BY DOMINICK MAYER
Let’s start with a question that pop culture forces us all to ask on occasion, and is rarely answered in return, and we’ll go from there: what do you do when somebody who makes art you like is exposed as a potentially or actually awful human being?
It comes up all the time; particularly in an era where social changes, in collusion with the internet, have made it so we’re marginally (sometimes very marginally) sensitive to the misdeeds of celebrities and artists and have become more sensitive to not simply sweeping these things under the rug, it comes up a lot more often than it probably once did. And usually somebody invokes John Lennon or Bob Marley’s domestic violence issues, and somebody else responds that you have to separate the two, and everybody goes about their day.
But this isn’t to argue for or against that, or to debate the semantics of a single indiscretion; though one infraction is often just as damaging to the lives of others in some fashion, this question in this article will be used to discuss what you’re supposed to do when you want to appreciate an artist with a potentially long, sordid history of wrongdoings, somebody for whom it may not be possible (depending on your personal ethics) to separate from their art based on who they are as artist. What then, of the endless ethical cycle of debates that surrounds this sort of thing?
Last week, Woody Allen released Magic in the Moonlight, his 44th directorial feature and follow-up to last year’s Oscar-winning Blue Jasmine. But for the majority of 2014 so far, what’s been discussed isn’t Cate Blanchett’s barn-burning performance in that film, or even whether Moonlight is any good. (It’s a light, mannered comic trifle of the kind he turns out every handful of years, for what it’s worth.) What people have been discussing came in the wake of a Golden Globes speech back in January that saw Allen heralded by Diane Keaton, his career honored with the Cecil B. DeMille Award as Keaton spoke at length about what a service Allen has done for women in American cinema over the years.
A few weeks later, Dylan Farrow (daughter of Allen’s ex-wife Mia Farrow) released an open letter about Allen, published by the New York Times. Due to the incredibly triggering nature of the letter, quotes won’t be used here, but this writer cannot implore more strongly that readers take the time to hear Farrow’s account of what was apparently a repeated, consistent pattern of molestation and smear campaigns over a series of years. Farrow demands to know of actresses like Keaton “Have you forgotten me?” She speaks not only of Allen’s allegedly reproachable behavior, but chiefly of the ways in which his status as one of America’s most lauded filmmakers protected him from that very reproach.
Immediately the torches came out. Documentary filmmaker Robert B. Weide, who chronicled Allen’s career for PBS’ American Masters series, took to The Daily Beast to essentially dispel Farrow’s letter. For all of Weide’s insistences to the contrary, what he does is reduce a complex emotional issue to a series of pragmatic fact-checks, many of which play the dangerous game of invalidating Farrow’s letter due to the behavior of her mother over the years. Allen himself took to the Times to proclaim his innocence, throwing the elder Farrow under the bus, as Weide did, and insisting that the idea of him being a pedophile was illogical, specious, and incorrect. Elsewhere on the internet, Maureen Orth’s Vanity Fair profile of the Farrow situation from late 2013 suddenly vaulted to prominence, given a fresh perspective as the result of an increasingly obfuscated situation.
Perhaps most controversially, New York magazine’s Joe Coscarelli pieced together a number of interviews and facts over the years, and not just the recent ones, that paint a different picture of Allen than normally offered, one that hews closer to Farrow’s accusations. From molestation jokes in his plays to letters written to young women from decades ago, Coscarelli makes the argument that “Allen’s art, as well as his public persona and pen-pal relationships, are being closely examined with new eyes, as they were when the pre-Internet allegations were first made public.” Coscarelli continues, “‘It’s as if, like the picture of Dorian Grey, Allen’s films served as his conscience, leaving him free to misbehave in three dimensions,’ wrote Phoebe Hoban in New York almost 22 years ago.”
Let’s return to that initial question: what’s to be done with all this? For some, the answer is simple. We as a society stop watching Allen’s films and stop supporting him. But this runs the risk of willfully disregarding that Allen has never actually been convicted of a crime. And unlike a case that’ll be examined momentarily, until Farrow’s letter there were really only accusations and suspect anecdotes, back-and-forth debates that disappeared entirely. This disappearance is truly disquieting, to be sure, but now the question is twofold. What do we do when a talented artist’s private life makes their art problematic, and how do we decide which people have been falsely accused and which are truly guilty? Is there any way out of the puzzle?
Music critic Jim DeRogatis, formerly of the Chicago Sun-Times and currently a regular contributor at Chicago’s primary public radio station WBEZ, rose to national prominence based on his continued work on and criticism of the successful career of R. Kelly. After Kelly headlined a night of the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago last year, DeRogatis reopened old wounds by reminding people that the return to the mainstream that Kelly has undergone in recent years shouldn’t simply be accepted without a critical eye turned toward Kelly’s apparently long-running history of sexual assault, often against minors.
