Should--and Can--the Work of Artists Who Are Atrocious People Be Banned? : Substantially Similar--A Blog on IP Issues, Writing and Film
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Should--and Can--the Work of Artists Who Are Atrocious People Be Banned?

by John Aquino on 09/23/19

It's been a question for centuries Does an artist's bad behavior forever taint his art?

In the world of music, for instance, it has long been asked, should the works of Richard Wagner be performed in spite of deplorable aspects of his behavior and writings? He brazenly had an affair and fathered a child with the wife of a conductor who had tirelessly supported his music--Wagner later married her. He wrote an essay titled "Judaism in Music" in which he attacked Jewish composers, claiming that they were to blame for all that was bad in music. His operas extol German nationalism and denigrate Jewish characters, which led to his being the favorite composer of Nazi Germany. Wagner's widow and daughter were antisemitic, and  his daughter-in-law, who became head of the Bayreuth festival that celebrates Wagner's operas, was a friend of  Nazi leader Adolph Hitler. Even today, Wagner's operas have never been staged in Israel, and his instrumental music has been effectively banned because the Nazis exterminated millions of Jews--in September 2018, a classical music station in Israel was forced to apologize for playing a Wagner piece.

Ironically, the recording played by the radio station was conducted by Daniel Barenboim, whose parents were Russian Jews, and who is a Wagner proponent. Barenboim and others have insisted that it is important to separate an artist from his art.

More recently, the actor Kevin Spacey was rendered unemployable in 2017 by accusations made by 15 men that Spacey had engaged in sexual misconduct with them. He was fired from his hit cable series House of Cards. His scenes for the completed movie All the Money in the World were re-shot quickly with another actor, Christopher Plummer, taking his part. Plummer was nominated for an Academy Award, probably, in part, because voting members of the Academy celebrated his feat of performing under such circumstances. Screenwriter Paul Schrader was publicly chastised in November 2018  for saying he wanted to work with Spacey. Schrader, somewhat awkwardly,  had said something similar to Barenboim: "I believe there are crimes in life but no crimes in art. Spacey should be criticized for any crimes his actual person created. But not for art. All art is a crime. Punishing him as an artist only diminishes art. Put [Louis Ferdinand] Celine in jail, put [Ezra] Pound in jail, punish [Oscar] Wilde and [Lenny] Bruce if you must, but do not censor their art. " (Celine was imprisoned for collaborating with the Nazis, Pound for treason, Wilde for sodomy, and Bruce for obscenity.)

I believe that if producers, actors, and directors do not want to work with an actor because his or her personal behavior offends them and/or because the behavior will offend the audience, then one cannot force them to do otherwise. I believe that if  a composer's music summons up in the minds of audience members images of the bodies of their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins lying dead on the floors of gas ovens or stacked in piles in trenches, then the audiences simply will not pay to hear it. 

But will the art of these artists with atrocious behavior nonetheless survive? Wagner's obviously has. Not in Israel, but his music  is performed in many countries (although not by every opera company or university) and admired by those who evidently do separate the art from the artist. In 1949, the actress Ingrid Bergman was ostracized by the U.S. film community because she left her husband and family to live with and later marry the Italian film director Roberto Rossellini. Seven years later, times had changed, and she won an Academy Award for her performance in Anastasia and went on to win another 17 years after that for Murder on the Orient Express. What if times do not change the view of what is atrocious behavior?  Fifty years from now, just as some people listen to Wagner, will audiences readily view films directed by self-exiled accused sex offender Roman Polanski, such as Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown, even though the behavior of which he is accused will always be regarded as criminal?  Books have been censured and burned, frescoes and statues have been crushed by the hammers of philistines, films have evaporated through neglect. But art, which has the solidity of light and shadows, still has a knack for survival.

My views are somewhat mixed on Stacey's art. I remember seeing him in a production of American playwright Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night in 1987 that was directed by the London-born Jonathan Miller. Miller had the actors overlap dialogue, which resulted in cutting an hour from the play's lengthy running time, speeding up the pace, and making the action seem cartoonish. But Spacey stood out. I saw him next in the first season of the television drama Wiseguy (1988) in which he portrays a crime syndicate boss who has an incestuous relationship with his sister and whose paranoia causes him to mentally disintegrate.  Spacey made the character believable, repellent, and,  yet, somehow, sympathetic. He went on to win Academy Awards for The Usual Suspects (1995) as a crippled criminal with a secret and American Beauty (1999) about a father who becomes infatuated with his daughter's best friend. But I think he was more of a character actor than a lead and, like Anthony Quinn and Rod Steiger, other character actors who won Academy Awards and unsucessfully graduated to lead roles, he soon seemed to get on audiences' nerves with bigger than life performances. He ended up playing the villainous Lex Luthor in Superman Returns (2006) and comic villains in Fred Claus (2007), Horrible Bosses (2011), and Horrible Bosses 2 (2014).  He found renewed success in the U.S. version of the British television drama House of Cards (2013-2017) and was riding high--he even hosted the 2017 Tony awards where the audience appeared to idolize him--until the sexual misconduct accusations hit. Many doubt that he will be allowed a career resurgence. One legal case against him was dismissed in Nantucket, but others are active. But what art there is in The Usual Suspects and Wiseguy is still there if one looks.

Bill Cosby starred in three memorable television series--I Spy (1965-1968), The Bill Cosby Show (1969-71), and The Cosby Show (1984-1992). For the first, he was the first black performer to win an Emmy. In the last, his performance was so endearing, he was dubbed "America's Dad." In 2015, however, 46 women accused him of drugged sexual assault. The statute of limitation prevented trials of the charges from all but one accuser. He was convicted in 2018 and sentenced to 3-10 years in prison.  As a result, his reputation as "America's Dad" evaporated, his image was removed from the mural outside of Ben's Chili Bowl in Washington, D.C., and The Cosby Show is no longer shown on network television--it is only available from the Amazon Prime subscription service.

But some of Cosby's art has survived. My brothers and I and most of my friends grew up listening to the records of his stand-up comedy performances. He had such a natural style, and his stories of his childhood and his re-envisionings of history struck a chord with us. We played the records so often we memorized his routines. I remember one fantasy of his of an operating room with the patient under local anesthesia and therefore awake. The doctor goes, "Scalpel, sponges, suction, oops."  The startled patient says, "Oops! I know what it means when I say 'oops.' What does it means when you say 'oops.'" Years later, we were watching President George W. Bush and Russian President Bush on television at Bush's ranch. Bush got into a jeep and said to Putin, "You ride shotgun," meaning the passenger seat. I immediately began to do a riff on Cosby, imagining Putin saying, "Shotgun! I know in Russia what it means to ride shotgun! What does 'ride shotgun' mean in the United States? Where is the shotgun!" And everyone around knew that I was doing Cosby.

There's no forgiving or forgetting what he was convicted of doing or so widely accused of doing. But art does have its ways of surviving.

Copyright 2019 by John T. Aquino


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