Morally questionable artists & their art: Where to draw the line?

by Anya Jaremko-Greenwold

In case you haven’t heard, filmmaker Woody Allen is under fire yet again. The sexual abuse allegations made against him by Dylan, his daughter with Mia Farrow (Dylan penned an open letter in the New York Times over a year ago), state that she was molested by her father at the tender age of 7. Dylan’s brother Ronan has publicly backed her story, and last week published a seething op-ed in The Hollywood Reporter declaring support for his sister and condemning both Hollywood and the press for allowing Allen continued success in the film business. Allen was never convicted of these charges, and his defenders (including another of his sons, Moses Farrow) allege that Mia took bitter revenge following her divorce from Allen (who went on to marry Mia’s adopted daughter, Soon-Yi), implanting the false notion of Allen-as-molester in Dylan’s head from a young age. Phew. A tangled web, to be sure.

I have no superior knowledge of this case. I fervently believe abuse victims should be encouraged to speak out, as they are far too often silenced. I’m happy Dylan and Ronan were given the chance to tell their stories. And I agree with Ronan: Far too many powerful men escape justice in the face of heinous crimes because they’re protected by status, money or artistic acclaim. Graphic testimony from 30 or 40 of Bill Cosby’s rape victims was needed before global opinion of the legendary comic began to shift.

It’s essential to discuss this, to hear and consider every perspective. But recently, many people have called for censorship of the art itself, a hasty and troublingly restrictive course of action. Some declare the treasuring of Woody Allen films (a common pastime of cinephiles the world over) renders you a supporter of child rape or an advocate for the dismissal of abuse victims. I think the censorship of art is dangerous, regardless of an artist’s ethics.

“Alice Through the Looking Glass,” the hallucinatory follow-up to Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” (2010) hits theaters at the end of this month. Today’s digital landscape afforded Ronan and Dylan the chance to publish inflammatory articles reaching a wide audience – but the author of “Alice,” Lewis Carroll, lived and worked in the 19th century pre-Internet. That’s probably why so few people know about his controversial relationship with Alice Liddell, the real little girl who served as Carroll’s titular and narrative inspiration. There is no direct evidence of foul play between the grown man and his child friend, but Carroll (like “Peter Pan” author J. M. Barrie after him) spent an inordinate amount of time hanging around kids, Alice being his favorite. He took beautiful photographs of them, often in mildly seductive poses. Some of these photos feature Alice herself, white dress slipping off her shoulder. Possibly innocent. Possibly an echo of a more adult sentiment. It’s hard to know.

There are many great artists who have had led dubious or even morally destitute private lives. There are also scores of similarly powerful men who haven’t used their money and status to make art that shapes and inspires us (the Koch Brothers, Martin Shkreli, Donald Trump). Making good art is by no means a consolation for nastiness. But despite the accusations leveled against Allen, I cannot so easily relinquish the joy his films have brought me. His movies (especially the early, funny ones) are love letters to New York, celebrations of neuroses and uncertainty, musings on the philosophical implications of death. “Annie Hall” taught me real love doesn’t fade just because a relationship ends. “Manhattan” taught me you can fall in love with a place as easily as you can with a person. “Love and Death” made me laugh harder than any film ever has. And I’ll never stop rereading “Alice in Wonderland,” a book of dazzling nonsense and mad fantasy. We cannot discard works of art and literature because the men behind them were assholes. Carroll’s contribution to the eternal collection of human expression is too important. So is Allen’s.

I want art to be good, challenging and life-affirming. Even if the artist is reprehensible, the art is offensive and the message flawed, dark or unpleasant, I defend the artist’s right to make it. Artists are mere mortals who will eventually die – but their work lives on. Once released into the world, art ceases to be a contained and static entity and becomes a piece of humanity instead, belonging to no one and everyone. A million different interpretations are heaped upon it, and it absorbs them all, like a giant sponge. That’s where the distinction needs to happen. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in The Atlantic, “You could even say that art is akin to an artist’s child, and so we shouldn’t blame the progeny for the sins of the parent.” Touché.


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