Polanski, art and morals: confused but interesting

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H. P. Lovecraft 1934
I was reading around the topic of director Roman Polanski's arrest in Switzerland lately. That's not him pictured, read on. Due to the various high-profile reactions, there is now a debate going on around it. However, it is confused. It is at least three debates.

1) Should he be arrested, is he a criminal.
2) Should Hollywood have let him work (release and reward his works).
3) Do artist's behaviour/crimes affect their art, should we condemn his work.

I'm writing now because I'm interested in number three. The mainstream debate, excellently reproduced here,

... tends to come down on yes or no art is or isn't separate from the artist. I believe it's more complex than that, but easy enough to lay out. Let's clear up number one first so we can let it go.

In one of the essays presented in the NYT article there, Geraldine A. Ferraro says,

"A male is guilty of rape in the second degree when, being eighteen years old or more, he engages in sexual intercourse with a female less than fifteen years old."

This is the definition of statutory rape. A 13-year-old can't consent to intercourse with a man over 18.
There you have it. Also one of the commenters over at the The AV Club perfectly summed up their excellent podcast on the celebrity reactions thus:

"New rule: If your family is killed in the Holocaust and your wife is killed by Charles Manson, you are allowed one free rape."
Indeed. Okay, we'd better go after the jump for the next part on art and artist's beliefs/behaviour.
First premise. This is not about the general concept of an artist's beliefs and worldview appearing in their works. It is about beliefs and actions that we consider criminal or unacceptable appearing in their works and to what effect. I'll follow the point by point with clear examples of artist's views in works considered by the mainstream to be about something quite different.

- the artist's total persona, the sum of their actions and thoughts, always feeds into their works as does the world and time they live(d) in.

- aspects of this appear in varied degrees ranging from barely perceptible to aggressively overbearing.

- perception and reaction to this depends also on the persona of the reader/viewer, a subconscious agreement often means there is no active discernment.

- there is a final juxtaposition between the reader and the views of their peers or society. This is especially true in this case with unacceptable views and actions.

- more context leads to a refined sense of meaning

We can look at Picasso's painting of Narcissus with no pre-knowledge of Picasso's life and get no sense of his abusive treatment of his son. It seems separate, especially out of context. But now I slipped in the part about his son you will automatically form an altered reading of his works in general. In the case of that individual painting, it seems slight. I can look at that painting. No problem.

We can read Gone with the Wind and see an undisguised defence of slavers and the Ku Klux Klan. In my case, it becomes so consuming that I cannot separate the other narrative elements. Based on my own beliefs about slavery and racism, I can no more enjoy that book as 'a great epic love story' as I could an uplifting romance featuring a prison guard and a propagandist in Nazi Germany. Although, in time these books become instructional historical documents that give us a look into the minds of people who lived at a certain time. Gone with the Wind is a clear look into the mind of an apologist for 'the old south'. 

My two personal cases are H. P. Lovecraft and Arthur Conan Doyle. They are shot through with odious views but I struggle with them as I'm attracted to other aspects of the books.

The Sherlock Holmes stories are clearly pro British Empire and the majority of the major villains are bad foreigners or ex-colonial men corrupted by their harsh experience in savage lands. In one story, Holmes even tells "negro" Steve Dixie that he'd give him a fat lip but he already has one and that he doesn't care for his stench. The stories are continuously coloured in with unambiguous statements about patriotism, chauvinism and loyalty to queen and country. 

But how many people will say Sherlock Holmes are Conan Doyle's seminal works on the glories of the Victorian Empire and British cultural superiority. They will talk of his works about a genius detective and his adventures in Victorian London, they will talk of atmosphere, thrills and characterisation. I myself gasp at the logical clarity in the narrative as the mysteries unravel. But think on this, what would the stories be like if, as well as the procedural, Doyle had the same view on urban England as Dickens?

H. P. Lovecraft is another, but I don't want to dwell as this is going on a bit. Lovecraft's gothic horror stories reached new heights of fantasy writing. He created whole histories and mythologies and his narrative drive carried a strong current of creeping horror that inspired the next generation of genre authors to up their games. He was also a rabid White supremecist who wrote letters and poems on "The n*****r problem." In his stories, the minions and henchmen of evil are almost always "hateful" "mulattoes". He goes out of his way to riff on their ugly appearance and limited intellectual capacity. His story The Horror at Red Hook is a direct analogy of his time at Red Hook, Brooklyn in which his wife reported he would frequently dissolve into rage over the amount of non-whites. 

In the story, a character is described as "an Arab with a hatefully negroid mouth." But even this is separate from the narrative drive or technical characterisation. However, they come together to form the overall meaning of the text.

So, I think that all films and books, mediums where it's much more aparent, are shot through with the ideological stamp of the author/s regardless of the main focus or technical merit. 

We often don't notice it, especially in contemporary works, because if we don't strongly disagree or find it controversial then we might not perceive it at all. It is also not a matter of reading things into it or knowing the background - my examples show that such texts have clear indicators for all to see.

No one could claim that Sherlock Holmes stories are not fiercely patriotic, but if you are fiercely patriotic yourself, and go into the read without any analytical intent, you will probably not find it to be an overriding force in the story. 

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Nice article, really interesting. It is interesting the question about Polanski's art and his dodgy past. Everything in an artists life feeds into their works. Maybe his illegal experiences made him think about things in a different way, help him make his movies. Maybe pedophiles make great movies, we'll just never know because he's the only one who got away with it! Whether we should be able to enjoy his work without feeling bad? Hard one. If it is true that an artist's life is a big part of his/her inspiration, then his act of criminality was NEEDED to make that film... it may not have been a classic without it.

So I guess we should feel bad about a Polanski's work because of the 'ingredients' needed to make it. No matter how nice a piece of Veal tastes, the treatment of the animals sometimes dissuades people from eating it even if they're not vegetarians.

Urgh, way too much thinking on a Sunday morning. My head hurts from drinking and my neck hurts from moshing at The Mushrooms last night. Gonna go lie on a pillow all day..

Thanks for the comment.

You delve into the number 2 debate there which I left well alone. Knowing what Polanski did, should Hollywood have rewarded his art? Or can criminals make art?

The big and obvious example for that is maybe Leni Reifenstahl. Or maybe D. W. Griffiths.

Both Triumph of the Will and Birth of a Nation are correctly identified as ahead of their times and works of genius - from a technical film making point of view, within the tech of the time. But blimey is the subject matter offensive.

But I Guess Griffith himself was not a convicted criminal, but a film which sets out a detailed 'justification' of a lynching. It's basically making a case in favour of racist murders.

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