Can You Separate Art From Artists? / by Jefferson Geiger

Before the best picture envelope snafu, the most controversial moment at the 89th Academy Awards was Casey Affleck beating Denzel Washington for best actor. Washington delivered what some call his best performance ever in “Fences” while Affleck moved audiences in “Manchester by the Sea.” However, Affleck attended the awards ceremony with two settled sexual harassment suits hanging over him.

Some people believe Affleck shouldn’t have won the award because of his past. They saw it as rewarding his horrible actions. Is it the job of the Academy to know what every nominee has done? Can the performances be separated from the deeds of the performer? The award is for who can act the best, not who is the best scumbag or best humanitarian.

I haven’t seen either movie so I can’t comment on their individual performances. In fact, the only Academy Award-winning movie I saw beforehand was “Zootopia” so I didn’t have any real desired winners.

Nate Parker’s “Birth of a Nation” was all anyone could talk about at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and it looked like it was guaranteed at least one Academy Award. That is, until Parker’s past resurfaced. The director was charged, and eventually acquitted, of raping a fellow Pennsylvania State University student in 1999. The student later committed suicide.

I understand that what he did was more severe but I do still wonder who gets to decide what actions count and what don’t when it comes to awards.

This debate is not new and has existed in literary criticism since the 19th century, if not earlier. Biographical criticism argued that an author’s life must be understood to fully comprehend the text. Then New Criticism came along in the 1940s and championed the opposite: works must be analyzed in an isolated environment without outside context.

After I saw “The Lego Batman Movie” I spotted a familiar name in the credits: Steven Mnuchin as executive producer. The same Mnuchin that worked for Goldman Sachs and is the current Secretary of the Treasury. Am I now supposed to hate the past 90 minutes that I enjoyed? His name appears there because in 2004 he founded production company RatPac-Dune Entertainment and he has personally funded 35 movies like “Inherent Vice,” “Edge of Tomorrow,” and “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

Known anti-Semite and white nationalist Steve Bannon, one of Donald Trump’s advisors, became a stakeholder of the mega-hit sitcom “Seinfeld” during the show’s third season. Bannon reportedly makes millions off the syndication reruns but I doubt that if I stop watching his wallet will shrink. At least producers don’t always have direct creative influence.

Director Roman Polanski was charged with sexual assault. Does this mean that “Chinatown” can’t be called one of the greatest films ever made?

Woody Allen allegedly sexually abused his daughter. Should I no longer say that “Annie Hall” is one of my favorite movies?

Though made by problematic creators, the movies themselves haven’t endorsed atrocious behavior like rape. However, other works clearly state the beliefs of the maker.

A friend recommended me Terry Goodkind’s “Wizard’s First Rule” but thankfully I did some research before buying the book. Goodkind is a proponent of the egocentric philosophy of Objectivism and “The Sword of Truth” is a fantasy skin on top of Ayn Rand’s teachings.

While J.R.R. Tolkien is considered to be the father of fantasy with “The Lord of the Rings” series, his epics aren’t without fault. His greedy dwarves are a Jewish stereotype and the inherently evil Orcs are based on Tolkien’s views of Middle-Eastern and Asian people.

H.P. Lovecraft, creator of the monster Cthulhu, stated that people of color are inferior in his novels and short stories.

However, boycotting the works may not have the desired effect. People wanted to stop shopping at L.L. Bean after Linda Bean donated to Trump, but she’s only one board member of the company. Boycotting would more likely hurt the lesser-paid employees who may not even share her political views.

Then there are positive times when it can’t be separated because the author and work are intrinsically connected. Is it possible to listen to Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” completely detangled from the band’s complex relationships?

Artist Nick Cave created a bronze arm carrying a stack of hand cloths. It represented his grandmother who toiled as a servant. Without the personal context the piece isn’t the same.

As I said before I’m not the first, or the smartest, person to try to resolve this issue. Artists should be held accountable, but I personally don’t have a solid stance or answer. I guess it’s more a spectrum depending on severity and direct influence on the work. As a critic I have little to no choice to compartmentalize or else my pool of eligible media would shrink exponentially.

If you want to boycott everything made by a horrible person, go for it. If you want to consume media no matter the creator, that’s okay too, as long as you do a little bit homework. Learn about the piece’s context before you decide whether or not to ignore it.

This column was originally published in the March 8, 2017 edition of the Valley Courier.