Is it fair to separate the art from the artist?

Share on Facebook
Tweet on Twitter

Last Tuesday, the Oscar nominations were announced via a live stream for the first time. One of the most talked about performances is that of Casey Affleck in “Manchester by the Sea.” As expected, he got a Best Actor nomination and is a clear front-runner for taking home the Oscar. But Affleck’s nomination hasn’t come without controversy.

Back in 2010, two women who worked for Affleck on a film he directed filed two lawsuits accusing him of “repeated sexual harassment and disparagement.” Affleck has denied the allegations and threatened to counter-sue; he ended up settling out of court for undisclosed sums. This has resurfaced because some people in the industry (and elsewhere) are saying that the Academy shouldn’t honor him because it’d be tantamount to sweeping the controversial allegations under the rug. The perception of condoning the harassment allegations would be hard to shake.

The Academy isn’t a monolith, though, and individual Academy voters may choose to vote for someone other than Affleck, specifically because the existence of the allegations would prove to be problematic. Should the Academy award Affleck with the Oscar, it’d be for his performance, not his personal life.

While I haven’t seen “Manchester by the Sea,” this larger idea of whether or not one can separate the art and the artist when it comes to scandal and controversy is extremely fascinating to me. This idea is troubling and uncomfortable, but necessary, to examine and is probably something most people who partake in popular culture, and the different forms of media that it includes, will have to confront at some point.

On the one hand, there are some who will say one should always separate the art from the artist regardless of circumstances or context, while, on the other hand, some think these situations are best taken on a case by case basis.

Of course, morally objectionable behavior is something to be condemned, in general. But I don’t think appreciation of an artist’s work means that you are condoning the morally dubious behavior of the creator.

These two things aren’t mutually exclusive.

Mel Gibson (nominated for a Best Directing Oscar this year), while pulled over for a DUI, infamously went on a drunken anti-semitic rant back in 2006, saying, “…the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.”

That’s classic Hitlery stuff right there. The comment was morally abhorrent. I, like most decent human beings, detest bigotry and hatred and do not condone anti-semitic beliefs. Having said all of that … I watched and enjoyed Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior last year. Does this render the previous comments meaningless? Does this reflect poorly on me? For what it’s worth, I’ve never seen or paid for a Mel Gibson film since 2006, which means I’m not actively financially endorsing him.

Some other familiar, high-profile examples where the debate between separating the art from the artist comes up include Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. I don’t have the time or space to detail everything about them here (worth checking Wikipedia, though), but suffice it to say, many people refuse to watch their films because of their sordid and extremely unpleasant personal lives. And yet, just as many people will choose to continue patronizing their films. People are going to make their own decisions about where to draw the line in these situations.

So many of the people whose work we admire have often behaved horribly, said and believed awful things, and, in some cases, probably done terrible things. I’m willing to bet that most people have an artist whose work they admire but whose personal life is compromising in some way. History is rife with artists – from famous authors and painters to rock stars – whose personal lives are morally suspect; they’re bound to be some seriously troubling realities with which one has to come to terms. I don’t mean to sound flippant or crass here.

If we judge artists and their work by their personal lives, we’d end up having to reject a lot of great art.

This is not at all to say that anyone should dismiss or ignore the transgressions of the creator. Rather, we have to acknowledge that it is often difficult to reconcile the fact that some of these people who make the art that we respect and appreciate can also sometimes be bad people. Sometimes, there’s a lot of gray area. And, sometimes there isn’t (see: Bill Cosby).

Many moviegoers, I think, will still see “Manchester by the Sea,” but others will refuse to see it. What’s important is to have the uncomfortable conversations about the ramifications of choosing one course of action over the other.