And we're hearing it again: Woody Allen's recent lifetime achievement award reignited debates over how his art stacks up against his alleged child molestation. This follows extensive reporting on R. Kelly's serial abuse of underage women, which goes largely neglected in coverage of his musical comeback. But these are just the latest iterations of an old, tired blindness.
Anyone who's been around a drunk college student with just enough intelligence to say some truly terrible things has heard the line of thought: “Surely their art must be taken into account! Who can weigh such personal impact against the power of creation that inspires hundreds, even millions? We don't know! We can't judge!”
Bullshit. Abuses committed by artists are not complicated issues, and the lack of judgement allows worse to go on. The mentality that writes brutalities off as “flaws” because of someone's celebrated work is part of the same culture that sanctions abuse and bigotry.
As this is the Internet age, I'll demonstrate this particularly noxious trend with a list: These are five artists out of the many who never got what they truly deserved.
1. Roman Polanski
Polanski has a heap of critical accolades, and occasionally, someone will mention the reason he can't return to America to accept them: He's wanted for fleeing a sexual abuse conviction in 1978. Thing is, the famed filmmaker didn't “just” have sex with an underage girl: He drugged a child and raped her. If you can stomach it, Kate Harding lays out the events of Polanski’s attack on 13-year-old Samantha Gailey here.
If he were without artistic genius or financial means, Polanski would be in jail for the rest of his life right now. As it is, he instead jets from villa to villa, able to lead a life without the trauma he inflicted on his victim. In a pattern that will become damn familiar, even half-hearted attempts to bring him to justice lead to an outpouring of artistic sentiment about the injustice done to him.
2. Norman Mailer
In 1960, Mailer, drunk and stoned, stabbed his wife, Adele Morales, with a rusty knife. Twice. He nearly killed her and told bystanders to “let the bitch die.” Instead of going to jail, the author spent just over two weeks in a mental hospital as his literary friends, by his own admission, “closed ranks behind him.” Morales was heavily pressured to ensure Mailer didn't stay imprisoned for too long, as it might "ruin his genius," and to drop the charges. She eventually did.
Mailer, rather than being tarred, went on to a lucrative career; Morales went on to live in a tenement. If articles like this one by Louis Menand in The New Yorker are any indication, Mailer’s near-murder of Morales still remains an asterisk next to his literary achievements.
3. Leni Riefenstahl
Yes, Riefenstahl remade film-making, pioneering techniques that are still in use today — but she also shilled for the Nazis. A lot. Even though her reputation took a bigger hit than some of the others on this list, it's rarely recalled exactly what Riefenstahl’s cooperation with the Nazis meant: While many Germans fled or resisted the Nazis, Riefenstahl made her cinematic dreams come true with slave labor and partied with the Goebbels family. She played an important part in legitimizing a hideous government, then lived like a queen until it was smashed.
Sadly, when Riefenstahl was finally caught, she was let off easy. Rather than be ruined, she romped around Africa making movies and doing nature photography. She went to her grave denying that she had known anything about the kind of regime she was serving. Like most of her life, it was a lie.
4. Martin Heidegger
Riefenstahl wasn't the only friend of the Nazis to get off so easy: Heidegger became famous for revamping philosophy in the early 20th century; like Riefenstahl, he also enthusiastically cooperated with the Nazis, joining the party in 1933 and defending it many times over the years. He did so despite the fact that his mentor, Edmund Husserl, an amazing philosopher in his own right, was Jewish. In fact, while Heidegger was made rector of Freiburg University due to his support of the Nazi regime, Husserl was stripped of his privileges and thrown out.
Husserl ended his life broken and destitute, betrayed and overshadowed by his own pupil. Heidegger, on the other hand, was forgiven, even by some of his students who had to flee Germany because of the regime he backed. Heidegger today remains widely revered, despite comparing the Holocaust to factory farming even after the war. Yeah.
5. Jackson Pollock
While his wrongs aren't as well known as some of the others on this list, Pollock was a walking disaster. A raging, abusive alcoholic, the painter would have probably ended up dead or homeless if not for the aid of patrons like Peggy Guggenheim. By 1955, Pollock had become so awful that Lee Krasner, his wife, fled to Europe to escape his abuse; that same year, Pollock got so tanked that he crashed his car, killing himself and passenger Edith Metzger.
Still, Pollock got a movie, countless exhibitions and a place in the modern art pantheon. The devastation he caused to those around him is now largely forgotten. As for what Metzger might have done with her life, we'll never know.
There is no level of artistic talent that gives people license to be shit human beings. A gift for words or images or pictures doesn't come with the power to destroy the lives of others. Artists tend to get a free pass by people who would rightly condemn other powerful people who get off the hook, which is a testament to how deep this bullshit runs. What starts with the rich and famous trickles down to every subcultural nook and cranny, brandishing the myth of the troubled artist as an excuse to write off rape allegations and black eyes because of some mythic inner beauty.
Enough. Reverse it: Don't think of Polanski as a filmmaker but as a rapist who happens to make movies; Mailer was a violent misogynist who also wrote; Riefenstahl and Heidegger's primary achievements were selling their friends or mentors to the worst regime in history; Pollock ruined lives and happened to splatter some paint.
If the image of Polanski shuffling through a prison yard instead of making movies doesn't sit well with you, consider changing the way you think about justice. What would a just world for the five above — and the thousands more who get bailed out by the same myth — look like? In a just world, Mailer's career would be dead the second he put that knife in Morales, and he would have spent a good 20 years behind bars. Guggenheims be damned, Pollock would've been forced into an institution until his issues were less toxic to anyone he came in contact with. If we're being merciful, Riefenstahl and Heidegger would be doing a decade in Spandau Prison before spending the remainder of their lives in absolute disgrace. That's what a world with more justice actually looks like — that's a world where the lives of Gailey, Morales and Metzger bear greater weight than splattered paint, typed words or moving pictures.
A better culture would put artists’ victims front and center, before their legacy — not as a caveat or a footnote, but as the key fact of who they were and what they “produced.” People might still remember Chinatown as part of cinematic history, but when thinking of who made it, the thought would be “that rapist Polanski” because that's who he is and that should never be erased.
If that sounds shocking, it's only because of our sacred cow treatment for terrible people who happen to be artists. What other justification is left? Yes, in a more just world, we probably would've missed out on much these figures produced after their worst acts had been committed and maybe their works would take a tumble in the canon.
So what? We'd live. There are others to create things that will inspire us, and most of them aren't terrible peope.
David Forbes is a journalist and writer based in Asheville, North Carolina. He spends way too much time investigating the bleak parts of the present for local paper Mountain Xpress and the stranger parts of history, politics and culture for his own curiosity. He’s written for NSFWCORP, Sunlight Foundation, Coilhouse and his own intermittently updated blog, The Breaking Time, among others.
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