Separating the Art and the Artist

Mel Gibson’s got me thinking.  In case you hadn’t heard, fresh evidence has surfaced of his piggish treatment of women and his raging bigotry.  TMZ has a recording of a pretty vile conversation he had with the mother of his most recent child, where he tells her she’s a bitch and a whore and she deserves to be raped by a gang of black men because she dresses provocatively.  (Of course, he didn’t use the term “black men.”)  Apparently he’s been quoted as telling the mother of his most recent child that, when he hit her, she deserved it.   All this makes me wonder if the millions of devout Christians who loved Passion of the Christ so much will still sing his praises.  And that, in turn, started me musing about the line between art and artist, the point at which an adoring audience will give up on one of their favorites, and the question of whether it’s moral to support and fund and praise the art and work of someone you find detestable.

I never thought Mel was a genius actor or director, but he did some stuff I appreciated.  Braveheart was pretty good, I liked The Patriot well enough, and the Lethal Weapon movies are pretty good representatives of their genre.  I didn’t even think his Hamlet was as bad as some of my friends did.  But the more I hear about what an unrepentant thug he is and how racist, misogynist, homophobic and anti-semitic he is, the more I wonder whether I’d be doing something wrong by going to see one of his movies.

I think I can typically separate an artist from his or her work.  I know, for instance, August Strindberg was a raging monster, but still, Miss Julie is a damned good play and I kinda like his expressionist paintings.  I don’t like the fact that Roman Polanski had sex with a 13 year old girl, but that fact doesn’t make Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, or The Pianist bad films, does it?  I don’t think the artist’s conduct necessarily influences the aesthetic impact of his/her work, but I still wonder exactly how guilty I should feel about renting one of those movies or seeing one of his new ones in a theatre.  Am I supporting a man whose behavior I find repellant?

And is it really “his behavior” or that one particular instance of bad behavior?  I haven’t seen any evidence that Polanski has been a serial child rapist since his initial arrest back in 1979.  So does that make it okay now?  How many 13 year old girls can you rape before it starts to really hurt your reputation?  More to the point—and this is a question for myself as much as for my readers—what kind of personal miscreantism has to happen before I decide to stop supporting their work?

Of course, this isn’t purely an artistic concern.  There are still apparently hundreds of thousands of people who support John McCain and Newt Gingrich (who abandoned their seriously ill wives for other women), just as hundreds of thousands supported Ted Kennedy after he allegedly drove a woman off a bridge in Chappaquidick and left her to drown before calling the cops.  Bill Clinton still commands huge audiences despite lying about having sex with Monica Lewinsky.

Ted Haggard just opened a new church in Colorado, and people are attending it…even after he was exposed as a hypocrit, a drug user, and a closet case.  Millions of people, including Mel Gibson, still support the Catholic Church even though ample evidence has suggested the leadership of the church took part in covering up the molestation of children.  Yet many Catholic parents still want their kids to be altar boys.

Likewise, people still turn out to see Tiger Woods play golf even though they don’t like his serial philandering, and there are thousands of people who think Pete Rose should be able to get into the Baseball Hall of Fame even after he was declared permanently ineligible to play the game because he gambled on games.  Is Michael Vick any better or worse an athlete because he was convicted of dog fighting?

Can you like the work and hate the worker?  I think you can.  I have to admit, I kind of like some of Hitler’s paintings.  That’s a horrible thing to say, right?  If Hitler were alive today, though, I don’t think I’d be willing to buy a painting from him.  Is that hypocritical or hyper-moral?

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1 Response to Separating the Art and the Artist

  1. katie says:


    inputting some cents, probably more than two:
    i think the whole debate gets a little fuzzy when you throw in the fact that we’re dealing with conservative catholics. i went to catholic high school. we took a field trip to see “passion of the christ,” [i, of course, opted out.] so though i haven’t seen the movie, i am aware of its immediate effects — like the newfound religious “fervor” among some of the not-so-catholic girls and the propensity of people to overlook anti-semitic rhetoric. i do not believe that mel gibsen, as an anti-semite, can make a pro-jewish film — or even display jews in a somewhat positive light. i believe that catholics who support mel gibson are either hypocrites in denial, or are exceptionally fantastic catholics (which, i also believe, don’t really exist.) so that’s the conundrum that i have with that whole scenario.

    now that i’ve dealt with conservative catholics, i’ll remove them from the equation & just address my thoughts on the actual question. i believe that the art should speak for itself — above and beyond its creator. i don’t feel that mel gibson has an incredibly deep reservoir of talent, and i think his pool is running a bit dry these days. on the other hand, let’s talk about someone like phil spector. he’s monstrously talented. he singlehandedly changed the music industry. and he’s always been eccentric. did he kill lana clarkson? who knows, really. but you have to admit, his music is incredible. when you get into the realm of politics, i think accountability is paramount. bill clinton’s failing wasn’t “having sexual relations” or “not having sexual relations,” but rather lying about his perceived misconduct. obviously, i think his sexual relations aren’t exactly anyone’s business. but since they became a public matter, he should’ve just cut it off at the head, said “yeah, i did this and i’m sorry,” and moved on.

    of course, that’s really hard to do. but i’ve got high expectations.


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