classmate or are you angry that his art suffered because of it?  

Why do we pursue art— watch Polanski movies, listen to Wagner, read Eliot — unless to feel something, some fleeting emotion that brings us closer to the center of ourselves? Art is the most beautiful gift that can be given to a species of narcissists. It’s a unique experience to look into something that isn’t a mirror and see ourselves.

That’s why bad people can make good art, and that’s how we are still allowed to appreciate it.

As a college-aged woman in 2016, I don’t expect to have an easy time watching this movie. I am never going to be able to separate the film, or any subsequent films made by Parker from what he did. But, I’m going to watch “The Birth of A Nation” and I’m going to try — to the best of my biased ability — to meet it on its own terms.

Because ultimately the answer to the question “what happens when bad people make good art?” is: some people consume it and other people do not, but only those that do consume it allow themselves the opportunity to potentially feel something that only art can elicit.