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When Separating Art from the Artist Doesn’t Work

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Is it ever possible to fully separate the art from
the artist?/National Gallery of Denmark

By now, the lines have been drawn. A disturbing number of responses to Dylan Farrow’s February 1 New York Times blog concerning the alleged sexual abuse she suffered as a child at the hands of her father, Woody Allen, have run the gamut of rape culture apologias. Her memories are false; her mother is a whore; it’s all for publicity! But on Twitter and in real life, many of those that believe her, those that defend her, seem to have clung to a response that still acts as an excuse for Allen: love the art, not the artist.

This line of thinking insists that there is a clear delineation between creator and created, a rational distance. So many artists are terrible people, the argument goes, that if we were to hold them accountable for their actions we’d have no art left. This may be true—cue to a reel of examples that includes Fitzgerald’s alcoholism, Picasso’s womanizing, the standard modernist bad boy behaviors always trotted out. But in Allen’s case there’s also the seventeen-year-old love interest in Manhattan, the joke about sex with a pair of sixteen-year-old twins in Annie Hall. When sexual abuse is built into the very fabric of your plots and humor, the separation of the artist and the work begins to collapse.

There’s something very boring about the idea that good art necessitates or excuses oppression—please, try a little harder. Be a little more—ahem—creative.

To be an Allen fan is, essentially, a lifestyle choice. A 1979 review of Manhattan, Annie Hall, and Interiors by Joan Didion has been going around the Internet this week, and it’s a perfect summation of what’s so dull about Allen’s work: its invitation to narcissism, its summons to a club built on self-regard. If a film hinges so entirely on congratulating the good taste of its creator, then the fan, too, must have good taste. But art that flatters so uncritically is inherently untrustworthy. As Didion wrote, Allen’s films called forth “a new class in America, a subworld of people rigid with apprehension that they will die wearing the wrong sneaker, naming the wrong symphony, preferring Madame Bovary.”

This is what a defense of Allen’s films now means: that you have been so seduced by their style that you are willing to overlook the abuse that infuses their aesthetic. Why has the response to Allen’s work veered so far from the response to R. Kelly’s, another recently reconsidered abuser? Audiences—often white, male audiences—fetishize Kelly’s work in a different way than they do Allen’s; it is safer to disavow Kelly’s oeuvre because it has always been played as an other, as a joke, while in Allen’s movies, they see themselves.

“I’m open-minded about sex,” Allen told People in a 1976 interview. “If anything, I’m below reproach. I mean, if I was caught in a love nest with 15 12-year-old girls tomorrow, people would think, yeah, I always knew that about him.” (Compare, across the pond, Jimmy Saville’s thinly veiled public admissions that he sexually abused young children, which execs at the BBC studiously ignored for decades, until they didn’t.) How is this funny? How is this rakish? How is this at all appealing?

Woody Allen’s humor, plot points, and characters have long reflected a nauseating attitude towards girls and young women—think of his first wife, the “Dread Mrs. Allen” (charming), who sued him for defamation when he joked about her sexual assault. The age gaps between his male characters and their leading ladies (Whatever Works, with Larry David berating Evan Rachel Wood over her intelligence, is particularly galling.) Even his supposedly “intellectual” roles for women—yes, even Annie Hall—are a kind of wish fulfillment, characters who literally parrot Allen’s words and exist more to puff up Allen and his stand-ins—intelligent women want to sleep with Woody Allen!—than as fully formed protagonists. Now that we’re being forced to reexamine the idea that Allen’s personal life might very well reflect what he’s long hinted at, do you really want to stay in the clubhouse?