Still from Woody Allen’s Manhattan
Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, William Burroughs, Richard Wagner, Sid Vicious, V. S. Naipaul, John Galliano, Norman Mailer, Ezra Pound, Caravaggio, Floyd Mayweather, though if we start listing athletes we’ll never stop. And what about the women? The list immediately becomes much more difficult and tentative: Anne Sexton? Joan Crawford? Sylvia Plath? Does self-harm count? Okay, well, it’s back to the men I guess: Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Lead Belly, Miles Davis, Phil Spector.
They did or said something awful, and made something great. The awful thing disrupts the great work; we can’t watch or listen to or read the great work without remembering the awful thing. Flooded with knowledge of the maker’s monstrousness, we turn away, overcome by disgust. Or … we don’t. We continue watching, separating or trying to separate the artist from the art. Either way: disruption. They are monster geniuses, and I don’t know what to do about them.
We’ve all been thinking about monsters in the Trump era. For me, it began a few years ago. I was researching Roman Polanski for a book I was writing and found myself awed by his monstrousness. It was monumental, like the Grand Canyon. And yet. When I watched his movies, their beauty was another kind of monument, impervious to my knowledge of his iniquities. I had exhaustively read about his rape of thirteen-year-old Samantha Gailey; I feel sure no detail on record remained unfamiliar to me. Despite this knowledge, I was still able to consume his work. Eager to. The more I researched Polanski, the more I became drawn to his films, and I watched them again and again—especially the major ones: Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown. Like all works of genius, they invited repetition. I ate them. They became part of me, the way something loved does.
I wasn’t supposed to love this work, or this man. He’s the object of boycotts and lawsuits and outrage. In the public’s mind, man and work seem to be the same thing. But are they? Ought we try to separate the art from the artist, the maker from the made? Do we undergo a willful forgetting when we want to listen to, say, Wagner’s Ring cycle? (Forgetting is easier for some than others; Wagner’s work has rarely been performed in Israel.) Or do we believe genius gets special dispensation, a behavioral hall pass?
And how does our answer change from situation to situation? Certain pieces of art seem to have been rendered unconsumable by their maker’s transgressions—how can one watch The Cosby Show after the rape allegations against Bill Cosby? I mean, obviously it’s technically doable, but are we even watching the show? Or are we taking in the spectacle of our own lost innocence?
And is it simply a matter of pragmatics? Do we withhold our support if the person is alive and therefore might benefit financially from our consumption of their work? Do we vote with our wallets? If so, is it okay to stream, say, a Roman Polanski movie for free? Can we, um, watch it at a friend’s house?