Tuesday, January 28, 2014

After Dark, January 28, 2014

Art v. Artist
Questions from Woody
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois

Anyone who watched this year's Golden Globes felt it. It was the Woody Allen tribute, it was Diane Keaton raving, it was (if you were on Twitter) Mia Farrow and Farrow/Allen's son Ronan Tweeting a couple of unpleasantries, notably this one from the younger, "Missed the Woody Allen tribute - did they put the part where a woman publicly confirmed he molested her at age 7 before or after Annie Hall?" 


The Allen question was debated everywhere and particularly in a phenomenal thread on Facebook initiated by Brad Fraser. It's an important question: can you separate the art from the artist? Can you and should you?

So why the hypocrisy?

Forget the recent allegations of Dylan, the aforementioned molested child, and let's just stick with what we all know for sure: Allen's relationship with Soon Yi Previn which, by itself, broke a family to pieces. No matter how you slice it, it was icky. Since then, even when I find a Woody Allen movie to be a fine thing, it is tainted by how I felt about the Soon Yi debacle. And I like Allen's work despite the ick-factor. Just not as much.

I used to like Mel Gibson's work. I used to like so many artists' work before they all went a little batshit. 

Here's the thing...

I still like Wagner. I have read his anti-Semitic tracts and still like his music even though I know his race-hatred was not simply of-the-times (an explanation sometimes given for Shakespeare's anti-Semitism). I have read all the books, including the one by his great-grandson that says the anti-Semitism informs the music (which reads like a juvenile getting-even book and was poppycock).

So why the hypocrisy? My hypocrisy?

I suspect our reaction to a controversial artist's art is both an indictment of profoundly held values and therefore very personal and also about the purity of the work: its lack of an obvious agenda (agendas don't survive well in great art - timeless art) and the greatness of the art. If a work makes you forget the artist it is something beyond: the actor who makes you forget s/he is acting; the moment in a play that changes your life; the music that haunts you well after the coda; the song you can sing through despite having no idea who wrote it or anything about who wrote it?

Are we condemned to a world without artistic ecstasy because of what we know about artists?

Outside of our inherent curiosity (fed to gluttony in these days of info at our fingertips) and the halls of academe, great art simply is. Art is immediate response. The discussion (post-play convos, Wikipedia, tell-all bios, tabloids, history books or encyclopedia) which follow may enrich that response, it may even make us disremember it. But in all my years of creating, watching and studying I have found it is only the most pretentious of artists who insist we know THEM when we experience their work. 

Has the information age changed all that? Are we condemned to a world without artistic ecstasy because of what we know about artists? Or are artists themselves condemned to live lives of rigorous purity, to be kind and generous and...good?

Good God, I hope not. I cannot imagine the blanc-mange world we would live in if artists did not risk their souls.

A psychiatrist once told me that he knew, by reading Lolita, that Nabakov was a pedophile. I wondered about Lolita. About Nabakov. Then I thought, "Isn't that precisely the point of Lolita: that we believe?" 

Now I don't know what Nabakov, Michael Jackson, or Woody Allen did. Do I want to know? I'm not sure. Does it affect my reaction to Lolita, Billie Jean or Annie Hall? Indeed. But when those works happened, that first time, I was transported. 

Great art does not excuse a hideous human. But it might just remind us that they, and we, are human and as such all have the potential to create or appreciate greatness even as we live the ugliness.

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