Can You Really Separate the Art from the Artist?

Actors bring past roles and their personal lives to each new film.

That is to say, you cannot watch Daniel Radcliffe in The Woman In Black without thinking of him as Harry Potter. Filmmakers know this, and will often use it to their advantage. Casting the frequent leading man to play a villain, for instance, lures the viewer into a false sense of security, even if the viewer doesn’t quite know why. There is also a darker side to this phenomenon, particularly in an age of long-overdue accountability. How can you now watch a Kevin Spacey film where he plays the hero? Or, at the production level, anything produced by Weinstein or directed by Polanski?

The past few years have forced me to think about this topic more than I would like. As someone who views herself as a forward-thinking, reflective individual, what do I owe to my moral causes when it comes to supporting film and entertainment? What do I owe to my sisters and brothers-in-arms? Do I have an obligation to stop watching these films because of the actions of their filmmakers and/or actors?

I recently attended a discussion in Los Angeles on just this, a topic that garnered the title ‘Problematic Movies.’ You may have encountered the concept of ‘separating the art from the artist.’ This dilemma is not a new one—wherever there has been an artist, there has likely been conflict. In the late 1970s, the director Roman Polanski fled the United States after facing charges for raping a 13-year-old girl. It is hard, knowing the details of his crimes, to watch Rosemary’s Baby (a movie about rape) without thinking of them.

With that said, I don’t advocate revisionist history; at least, not in the way of completely striking someone’s work from record because of their actions. Granted, this gets murky. After all, who we view as historically important is based on power and influence, which often leaves minorities in the dust. One could argue that, if anything, Polanski’s vitriol has landed him more name recognition, not less. What I land on time and time again, after the mental gymnastics of these questions, is a firm belief that there are no simple answers.

My gut reaction is to defend the films themselves. Rosemary’s Baby is as incredible as it is influential. I came across it again this year while flipping through channels at my parents’ house. I planned on watching maybe five or ten minutes, but never changed the channel. If I’m being honest, I felt guilty for enjoying it. I want to examine that guilt. I want to feel confident in my choices. I want to learn from my discomfort and face it, not push it aside. I believe it’s our duty as discerning viewers to examine our feelings. After all, that’s what film is all about. It toys with our emotions. It pushes us in unexpected directions. And, as disappointing as they are, the onslaught of allegations and abuse of power allows us to challenge ourselves to think critically, even if we don’t always have the answers.

We tend to think of directors as ‘auteurs,’ as the sole creators of their work. But there are so many people who work on a film it’s impossible for a director to have complete control. I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t consider the actions of Polanski while watching his work, but that maybe we need to stop placing directors on pedestals.

However, I also don’t want to rationalise their unacceptable behaviour. I know that many who have grown up influenced by actors and filmmakers thrust into a new, exposing light are facing the same conflict. I don’t think we need to distance ourselves from the influence a film or an actor has had on us—after all, by being viewers we co-opt whatever we watch. Just as those actors bring their past roles and personal lives, we bring our worldviews. I loved American Beauty growing up. It’s a poignant and disturbingly beautiful film. I suspect that my viewing will now be coloured in ways that make it even more so, and not only because of Kevin Spacey. The last time I watched it I was in high school. I’ve changed since then too.

There is no separating the art from the artist, at least not for critical viewers. But problematic movies give us an opportunity to reflect upon our conceptions of greatness. They force us to face moral quandaries—not just of the world around us, but our own. I for one hate the discomfort. Confronting it is the only way to move forward; there is no sidestepping. That I know for sure.

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