We have faced the question many times before: Is it possible to appreciate a work of art knowing that its creator did a terrible thing?
Do the flaws of an artist detract from the greatness of his art? When a person is found to have committed the most unforgivable crimes, should his work be publicly shunned along with him, or are we permitted—ethically and/or intellectually—to separate one from the other?
Generally speaking, I have long found that reconciliation is indeed possible, and probably necessary most of the time. While circumstances vary, we just might need to accept that all humans are flawed and the search for great achievements will inevitably be fraught with some unsavory characters.
To wit: I can marvel at Ty Cobb’s near-superhuman baseball playing abilities while acknowledging that Cobb was a racist buffoon. I can admire Thomas Jefferson’s sentiments about freedom and equality knowing how violently and deliberately he violated those principles all through his life. I’m not especially taken by the paintings of Adolph Hitler, but if I was, I wouldn’t allow the evils of their creator to prevent me from saying so.
Art is art, for better and for worse, and it ought to be considered on its own merits.
However, even if we take all of this to be true—and many people firmly do not—we are left with several essential unresolved issues. Not least among these is the question of what to do with such undesirables while they’re still walking among us, and whether we ought to avoid going out of our way to honor them for their creative pursuits, both as a culture and in our own minds.
Which brings us to Woody Allen.
As many are now aware, the 78-year-old movie director stands accused of sexually assaulting the seven-year-old adopted daughter of Allen and his then-partner, Mia Farrow.
Dylan Farrow, the alleged victim, first leveled this charge of rape in 1992, and the whole nasty business was resurrected this past weekend when she submitted an open letter restating her case to the New York Times, apparently inspired by Allen’s receiving a life achievement award at last month’s Golden Globes.
Allen has never been formally prosecuted for the crime in question, let alone found guilty. He has always denied the alleged incident ever occurred; Farrow has always maintained that it did. There is no definitive evidence either way. Unless and until further details come to light, it’s a good old “he said, she said” situation. Considering that the would-be prosecutor now says the statute of limitations has elapsed, it will likely remain as such.
Officially, this is all old news. However, I must admit that, until very recently, I was completely oblivious to the whole bloody thing. I knew all about Allen’s unusual marriage to Soon-Yi Previn—some scandals are simply unavoidable—but somehow the Dylan Farrow accusation eluded me. I’d like to think this cultural blind spot was simply a consequence of my general policy of not caring about the private lives of public figures, but I now suspect I was subconsciously suppressing any urge to seek out information about Allen that would reduce his standing in the cinematic hierarchy in my head.
You see, my admiration for Woody Allen as a filmmaker is not casual. I was introduced to his best works at a fairly young age. I can probably quote Annie Hall by heart. On some days, his Hannah and Her Sisters is my favorite of all movies, and I could happily watch it every week for the remainder of my natural life.
Yet I am inclined to believe Dylan Farrow is telling the truth, which means I worship at the cinematic alter of a rapist. What is more, a rapist who is still alive and making movies, and so every time I buy a ticket, some of that money goes directly into Allen’s pocket.
Under these circumstances, the obvious moral thing to do would be to take Farrow’s advice and turn my back on Allen with some sort of one-person boycott. Stop watching his films, stop singing his praises, stop acting like his alleged personal behavior is not utterly abhorrent and can be somehow brushed aside.
And yet, at least on the first two points, I can’t. Or rather, I won’t.
The films of Woody Allen mean too much to me. I could not do without them any more than I could Thomas Jefferson’s “Declaration of Independence” or the music of rock ‘n’ rollers whose abuses of women and drugs were as bottomless as they were repugnant.
As is so often the case, I must perform a cop-out and simply live with the contradiction, accepting the ugly possibility that the provider of some of my life’s greatest pleasures is also responsible for inflicting on others the most unimaginable pain.