Tom Rachman was born in London and raised in Vancouver, Tom studied cinema at the University of Toronto and journalism at Columbia University in New York. He worked at The Associated Press as a foreign-news editor in Manhattan headquarters, then became a correspondent in Rome. He also reported from India, Sri Lanka, Japan, South Korea, Egypt, Turkey and elsewhere. To write fiction, he left the AP and moved to Paris, supporting himself as an editor at the International Herald Tribune. Later, he was managing editor of Persuasion, and served as a juror for the Giller Prize. He is a Contributing Columnist for the Globe And Mail. This Article was Published September 30, 2022
Woody Allen, now 86, has denied both recent reports that he would retire from filmmaking, and accusations that he molested his adoptive daughter in 1992.When reports circulated recently that Woody Allen might retire from filmmaking, a heated argument resumed instantly, as if only paused in mid-sentence: Was the stammering 86-year-old among the greatest artists, or merely a creep? And could he be both?
Five years since the #MeToo movement challenged the culture behind ‘The Culture’, dispute remains over the intersection between morality and art – or if they’re distinct categories altogether. Can we still appreciate tarnished artists of the past? And ought today’s creative types turn from their vanity mirrors, and dedicate themselves to bettering society?
For much of modern times, the sophisticate’s position was that you should evaluate the art, and look beyond any transgressions of the artist. Scolding cultural works was for those who didn’t get them.
This position held sway as long as the characters picketing galleries tended to be censorious conservatives, the sort who condemned rock ‘n’ roll guitarists for letting in the devil, or shunned D.H. Lawrence because he’d written that sex existed, even among the English.
Yet sophisticates weren’t aloof to artists’ behaviour in every case. Rather, they just weren’t that scandalized by godless painters, or druggie musicians, or poets who went to bed with men and women alike. Indeed, they admired (envied) artsy bohemians who scoffed at social rules. If a cultural figure did incense liberal-minded culture mavens – the antisemitism of Wagner, say, or Morrissey’s flirtation with far-right politics – many found the art itself harder to appreciate.
After the #MeToo movement erupted in October, 2017, more once-venerated cultural figures lost their impunity. This reckoning was long overdue. An enduring effect was to jolt cultural institutions into responsibility.
This new-found moral imperative directed itself at Donald Trump, with his reptilian ethics, slithering entourage, and his embrace of racism, climate disaster and inequality. After #MeToo, bigotry too deserved its comeuppance. Whether social justice was to be achieved through poetry slams and video installations was another matter.
But the intent was laudable. Usually. At times, cultural institutions were just petrified of landing on the wrong side of history (as defined by Twitter), so preened over their recent rectitude. Meanwhile, critics tweaked their judgments for moral reasons, wary of calling out mediocre art if it came with noble intent.
You had to send the right message.
In some quarters, the moral mission grew so zealous that apolitical art was deemed a disgrace. This fed off a spreading absolutism: with us or against us; everything is obvious; no discussion.
But to treat morals as obvious is childish. And to treat art as a form of pedagogy is condescending. Even if the public needs education, why are you the one to write the moral lessons? When such projects call themselves art, creativity drains away. Culture becomes an arm of power, just as authoritarians always want.
So how does this relate to whether you can still watch Annie Hall?
First, it’s worth noting how we distinguish active artists from the long-buried. The dead can’t benefit from fame, nor can their late victims suffer from it. So an artist such as Picasso – brutal and cruel – is still worshipped without much compunction. Nor do gallery-goers typically lose their awe for Caravaggio’s paintings if reading on the wall text that he committed murder.
Despicable behaviour of our era is harder to stomach. If I heard incontrovertible proof that Mr. Allen had molested his adoptive daughter in 1992 (he has denied both this accusation, and the recent talk of his retirement), I’d struggle to rewatch classics such as Broadway Danny Rose or Crimes and Misdemeanors. I’d struggle to call them ‘classics’. Attributing beauty to a person of such ugliness would feel like moral pollution.
Yet rationally, I do still believe that art exists apart from the artist. Or how could a work live on, even once its maker does not?
Great works often emerge from those in conflict with the world; complacent artists rarely produce shattering work. The problem is that the myth of the ‘troubled artist’ became a pretext for repugnant behaviour, even crime. For vile actions, culprits should face justice, without special dispensation for the artistic.
But art explores what it is to be human, the unsavoury along with the sublime. It’s about transcending what we normally think, see, hear. While justice must be served, culture can’t be reduced to ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’.
What complicates the Allen case is that his central creation was the endearing nebbish Woody Allen played by himself. If the off-screen Allen were without question a molester, I wouldn’t smile when he catastrophized on-screen about his sexual quirks; I’d want to press stop.
So you can see: I’m still conflicted about where morality and art intersect. Admitting this isn’t a dodge; it’s an answer. We should feel muddled.
Among the curses of our times is simplism, a lie that starts with the pushy claim: ‘Look, it’s actually really basic.’ No, it’s not.
So, in the end, how to feel about creations that a twisted mind left scratched across a page, or spattered on a canvas, or thundering from an orchestra?
Complexity – in judging art, in judging humans – is sometimes as close as we get to fairness and truth.