Would you still love your favorite artists if they did something bad? Would if it was something really, really, really bad? This is the question Rod Dreher asks in his post on Woody Allen. Like Dreher, I am a Woody Allen fan. Yes, some of his movies are dull or self-indulgent, but generally they range from being poignant to hilarious. But, then, as Dreher points out, there is the question of Woody Allen himself–and, implicitly, hundreds of other artists who are not as good as their work. Dreher concludes that we have to judge based less on the life of the artist than the quality of the art:
I completely agree that Allen is a pig — if there were no Dylan Farrow accusations at all, his unrepented-of conduct with Soon-Yi Previn was enough to establish his swinishness — but that does not detract from his accomplishments as a filmmaker.
From an aesthetic standpoint, I would agree. And, leaving aside the question of whether or not the allegations referred to have merit, there are plenty of examples of artists who were unequivocally guilty while also producing work which is still worth viewing or reading: Charles Dickens’ infidelity doesn’t make Bleak House a worse novel; Knut Hamsun’s fascism does not dismantle his importance in modern literature; George Bernard Shaw’s affinity for Stalinism doesn’t make Pygmalion any less amusing.
That being said, we can accept all of the above without drawing Dreher’s conclusion that it is perfectly appropriate to honor morally-depraved artists solely on the basis of their art. We can appreciate what they do, but that doesn’t mean that we ought to give them a Nobel Prize or a lifetime achievement Golden Globe. By honoring people’s work, we are not necessarily honoring their lives, but it still affects them and those around them. What Ross Douthat wrote of Joe Paterno and other figures considered heroes in their respective vocations applies to the inordinately talented as well; they also believe that “they have higher responsibilities than the ordinary run of humankind.” And every honor or award reinforces this belief.
Ironically, if there is one filmmaker who appears to be aware of this paradox, it is Woody Allen. His 1994 movie Bullets over Broadway addresses the issue by setting up a sort of contemporary Faust: David Shayne, a young New York playwright who is good but not great, makes his own deal with the devil–in this case, a New York gangster named Cheech who turns out to be the world’s best editor. It is an arrangement that works for awhile, until Cheech begins to take matters into his own hands–threatening actors who are not committed enough and eventually murdering one of them so an understudy can save the show. Disillusioned from the notion that one can be both a great artist and a decent human being, Shayne rejects the success which is his for the taking, recommits to his girlfriend (to whom he had been disloyal) and vows to leave New York City to return to his humble middle American roots and live an average life with his new wife and future children.
Is this a simplistic morality tale? Yes. But it is definitely one worth hearing for anyone who does not believe that an artist’s personal lapses matter. We might still honor their work, but sometimes, it is best to wait to bury people before we praise them.
James Banks is the editor of the Play section at Humane Pursuits. He has been a teacher, soldier, blogger and SEO writer. He is an alumnus of the ISI Honors Fellow Program and studied at Cochise College, the University of Idaho and the University of Rochester (where he also taught college writing). Prior to joining Humane Pursuits, he worked in the development and public affairs departments of several Beltway non-profits and has contributed to The Weekly Standard and the Intercollegiate Review as well as the American Interest online, the American Conservative online and RealClearTechnology. When he is not writing, he can usually be found reading, running or working on a Jeep Wrangler that is tragically edging toward retirement.