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A film icon under fire – does loving the work mean condoning the offence?

EPA/Guillaume Horcajuelo

The still unfolding saga of Woody Allen and his alleged abuse of his stepdaughter Dylan is, at the very least, a sad tale of family dysfunction. At worst, it’s yet another chapter in a seemingly endless procession of news stories about respected, powerful men accused of harming children in their care.

A family dispute like this shouldn’t really be in the news, available for the voyeuristic entertainment of a global public. As Alec Baldwin and others dragged in at the periphery have said, whose business is it but that family’s what happened between Woody and Dylan twenty years ago? But journalism today has no public-private boundary, no limits on the intrusion into personal trauma permitted of the press, and we are required to take the story at face value.

No-one knows the truth of the matter apart from the main protagonists, and I won’t presume to speculate on their honesty here. But many have asked: IF he were guilty of the offences laid at his door, is it still okay to like Woody Allen’s work? Will the scandal affect the Oscar vote next month? Will the chances of Cate Blanchett picking up the Academy award for Best Actor be jeopardised by association (and there is no question that she deserves it for her performance in Blue Jasmine)?

Regrettably, this dilemma arises quite frequently in contemporary culture. An artist/entertainer/much-loved public figure is accused, and in some cases convicted, of a criminal act or offence which puts his or her work in a new, potentially very damaging context. In such cases the question is posed: can the work still be appreciated for what it is, or must it be condemned along with the author’s offensive acts? Can we separate the two? Does loving the work mean condoning the offence?

For film buffs the issue arises with Leni Riefenstahl, the Nazi documentary maker who captured and made art of Hitler’s Olympics. This woman was not just a bystander in the Nazi system, but an enthusiastic propagandist who turned her talent to the service of a genocidal philosophy and regime. But on its own terms, Triumph Of The Will is a ground-breaking work of cinematic art. The perverse politics of its director does not alter that fact.

English sculptor Eric Gill, whose work was commissioned by the BBC and other august bodies in the early twentieth century, was an unashamed paedophile and child abuser. Despite that, his work continues to be highly esteemed. Polish director Roman Polanski raped a thirteen year old girl in Hollywood in 1977, a crime for which he absconded from the US and remains an exile to this day. That hasn’t stopped him winning awards and being feted by movie lovers all over the world, including in the US.

This is a valid separation, it seems to me, and a necessary one. Artists and cultural icons are flawed human beings, not gods, and their aesthetic achievements exist independently of their public reputations and private secrets. If we were to approach them otherwise, how much of the great art and culture produced down the centuries would have to be cast off as tainted? JM Barrie’s Peter Pan would have to go, as would Lewis Carroll’s Alice, and the surrealist art of Salvador Dali: all of them have been linked with paedophilia (if not proven abusers).

Their flaws should not be airbrushed out of their current media personae, or their past histories. Their crimes, if that is what they are, should not be covered up. But just as one can admire the musical genius of Prince without buying into his kooky world view, one can recognise Blue Jasmine as the masterpiece it is, regardless of the troubled family life and questionable sexual ethics of its auteur.

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