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What About Art Made by Monsters?

BY Simcha Fisher

| Posted 1/16/14 at 9:52 PM

 

Boy, am I out of the loop.  This morning, I heard clips from three front runners for the upcoming Oscars, and I hadn't even heard of any of the movies they were from.  I am, however, aware that there was a dust-up when Woody Allen won Lifetime Achievement award at the Golden Globes.  (Allen is known for his quirky, often brilliant films, and also for marrying the adopted daughter of the mother of his children, and for being accused of molesting his own adopted daughter.)

Disclaimer:  there are few things that signify less than Hollywood awards.  Actors congratulating each other on their current levels of fabulousness is something that we don't really need to keep track of.  But Allen's recent award was interesting because it made me wonder once again about our role as ethical consumers. People of principle draw the line at various places when we're deciding where to shop; but if we do enough research, we eventually must concede that it's just about impossible to keep all of our commerce ritually pure.  The well is just too tainted.  It's not that we shouldn't try our best to be ethical consumers -- we just shouldn't fool ourselves that we can be completely consistent, unless we're true homesteaders who live entirely off the grid.

So that's how it is when we're spending money.  But what about how we show our support in other ways, like when we're watching movies?  It's all related, of course.  Buying a movie ticket or a DVD does indirectly add to the wealth of actors, directors and producers, although it's a miniscule amount per viewer, and established figures like Woody Allen certainly don't depend on ticket sales at this stage in his career.  So let's just talk about this idea:  is there anything morally wrong with enjoying art or entertainment made by someone who is unrepentantly depraved?

When we're talking about popular support, and not money, we run into the same dilemmas as we do with ethical spending.  If we're only going to "support" people whose personal lives we approve of, we are going to end up watching our ten-year-old's awesome YouTube clip made entirely with Lego figurines and toilet paper tubes -- and not much else.  As the poet says, "Throw a rock in the air; you'll hit someone guilty."

Some people boycott certain actors or producers to make a point.  I see no problem with this, as long as they understand that, unless boycotts are well organized and well publicized, they are largely a spiritual exercise of self-denial, rather than an engine of change in society.

Furthermore, if we boycott people who sin publicly, we have to acknowledge that we're giving a pass to people who've had the good luck to keep their dirty laundry private.  My adivce?  It's good policy to know as little as possible about artists we like.  Caravaggio was a murderer, but you're not going to get me to boycott  the Vatican Museum, which features at least one of his paintings.  (And the opposite is also true:  you won't drag me to see some half-baked, third-rate schlock just because the artist is a really good guy who believes in good values and whatnot.)

And even furthermore, at a certain point, this type of scrupulous viewership ceases to be responsible and starts to be gossip.  Even public figures are entitled to the privacy of their own sins -- yes, even if they chose a career that puts them in the public eye.  Just because it's in a magazine doesn't mean it's any of your business!  Move along, creature.

Some people simply follow their nose.  Once you know enough about Roman Polanski, you may simply not be able to sit through one of his movies, brilliant though it may be.  This is probably especially true with someone like Woody Allen, whose work is so closely identified with his own public psyche.  When you like something he made, it's hard not to feel like you are liking him, since he puts himself right there in the middle.   And when you hate what he's accused of, it's awfully hard to enjoy him being him (or making his lead actors sound an awful lot like him) all over the screen.

Anyway, we as viewers have a different responsibility from the artists' peers, especially those with a public voice.  It was truly revolting how the progressive elites of Hollywood fluttered to the side of poor embattled child rapist Roman Polanski -- especially when you consider that many of Polanski's defenders utterly rejected Michael Vick's apparently sincere repentance. 

So, what do you think about Woody Allen's award?  What if we acknowledge the brilliance of his individual movies, but shrink from giving an honor to the man himself (which is, as far as I understand it, what the Lifetime Achievement award is supposed to do)?  Do we have some moral responsibility to stay away from art produced by monsters?  What do you think?  What do you do?