Artist, Art, and Appreciation: Where Is There Space for Morality?
Roman Polanski, who confessed to drugging and raping a 13-year-old in 1977 and has had a new rape case brought against him this year, did not attend the Césars on February 28th. Protests denounced the 12 nominations his film, titled “J’accuse” and known in English as “An Officer And A Spy,”, received.
“By supporting the aggressors, by celebrating the aggressors, one does not allow the victims to speak out. Their word is denied,” Celine Piques of women’s activist group Osez le Feminisme said.
The entire academy announced their plans to step down following this year’s ceremony in response to disagreements over how to handle cases like Polanski’s. He has only avoided prosecution for his confessed crimes because he fled the US in the 70s; he is still wanted in the US.
“Distinguishing Polanski is spitting in the face of all victims. It means raping women isn’t that bad,” Actress Adele Haenel told The New York Times earlier this week. When Polanski won for best director, boos and shouts spread across the audience, and Haenel walked out, accompanied by others.
Despite the messages of the protestors, the history of resistance against working with Polanski, and France’s Culture Minister speaking out the day of the Césars to say that awarding Polanski with a Cesar would “send the wrong signals,” Polanski continued to characterize his absence from the awards as an attempt to avoid a “public lynching” by feminists.
Putting Polanski’s victim complex and reprehensible tone-deafness aside, we can attend to a common struggle that humans and cultures experience when it comes to valuing art.
It is a hallmark of societies since the Neolithic period that we produce art. Visual art, physical art, music – we are creative creatures that appreciate beauty. Further, so long as folks have theorized, we have come up with views about why we create art, what it is that makes things beautiful, and whether there is distinctive value in such objects and activities.
Cases like Polanski and “J’accuse,” and a disappointing number of others (R. Kelly, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, the list goes on), brings to the fore the question of how our moral evaluation of the creator of art influences or assessment of the art itself. This isn’t a simple question, however, and some distinctions serve us well in tackling the question.
First, there are different ways that something can be valuable. An action, object, or person, can be valuable because it serves a purpose and thus be instrumentally valuable. Or, such things can be valuable because they have moral worth: they could help someone in need, reduce harm, or contribute to a flourishing life. They could be morally valuable. They could be valuable because they are beautiful, or elevate our aesthetic experiences or understanding; this is roughly what we mean to capture when we say that something has aesthetic value.
At the Césars, the protestors claimed it was morally wrong to publicly appreciate Polanski’s art because of our moral evaluation of him as a person. Let’s consider the possible interactions of moral value and aesthetic value.
Some art is revealing in its engagement with immorality in its very content. For instance, part of what makes the work of art valuable is the immoral nature of the work itself: the anti-heroes or villains that play central or significant roles, or immoral actions that are key to the plots. Through exploring the more terrible parts of our natures and horrible things that humans can do, we may gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and each other. For some, the immoral content of a work (its lack of moral value) will impact the aesthetic value of the artwork. Most, however, can acknowledge the value in, say, the villainous Raskolnikov, or disgusting Humbert Humbert, or bullying and two-faced Snape.
However, perhaps it makes sense to be troubled by art with immoral content. If it has immoral effects like bringing out immoral aspects of the audience, or promoting immoral ends, we may have pause about the attitudes we see as appropriate to have towards the art. This conclusion rests on the empirical claims that appreciating or engaging with art that has suspect moral content does promote such ends, however. And there may be a spectrum of appreciation involved with recognition of aesthetic beauty that makes such empirical research difficult. When we recognize the narratives of Dostoevsky and Nabokov as immoral,should that diminish our appreciation of their beauty or technique? Or does it perhaps have implications for the behaviors we ought to consider morally appropriate to take up in relation to such works of art? In other words, there are, roughly, two stances here: we can take aesthetic value and moral content to be independent, or we can take aesthetic value to depend on the moral value of an artwork.
This brings us to another important part of assessing appropriate ways to engage art: its context. Art has performative force, whether it be visual art, performance art, music, or what have you. The context in which it exists is part of its nature and when we characterize the meaning of a work in order to determine the aesthetic or moral attitudes that are appropriate to have towards it, these features must be taken into consideration as well. A painting that is critical of a political leader has different meaning if presented in the square outside the building housing the governing body (where it may constitute a threat), or in a textbook. A piece of music by a classical composer performed for family and friends may not carry the same social messaging as the same music selected as the highlight of an orchestra’s season, where the historical lack of diversity in such selections can make this choice controversial.
These aspects of a work of art, the content and context, can affect how we value it. Or, we can attend to these aspects to consider what attitudes it is appropriate to have towards the art itself. (Or perhaps these amount to the same thing – what is the difference between “valuing” and having an attitude toward something?)
With these distinctions in mind, let’s return to the Césars. A third and controversial issue is how the features of the creator can affect the value of the art. The debate over the extent to which the author’s intention affects the meaning of a piece will continue to loom over discussions of art, but for cases where engaging with the art amounts to engaging with the creator, and praising or celebrating the art means elevating the creator in the community, profession, or culture, the question is less theoretical.
To, as a community, celebrate art by a powerful and immoral creator is, to many, morally reprehensible. This is distinct, it seems, from the judgment that the art is immoral. Rather, it is closer to a judgment about whether it should have been produced in the way that it was.
The film was the product of more than just Polanski’s efforts. A full cast, production team, and crew of people put forth extensive work in order for this artwork to be released and then nominated at the Césars (though they did not attend). Jean Dujardin, who was nominated for best actor in this film, was among those who worked on “J’accuse” and did not attend the ceremony. However, he posted on Instagram, “By making this film, I believed and I still believe I made more good than harm.”
Dujardin seems to have made the judgment that the aesthetic value of the art outweighs the negatives of working alongside, appearing to be indifferent to the wrongs of, or being part of celebrating the work of, Polanski. These are three ways of assessing the “harm” Dujardin could speak of. The “good” presumably is the work of art, which, according to the Césars, is a good film. But the cost of the good film is having a self-avowed sexual criminal in a position of power and influence in the film community for colleagues to work among. The cost of the film is to have those without the power and choices Dujardin has appear indifferent to such harms in order to succeed professionally, and for the outward effect of this appearance for other victims of gender-based violence to receive this appearance of indifference from the film industry. And the cost of the film is to have other films, not facilitated by people with this history, further marginalized by the communities that celebrate art.