Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Art and/or Morality

Jeffrey Toobin's article in the December 14/09 issue of The New Yorker is quite a comprehensive discussion of the ongoing legal issues and extradition order for Roman Polanski. The article lays out the timelines of events and the twists and turns of Polanski's long self-exile in Europe.

Called "The Celebrity Defense," Toobin's article traces the influence, for both Polanski's advantage and disadvantage, of his celebrity status.

The arguments put forward in the "for" and "against" Polanski camps remind me of the same arguments raised when Woody Allen was caught having an affair with his, then, step-adopted daughter Soon-Yi in 1992.

Allen's (it should be noted that he did not commit a crime and faced no charges) and Polanski's cases raise issues about art and morality. Often in Polanski's defense has someone commented on his talent and contribution to the world of film. The same defense was raised concerning Allen.

I remember listening to a call-in show on CBC radio just after the Allen scandal broke. The callers clearly were divided into two camps, fairly evenly split, as follows:

1) Artists are different from us mere mortals and, thus, should be forgiven their sins (or judged by a different standard).

2) Artists have no special relationship to the law, are not above it, and should be held up to the same moral and legal standards as everyone else. Period. No exceptions.

These two positions lead to further questions about what happens when it's concrete, and we are putting our dollars where our morals are.

Are art and the morality of the artist intertwined? Independent? Should one purchase or in any way support the work of someone who is deemed immoral? Or are we merely purchasing something not related to morality at all?

Do we know the moral qualities of all the people who own (and own stock in) the companies (plus all the people who work for them) whose products we purchase? Is not knowing an excuse for going ahead with a purchase? Is that really any different from buying a book or painting created by an individual of whom we disapprove?

I wrote some months ago about seeing Hitler's watercolours in Florence and going through a severe ambivalence because I liked the paintings but had a hard time reconciling that with who had painted them.

These are not easy questions. Jeffrey Toobin does a good job of showing how they play out in the life, crimes and sentencing of Roman Polanski.

(Both paintings shown in this post are by Adolph Hitler.)


Hels said...

I belong to the second camp i.e ) that artists have no special relationship to the law, are not above it, and should be held up to the same moral and legal standards as everyone else! Ditto champion cricket players, politicians, film stars, super models or paediatric psychiatrists.

If you root little children, you have to go to gaol for however many years the legislation demands. Paul Gauguin would be an absolute example, the lech :(

If Polanksi is not to be charged, it should be because too much time has passed, witnesses have died and evidence has faded. Not because he is an artist.

ChrisJ said...


It's even worse with Polanski - he was charged and convicted and did an informal plea bargain and then ran away when he thought the informal plea bargain might be changed. He's awaiting extradition from Switzerland to US.

Ciss B said...

I totally agree with Hels. Often many in our society seem to see politicians, film stars, and a sundry other types as above the moral code that we set for the rest of us. Explaining away a person's behavior because they're "special," to our culture is like explaining away a murderer's killings as a result of their terrible childhood and letting them off because of it.

ChrisJ said...


I'm with the two of you, but it is quite amazing how many people are in the other camp.

Pat said...

My favorite part of the Allen . . . affair was when he referred to a quote from Pascal about the heart having it's reasons (that reason knows nothing of), and some journalist pointed out that another organ was in play here.
Love your blog: it's so literate!


ChrisJ said...


Excellent point.

And thanks for the compliment!:)

Owen Gray said...

I thought of Ezra Pound as I read your post.I have always enjoyed his concise and arresting lines.

But I could never bring myself to approve of his politics.

My opinions are contradictory; but I don't think they cancel each other out. It seems to me that they are equally defensible.

ChrisJ said...


Yes, Pound's a really good example. He's an even better example than Hitler because of the quality of his work and his lasting artistic influence.