“What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie,” asks Dylan Farrow in her open letter printed in Kristof’s blog on February 1st. Annie Hall! The part where they’re on her roof. . . ha! . . . with the subtitles! . . . oh my gosh, and how much would I kill to be able to pull a Marshall McLuhan from behind a movie poster when I need him?! . . . wouldn’t Zizek love to be fished out in those circumstances?. . . the best! . . . and I looooove Duane: “I tell you this as an artist because I think you’ll understand. . .” ha! Ha!
In the days after Ms. Farrow’s letter I read every blog post: the response; the response to the response; the Vanity Fair articles; posts of those in the know, in one inside circle or the other; the posts of those who authorized the posts; and tried to fathom the details made public to us. Like you, I engaged in debate over those tenuous details. Woody Allen’s guilt or innocence suddenly was at the silent center of taste. Do I love the films of a child molester? It was the question behind Dylan Farrow’s initial question: what’s your favorite Woody Allen film? And therefore, something came to be at stake in Allen’s guilt or innocence in the way that the art that we love becomes a part of us, no simple affiliation. People declared their outright disgust, rejecting his body of work, condemning everything he’s ever made and maybe even claiming it testament to the crime. Others claimed his innocence, displaying encyclopedic knowledge of the original 1993 allegations and the proceedings of the investigation. And then others still went for a plea bargain, allowing that his marriage to Soon-Yi Previn was socially unpalatable but that didn’t make him a criminal. This would perhaps be followed up by a reference to Charlie Chaplin’s marriage to a rather young lady, which lasted the rest of his life.
Important discussions about sexual violence, abuse, divorce, and the power of Hollywood erupted around the recent articles. And another longstanding problem in regard to art reminded itself to us as well. What do ethics and art have to do with one another? The image of the good artist who is also a “good person” is less familiar to us than that of the suffering artist type. Take a few from Allen’s own films: the growling and miserable Max in Hannah and Her Sisters or the members of the lost generation drinking their way through Midnight in Paris, for example. What we call selfishness or self-destruction in others often gets the rap of romantic in the artist. We mind so little that our artists often end up with a shotgun in their mouths that we might even come to expect it.
But again, how do we resolve the problem of art and ethics, or what do they owe to one another? Charles McGrath, in his June 21, 2012 article in the Times, “Good Art, Bad People,” asks the uncomfortable question of the relation of good art to the bad person, creating a regular rap sheet of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries:
Probably the most frequently cited example is Wagner, whose anti-Semitism was such that he once wrote that Jews were by definition incapable of art. Degas, a painter often praised for his warmth and humanity, was also an anti-Semite and a staunch defender of the French court that falsely convicted Alfred Dreyfus. Ezra Pound was both anti-Semitic and proto-fascist, and if you want to let him off the hook because he was probably crazy as well, the same excuse cannot be made for his friend and protégé T. S. Eliot, whose anti-Semitism, it now seems pretty clear, was more than just casual or what passed for commonplace in those days.
[. . .] Norman Mailer in a rage once tried to kill one of his wives. The painter Caravaggio and the poet and playwright Ben Jonson both killed men in duels or brawls. Genet was a thief, Rimbaud was a smuggler, Byron committed incest, Flaubert paid for sex with boys.
The article begs the question of who really suffers for art:
A more extreme example is Hemingway, whose domestic record is less inspiring than his artistic one: four marriages and at least two screwed-up sons. In November 1952, just after his 21st birthday, Gregory, the youngest (and arguably most talented) of Hemingway’s three children, wrote to his father: “When it’s all added up, papa, it will be: he wrote a few good stories, had a novel and fresh approach to reality and he destroyed five persons — Hadley, Pauline, Marty [Martha Gelhorn, Hemingway’s third wife], Patrick and possibly myself. Which do you think is the most important, your self-centered shit, the stories or the people?”
Tim Parks approaches it from another angle in “Writers Into Saints,” from February 11 in the New York Review of Books:
Over the last ten years or so I have read literary biographies of Dickens, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Hardy, Leopardi, Verga, D. H. Lawrence, Joyce, Woolf, Moravia, Morante, Malaparte, Pavese, Borges, Beckett, Bernhard, Christina Stead, Henry Green, and probably others too. With only the rarest of exceptions, and even then only for a page or two, each author is presented as simply the most gifted and well-meaning of writers, while their behavior, however problematic and possibly outrageous—Dickens’s treatment of his children, Lawrence’s fisticuffs with Frieda—is invariably described in a flattering light. We’re not quite talking hagiography, but special pleading is everywhere evident, as if biographers were afraid that the work might be diminished by a life that was less than noble or not essentially directed toward a lofty cause.
However, Parks’ resistance, immune to the halo effect produced by art he loves, no more solves the question than McGrath’s condemnation does.
Beyond the editorial verdicts, France graduated this moral judgment to the fully social scale when the Ministry of Culture was forced to cancel the official celebration of French author Louis-Ferdinand Céline after a public backlash around his anti-semitic writings. The government responded by quietly removing his name from the list of figures to be honored that year.
What will the Oscars look like this year? As questions post to blogs about whether or not Cate Blanchett’s Oscar hopes will be dashed by the recent scandal and MGM tries to assuage my fears by embedding quotes from Annie Hall on my Facebook account, the question is still misguided. The chasm between aesthetics and ethics remains one we are troubled by.
What role should art play? Should it be purely mimetic, recording what we live as we understand our living it with all the questions we struggle under ourselves? Or do we want an art that gives us answers? Should it be responsible? Do we feel like it fails us when it’s still just a human being creating the condensed version of our feeling, providing us with so much humanity only to learn we can’t admire their failures in the real version of what they create better by illusion? We want much better truths. Isn’t it the myth and not the mythologist that we love anyways?
As though we don’t want anyone to know we didn’t know it was a myth. We still believe in stories maybe especially because we’re disappointed by life.
Like Alvy Singer says, “You know how you’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it’s real difficult in life”.
McGrath ends his piece with a real shrug of the shoulders, a note of disappointment that the figures he names have failed to live up to the humanity that they create.
“It reminds me of that old joke- you know, a guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says, hey doc, my brother’s crazy! He thinks he’s a chicken. Then the doc says, why don’t you turn him in? Then the guy says, I would but I need the eggs.”