There is a desire to see our great artists and thinkers as more than merely talented or brilliant. We want them to be morally impeccable as well. This manifests itself in the call for our entertainers and athletes to be “role models” and it is cause for a lot of handwringing when they fall short. This expectation put upon our public figures is always doomed to failure because it does not allow for human fallibility and the fixation on artists’ moral integrity distorts the value of their achievements.
The publication of Dylan Farrow’s open letter in the New York Times alleging sexual abuse by filmmaker Woody Allen revived a controversy that has dogged the filmmaker for the past two decades. In the 1990s, when Woody Allen and Mia Farrow (Dylan’s adoptive mother) were divorcing, claims of child abuse were made but later dismissed when a panel of court-appointed experts concluded that Dylan Farrow’s stories were inconsistent and suggested that her mother may have coached her testimony. However, other reporting on the matter has questioned the court’s findings and maintained public speculation.
Whatever the truth may be, the stigma of the allegations will follow Woody Allen to his grave and beyond. However, I don’t wish to spend this editorial picking over the facts in the case. These are matters for the courts, social services, and biographers. The problem that Farrow’s letter presents for those of us who like Woody Allen’s films, and movies in general, is how to reconcile an impressive and important body of work with the personal failings and criminal outrages of the creator.
Farrow’s accusations have elicited impassioned reactions online and in the press. Some of the commentaries have been sane and well considered such as Tanya Steele’s piece at IndieWire which asks readers to “honor the victim” while recounting her own conflicted relationship with the music of Marvin Gaye. But the loudest and most consistent response has called for a virtual immolation of Woody Allen’s filmography.
As is often the case with moral outrage, passion has led these writers to make stupid and absurd claims. At The Wrap, Richard Stellar rages that it’s time to shun Woody Allen and his work, arguing that “when you look the other way at the dark side of genius, you become culpable in the crime.” Making a similar argument, Roxane Gay of Salon wrote that Cate Blanchette, who won a Golden Globe for her performance in Allen’s Blue Jasmine, “chose art over humanity.” As Stellar and Gay would have it, being in a Woody Allen film makes an actor (and presumably a makeup artist, a set dresser, an editor, or a key grip) an accessory to child abuse and watching his films turns the viewer into an enabler. This is as absurd as arguing that Enron’s janitorial staff were accomplices to Kenneth Lay’s financial crimes.
Art must be evaluated on its own merits and to that end any emphasis on the artist's biography is usually trivial and almost always irrelevant. Reflecting on the implications of Dylan Farrow’s accusations against Woody Allen, commentator Andrew Sullivan thoughtfully links the issue to the valuation of other great artists and thinkers. He writes:
“And so it is essential to understand [Martin] Heidegger’s foul complicity in the Third Reich but impossible to reduce his world-historical genius to it. That T.S Eliot was a rancid anti-Semite does not, frustratingly, dilute the perfection of the Four Quartets, nor does Philip Larkin’s racism alter the triumph of Aubade. [Thomas] Jefferson’s thought and career, for that matter, will always elude the facts of his ownership of human beings and intercourse with some of them.”
In addition to those named by Sullivan, consider what would be lost if we cast out the works of artists with problematic personal lives: Richard Wagner and Mel Gibson were known to be anti-Semitic, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and Lord Byron were rumored to be abusive husbands, and Michael Jackson, Errol Flynn, and Roman Polanski were plagued by charges of child molestation, with the latter’s guilt confirmed in court. Throwing the works of these men out of the canon does not repair the damage done to their victims. It only compounds the loss to the culture.
The case for casting out art is especially problematic when applied to motion pictures. Despite what auteur theorists would have us believe, movies are not made by a single person. They are made by casts and filmmaking crews that may number in the hundreds. Even a filmmaker like Woody Allen, who writes, directs, and frequently acts in his films and can be rightly called an auteur, cannot be considered the sole author of his motion pictures. When critics call for the banishment or destruction of a director’s work they also call for the destruction of the work by everyone else involved in the production.
The moral passion elicited by accusations of abuse is entirely warranted. Sexual abuse is a tremendous problem and quite often our society fails to adequately protect the victims or prosecute the guilty. The enormity of the problem and our moral disgust with it can cause feelings of helplessness in those who are witnesses to the aftermath, whether that happens indirectly through high profile news stories or personally in the lives of our family, friends, and acquaintances. This point is made plain in Stellar’s piece for The Wrap, in which he recalls his own experience with abuse—an acquaintance had abused a young woman—and in a transparently guilt ridden admission he calls for the purge of Woody Allen and his work because, “I owe it to every child who is abused by an authority figure. I owe it to the broken souls who will spend the rest of their lives trying to get back on track. I owe it to the children of those abused who question the intermittent sadness in their parents. I owe it to myself as a human being.” Clearly, Stellar’s call for a ban on Woody Allen has less to do with Dylan Farrow and much more to do with his own guilt. And whatever twinge of discomfort we all experience while viewing the films of Woody Allen or Roman Polanski and others is really an acknowledgement of our own shame and the failures of our society.
If Woody Allen is guilty of sexual assault, let him be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But let’s not kid ourselves, as Ellen Tordesillas did by suggesting that “boycotting Allen’s films would go a long way” to fighting child abuse. Dismissing his body of work under the auspices of combating child abuse is disingenuous at best and, worse, gives us the false sense of satisfaction that we’ve done something productive. The call for us to choose between our admiration of a film and our moral disgust with its director is a false dilemma. In short, love the art and hate the artist.