Can we separate art from the artist? Should we?

Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in the movie ‘Annie Hall’. Bettmann Archive

Let’s start with a ‘what if’.

What if Laurence Olivier, who is considered by many to be the best English-speaking actor of the 20e century, what if today, even two decades after his death, he was accused of unwanted advances by a woman, or a man, or some of them, even if he forced to have non-consensual sex?

We all know what would happen. Without any trial or formal investigation of the allegations, Sir Laurence would be convicted in court of the so-called “cancellation culture” and branded as an irredeemable sexual villain. There would be clamor for his awards to be revoked, for his films to be stopped, and perhaps even for him to relinquish his knighthood. So the question then becomes:

What will happen to his peerless oeuvre? Does are Hamlet, a performance without a peer (pun intended) just evaporate and cease to exist? Let’s stop looking Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, Love Among the Ruins, Marathon Man? Or, despite the accusations of distasteful behavior, do we ignore the digerati and stand firm, our admiration for his artistic achievement unwavering? In brief:

Can we, or more importantly, should we, learn to separate the artist from the art?

The ease or difficulty of achieving this certainly depends on the technique form, naturally. If a famous writer, painter or composer turns out to be a shitbird, or worse, it’s not necessarily top of mind when we read, watch or listen to his or her work. But with actors on stage and screen, popular musicians, successful stand-up comedians, say professional artists, things are different.

How do we create some distance between them and their art when they are there, literally alive on stage, or projected jumbo format on a screen? Even those whose “art” is interviewing or newscasting – from Walter Cronkite to Howard Stern to Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose, et al – are essentially “famous” for Who they are. Meaning:

How do we separate the artists from their art when…they are their art?

The Woody Allen case

It’s not an easy task, but it can be done. A few years ago I started a movie club in the community where I then lived north of Chicago. We got together monthly and our first movie was up for consideration American beauty. Protagonist: Keven Spacey. A few meetings later, we started comparing neo-noir chinatown and LA Confidential. Key member of his ensemble cast: Kevin Spacey.

Interestingly, at least to me, our group of a dozen or so remarkably knowledgeable moviegoers never addressed the myriad allegations of sexual misconduct against Spacey during these gatherings. I never brought it up, and neither did she. Why? My guess:

They wanted to discuss, debate, explore and investigate the work of notable writers, directors and actors, not the sexual proclivities of any of the movie stars. In other words, consciously or not, they did separate the artist from the art. But not everyone can; my guess is most people can’t. Another first-hand experience:

When Woody Allen married his adopted daughter, my wife at the time, a huge Allen fan said, “What do I do now?” I like his movies. But this is So strange. They are not related, but he is her stepfather. It’s just… somehow wrong. So how can I watch his movies now?”

My answer to her: “Like you always did.”

Honestly, I’m not sure there’s anything Woody Allen could do to change my mind Manhattan or Annie Hall. Hardly anything disgusts and annoys me more than monsters preying on children. And Allen is accused of doing just that, by his adoptive daughter, and if he abused her, he has forfeited his status as a human being to me. But, BUT even if he did that to that little girl, mean and unforgivable as that is, those two movies, he also wrote and directed, remember, remain remarkable cinematic achievements. Period.

And then there is the matter of the spoken word. Just one example: the very popular actor Liam Neeson admitted (why?) that after someone he knew was raped by a black assailant, he walked the streets hoping to kill a “black son of a bitch.” The outrage was immediate. The damage? Still to be fully determined. On the other hand, yet to be determined, is the damage to Roseanne Barr who tweeted a comparison between an African-American adviser to President Obama and “Planet of the Apes.” The outrage was immediate. The damage too. The show that bore her name was canceled the next day.

Then there’s the matter of Mel Gibson speaking out as an anti-Semite and his phone not ringing for a long time. all long time. Miraculously, he managed to crawl back. Unusually, Hollywood was able to separate the bigotry from the art and even give Gibson an Oscar nomination. But it just wasn’t… the same. The good old one Brave heart days (still an impressive work) were gone for good.

Live performers are their art

Another class of performers, live performers present some of the same problematic issues as movie actors, as their artistry, like actors, is tied to their physical presence. We’re going to look specifically them play songs or riff for a laugh.

Separating art from the performing artist is particularly difficult when it comes to comedians. So often their material stems from their personal experience, or their very different view of the world. So, with stand-up, you real are your art because, again, your material is somehow all about… you. Think of it this way: what is self-mockery without the self?

Not to mention, perhaps no art form is as delicate as humor, in that everything has to be just right to elicit a laugh. Including the person who provides the humor. His or her persona—not to mention timing—must, yes, strike a chord to activate the laughter circuit. So you, Mr. Standup, can make us laugh, and we in turn can make you a millionaire, and then we find out that you like showing off your penis to women who clearly never asked. And you do it a lot. Goodbye millions in future revenue.

But what if the comedian’s behavior is less egregious?

What recently seemed like a consensual night for a comedian turns sour when the woman in question decides it wasn’t a consensual night Enough. Goodbye bookings. And if you drug and have sex with woman after woman, goodbye…everything, including your freedom. At least for a while. This means that in comedy, appearing to be, shall we say, an “unsavory character” is like a death sentence for your art. You’re just not funny anymore. And, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Unless you’re Richard Pryor.

Pryor set himself on fire while on drugs and nearly died. Pathetic, tasteless behavior for sure. But here’s the main difference when it comes to Pryor: he didn’t light someone else doing well. Nor has he violated the body and psyche of a person. Nor did he humiliate anyone, or use his position to force someone to do sexually what they normally wouldn’t do. Nor did he walk out of a shower naked in front of a guest. (He did shoot a gun at a car once, but again, no one was hurt.) No, “Rich” nearly died of a self-inflicted wound and then turned it into his art, humor. And the used to be funny:

“At that moment I noticed something. If you’re on fire while you’re running down the street, people will get out of the way.”

Musicians get a pass (as long as they injure themselves)

For famous musicians, self-destructive behavior seems like an item on a “Once-Your-Famous-You-Do-This” checklist. Jim Morrison was so drenched in alcohol and drugs by the end that he could barely get himself together enough to sing in the recording studio. He also exposed himself a lot on stage, but oddly enough no one complained except the police who arrested him. And The Doors’ music was and still is a prodigious work of its genre. So being a hot mess as a musician seems to be getting a pass since it is, a la Pryor, all for you. But if you hurt others, whatever your musical fame, you will be called. Just ask R. Kelly, who seems to have taken sexual predation to a new level.

Elton John, whose drug days turned jumbo into a big screen movie, when asked years ago why he got clean, said, “I was sitting in my $10 million dollar house. Sitting with some people who were supposedly my were friends. And we’re all just sitting there… in my $10 million house waiting for… the drug dealer to arrive. And that was it for me. But you have to remember. In this business you have a lot from standstill. And if you are lucky and make millions, you have a lot of money and a lot of down time. It’s a deadly combination.”

So for artists of all genres it seems that bad behavior is not necessarily a disqualification, if it doesn’t hurt anyone else. And it’s easier to clearly separate the artist from the art in some genres than others. And easier for some than for others. To some extent it seems like a personal choice, and maybe how immersed you are in art, or passionate about extraordinary work.

Perhaps it comes down to this: for people who are able to separate the artist from the art, regardless of the good or bad habits of the makers, as Gertrude Stein is said to have put it: “The art is the art is the art.”

Can we separate art from the artist?  Should we?

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