Separating Art From The Fallen Artist

Image: Hollywood Reporter 

Image: Hollywood Reporter 

It’s mid-November 2017, after positive reception at several big-name film festivals, Louis C.K.’s I Love You Daddy is slated to release on Nov. 17.  However, on Nov. 10 it is announced that the film’s distributor, The Orchard, will be cancelling the initial premiere in New York City ahead of an impending article from The New York Times. The contents of the article are unknown, but given the current climate in Hollywood, expectations are grave.  

There have been too many falls from grace recently in all corners of fame. To name the seal-breakers – Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey in the entertainment industry, Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose in the news industry all the way to renowned chefs and media personalities Mario Batali and Johnny Iuzzini. However, none were nearly as suspenseful as the allegations against Louis C.K. which were published only days before the release of his major motion picture that would have surely catapulted him into stratospheric levels of comedy stardom.

Yet these are not the first entertainers to have their titanic legacies tarnished by allegations of inappropriate – and even illegal – actions offset. But a great many of these men who were outed as obscenely-grotesque individuals still maintain a revered status in certain entertainment circles and some continue to still get work. This phenomena of amnesia to such atrocities when examining art forces us to ask: can art be separated from the artist?

This question does go far beyond the realm of art. We watched it play out over the summer in Charlottesville, V.A. at a protest over the removal of a Confederate statue that left one woman dead. President Donald Trump, after seeing such protests, asked, “how about Thomas Jefferson? Are we going to take down his statue?” The president actually made a compelling point. Jefferson is still regarded highly in the context of colonial America. But nobody praises Jefferson for his personal life, during which he fathered numerous children with his slaves. This is a fairly similar approach that must be taken with separating art from artists.

Areas where the shameful details of what we know about a person collide with their tremendous work must be cast aside. If Jefferson wrote about the immorality of marital infidelity, such musings would be rendered completely mute. This is the same reason we cannot watch Kevin Spacey pine over a teenager in American Beauty the same way again. Nor can we watch Louis C.K. talk about masturbating anymore.But the recent fall of C.K. is an interesting paradigm to note.

The question of whether art can be separated from artist cannot be resolved with a simple yes or no. No, we cannot watch Bill Cosby give us life lessons on morality anymore. But yes, we can still watch Louis C.K. point out all of the flaws and imperfections of the human condition in his more earnest episodes of Louie and Horace and Pete. Neither program is pretending to be something else, but at the same time it’s not C.K. working with the lowest common denominator again. His masturbation routines in stand-up are off the table now, but Horace and Pete is not simple dick humor.

 It’s the same reason studios have continued to produce and distribute Woody Allen films (even though a Maryland court did have enough evidence to charge him with child molestation in 1993). They are art. They offer the viewer something special that studios, and also the public, are unable to turn down. A recent article in The New York Times, however, posits that Allen’s days of getting a pass from Hollywood may be over, as Amazon weighs the pros and cons of distributing Allen’s latest project A Rainy Day in New York, which was financed and due to be released by the online retailer.

However, the chance for Amazon (and the viewing public) to do the right thing in regard to Woody Allen has passed, which makes him the perfect case study for this argument. The time passed some 20-odd years ago when we knew who he was and did nothing. This is not even Amazon’s first project with Allen in the past two years (Wonder Wheel was released in 2017, Café Society and a limited series Crisis in Six Scenes in 2016).  Suddenly actors who starred in his films such as Colin Firth and Mira Sorvino have decided that it’s time to do the right thing and apologize or vow to never again work with the man who had the worst kept secret in Hollywood – next to Kevin Spacey. Suddenly people have found their conscience. But it’s all terribly translucent as Sorvino won an Oscar in Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite, but has made no mention of disposing of the award — her convictions aren't that strong.

But I am not here to guilt those who enjoy Allen’s films or a good episode of Louie.  I am here to say that you are licensed to enjoy their art. The minds that these works were produced from were certainly wretched at times, but these works are not their creators. It’s like if your friend puts on a song, a song you’ve never heard, and you ask who it is. Turns out it’s some dirtbag singer that you made up your mind you don’t like because what you’ve heard he’s like offstage. Are you to deny yourself the subjective beauty of his work because of the objective reality of his personality? Must your conscience inform the tastes of your ears and eyes? No. We are free to follow our pursuit of aesthetics, even if it sometimes collides with the lurid. For god’s sake, Mel Gibson was just in a family comedy with Will Ferrell. Apparently there’s a statute of limitations on everything, including overt anti-Semitism and blatant racism.  But Hacksaw Ridge was really good, wasn’t it?

This is a topic I could go on for reams about, but I’m really in the mood to watch Annie Hall for the hundredth time.