Opinion

Should a sex pest's actions stain their art?

If we shun a work of art because of the sexual or other crimes of the artist, where do we draw the line? asks Haji Mohamed Dawjee

19 November 2017 - 00:00 By Haji Mohamed Dawjee
Adrien Brody in Roman Polanski's Academy Award-winning film 'The Pianist'. The director, who is wanted in the US for the sexual abuse of minors, is a fugitive in Europe.
Adrien Brody in Roman Polanski's Academy Award-winning film 'The Pianist'. The director, who is wanted in the US for the sexual abuse of minors, is a fugitive in Europe.
Image: Gallo/Getty

We sat around a coffee table the other day and asked each other: which actor would break your heart if sexual abuse allegations against them had to surface? My partner's answer was Mark Ruffalo, my sister and I agreed it would be Tom Hanks. A couple of days later I also settled on Steve Carrel.

There's a common denominator: all the potential perpetrators are men. Because men are the usual suspects. And men are also the ones who are most likely to get away with heinous acts that can be ignored, and replaced by praise for their work, whether it's work they direct, play or script.

There's one argument that has stood the test of time as a way of defending them: it is unfair and ignorant to constantly remind the public of "one" misdeed when instead the public should focus on the man's creation of something special.

CONDONE THEIR ACTIONS

In 2002, director Roman Polanski collected an Oscar for his highly acclaimed Holocaust-themed film The Pianist. He wasn't able to accept it in person because he was still wanted in Los Angeles for being a sex offender.

In 1977, Polanski, aged 43 at the time, took a 13-year-old girl home with him. Fed her drugs and alcohol. Ignored her requests that she be taken home, and forced her to have oral, vaginal and anal sex with him against her will.

Polanski was indicted on six felony counts; he spent a total of 42 days in jail and then fled before sentencing to France, where extradition laws don't apply. Polanski has enjoyed a thriving career since.

For 40 years, Polanski has practised his craft freely. Doing exactly as he pleases in the name of art. Why? Well, because audiences continue to support him and so do actors. We do so in the face of a media that forces us to forget sexual felonies in the face of fame and talent.

Adrien Brody (the lead in The Pianist) came to the director's defense with this statement: "This unpleasant thing of constantly bringing back some horrific moment in [his] life. That's not fair." Brody told the LA Times the media "should honour the man for creating something special ... Let the rest lie."

But can we really afford to separate honouring the art from honouring the man? Are we part of perpetuating the problem and do we by proxy condone their actions when we watch their films? Or by doing that, do we hold back the progress of art and the questions it often forces us to ask as a human race? If we don't watch these films, are we doomed to devolving into a culture of empty lives, a hotbed for artistic reduction where only the innocence of something like the grandfather clock stands the test of a moral time?

The trash heap of sex pests has more recently also acquired the heads of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis CK and Dustin Hoffman. I, for one, cannot deny the talent of Hoffman, of whom I have been a fan for many years. But if he surfaces as dirty, and I have shown him support for so many years, do I come up dirty as well? It does seem like the can of sexual misconduct has been opened (finally) and the worms are everywhere. Can we only kill this kind of tyranny by admitting that we're idiots if we continue to support them?

It does seem like the can of sexual misconduct has been opened (finally) and the worms are everywhere

"At the base of every major work of art is a pile of barbarism," said Walter Benjamin, the German Jewish philosopher. "The strongest and most evil spirits have so far done the most to advance humanity," said Friedrich Nietzsche, another German philosopher and cultural critic.

If these are the (condoning) mindsets of two contributing commentators who have shaped modern intellectualism, then should we add them to the pile of garbage too? If we do, we are faced with a quandary of the ages ... A historical catch-22 in the entirety of the art world: when we cleanse ourselves of dirty artists then we must also cleanse ourselves of great art.

We must say goodbye to David Bowie (who liked having sex with underage girls), we must throw a blind eye to the moving paintings of Caravaggio (a murderer), and we must tear all the poems of TS Eliot (an anti-Semite) from the classrooms of English literature. Can we? Could you? I don't think I could.

NOT AN ENDORSEMENT

I don't think I could sacrifice Annie Hall, or my constant re-watching of Manhattan and Midnight in Paris, or my absolute admiration for the pure artistry of Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine - all films by another well-known offender, Woody Allen.

I cannot escape the complicated ethical property this conundrum lives on, but I can be sure of one thing: I can try to cut the tie between the art and the artist who makes it. And maybe this makes me a dirty human being. Oh, and one more thing: I can also admit - and do believe - that this is a purely subjective stance on things. And my mind constantly changes between whose works I support and whose works I don't.

Psychology professor Peggy Drexler advises: "It's critical to remember that when we watch a film, view art or read a book, we're doing so to be entertained and enriched. We're not doing it to issue an endorsement of the human being whose work it is." Drexler's view may be too one-dimensional, and some might even see it as ignorant - but here's the thing: if you search hard enough, if you dig deep enough, then all art is stained with the dirt of immorality. Do we sacrifice enrichment in the name of cleanliness?

We must examine, discuss and powerfully express - now more than ever. But while we're chewing, let us also chew on this: "Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry" - William Butler Yeats (poet, harasser of young women, man).