On Separating the Artist from the Work

By Léa Michaud

In France in 2020, a big debate arose when director Roman Polanski received the César for best director. Polanski was tried in 1977 for the sexual abuse of a minor and the US courts have upheld 6 charges including rape. He fled the United States for France. Today he is still considered as a fugitive in the United States, but he can circulate freely in France, Poland and Switzerland. A lot of celebrities reacted, and two opinions were created after his nomination: those who supported the director, signing a petition because they considered his films as masterpieces and those who boycotted him and his works. A French documentary writer said: “Unless we were able to separate Polanski in time, at the time, from his future victims, we should now separate the man from the artist. Great.” So, why we should separate the artist from the work?

Lately I’ve been shocked to learn the truth about artist Picasso. This world-famous artist, always taught in schools and praised by the media, was a sexual predator. A man who raped almost every woman he painted, a man who was physically and psychologically violent, a man admired the world over. Even though I consider myself a feminist and one trying to learn as much as possible about abuse of women, I only just found out about Picasso’s acts of cruelty. Why aren’t more people talking about this problem? Thousands of celebrities and artists are convicted of or likely to have done something unacceptable. They are complicit in crime, animal abuse, racism, homophobia and so on. However, I fail to understand how some people can always support these artists on the pretext that they have a talent or that they are known. Do these people think about the harm that these artists have done to their victims and how painful it must be for them, that the person who hurt them so much have so much visibility?

A few years ago, I loved actor and singer Ansel Elgort. In 2018, he was charged and confessed to sexually assaulting an underage fan. After these revelations, I stopped following this actor on the social media and stopped listening to this music. I put myself in his victim’s shoes and wondered how difficult it must be to see his attacker on TV, in the movies or even hear him on the radio. Following these revelations, he was canceled and silenced but what was my surprise to see him appear in a movie again as a lead role.

We know it, we live in a patriarchal, white and heteronormative society and this society supports criminals. Things have changed slightly: thanks to the “me too” movement, many celebrity crimes have come to light. But it is still hard to immediately believe the woman who was the victim. How could a good, successful and rich man do that? So, it must be the woman who lies to get success and money, or she sought it out. People and media prefer to blame the victim rather than the aggressor.

I think the new generation tends to separate the artist from the work more because of the cancel culture. It is easy today, thanks to social media, to cancel a person or work that has done, said or written something wrong. The movie Mulan, released in 2020, was boycotted because some scenes were filmed in the Chinese region of Xinjiang, where Beijing is accused of violations of the rights of Uyghurs.

However, generation X or even Y tend to separate the artist from the work because it is not the work that has committed their crimes. I think on the one hand they are right but admiring the works of criminals gives them visibility. The work represents the artist and defines him. So, by admiring the work you admire the artist.

Often the crimes are not considered serious enough. I am talking about crimes such as rape, sexual harassment or racism. However, if Hitler or a jihadist exhibited works it would be appalling, which makes sense. But I find it unacceptable to judge an artist and his works without taking into consideration his behavior toward other human beings.

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