His conversation with the Village Voice’s Jessica Hopper on the topic of Kelly and the art/artist dichotomy at large went viral last year and captures in microcosm the complexity of the issue, and the importance of not simply going about one’s day in assessing it. For one, DeRogatis notes early, “To this day, any reporter who so cares can go to Cook County and pull these records, so it drives me crazy, even with some of the eloquent reconsiderations we’ve seen of Kelly in recent days, that they keep saying ‘rumors’ and ‘allegations.’ Well, ‘allegations’ is fair, OK. You’re protected as a reporter, any lawsuit that has been filed as fact. The contents of the lawsuit are protected. So these were not rumors. These were allegations made in court.”
The cases and lives affected continue to exist even when many often get lost in the subsequent trap of semantic arguments about art, and it’s this that DeRogatis sees as the crux of everything. In addition to providing the court files for every accusation ever leveled against Kelly, Hopper and DeRogatis also discuss the issue at length. At one point Hopper acknowledges, “DeRogatis and I have tangled—even feuded on air—over the years; yet, amid the Twitter barbs, he approached me offline and told me about how one of Kelly’s victims called him in the middle of the night after his Pitchfork review came out, to thank him for caring when no one else did. He told me of mothers crying on his shoulder, seeing the scars of a suicide attempt on a girl’s wrists, the fear in their eyes. He detailed an aftermath that the public has never had to bear witness to.”
The review in question indicted the festival for booking Kelly, for giving what DeRogatis saw as tacit approval to Kelly’s conduct based on a lack of understanding (on the festival’s part) that music, like any bit of culture, doesn’t simply exist in a vacuum. There are discourses around the artist and the music that often supercede the thing itself. Just because it’s easy and fun to drink cheap wine and have friends over to laugh at the spectacle of Trapped in the Closet doesn’t mean that Kelly’s reputation automatically disappears. The supposed indiscretions of the artist will inevitably follow the art.
And in the case of artists like Kelly or Allen, sometimes they’ll bleed into the art, and into how it’s interpreted. Consider the scene in Blue Jasmine where Blanchett’s embattled protagonist is sexually assaulted at work by Michael Stuhlbarg’s bumbling dentist, a beat that feels strangely inappropriate and tone-deaf in a film that generally has an excellent handle on its approach. Or his ill-timed appearance as a lovable pimp in John Tuturro’s Fading Gigolo earlier this year. Or Kelly, who released the particularly smutty (even by his lusty standards) LP Black Panties late last year to general critical acclaim, aside a wave of criticisms reminding audiences that an artist known for perverse sex jams may be given to actual perversions.
In response to this, DeRogatis noted that Kelly’s prominent 2013 didn’t exactly result in a newfound return to prosperity. He cites his discussion with Hopper, noting of its viral explosion that it was “all the reporting I’ve done over the years in one place, a one-stop shop for the truth about R. Kelly in the age of social media.” DeRogatis asks, “Could it be why?” He also takes critics to task for their role in what he sees as Kelly’s canonization: “I’ve never expected other journalists and critics to feel as strongly about this story as I do. But neither did I expect the cultural amnesia that for years allowed many to ignore any reference to Kelly’s crimes, despite the mountains of evidence in the public record, or to dismiss them with a fleeting nod to past ‘controversy’ or ‘rumors.’ Lazy or squeamish writers have done a huge disservice to a generation of poptimists who were watching Space Jam in their playpens when the trial took place.”
And in the case of Allen, Farrow’s open letter has engendered a return to criticism of Allen’s films as being reflective of a potentially warped worldview. Esquire offered a rather comprehensive list, even as it’s acknowledged that these themes emerge in the film the more one takes the time to look for them. Others offered alternative guides for film enthusiasts wanting to engage with Allen-esque material without giving the filmmaker any support.
But it’s DeRogatis who, through his work with Kelly, offered perhaps the best litmus test for engaging with Allen, one that helpfully cuts through the noise of a beloved artist being accused of grave misdeeds. With Moonlight in theaters, this is important to think about. What’s the point of all the debates, after all, if we simply turn out to theaters like nothing happened at all? DeRogatis offers a series of questions for audiences and critics to ask themselves when consuming pop culture, questioning the roles of the fan and whether art and artist can indeed be separated at all. And perhaps, most importantly, whether they should be.
It’s not meant for simple answers, to say the least; DeRogatis acknowledges that the debate has left even him with “more questions than answers.” And trying to definitively state whether watching a Woody Allen movie or buying an R. Kelly album or bouncing along to a Chris Brown song on the radio or going to a rental kiosk and picking up a Mel Gibson star vehicle is probably a fool’s errand, to some degree. To contextualize all art with its creator(s) in the same breath is to assume that all people who make bleak art are hopeless, that all who preach peace and optimism could hardly be false prophets.
But while it’s a much more complex issue than can possibly be captured within this piece of writing in full, or probably any really, this doesn’t mean that we should stop. For all the decrying of the Internet as a place where popular opinion holds sway over cold fact, it’s also a place where facts on all sides can come to reside—and perhaps affect change. It’s where we can talk about the Columbus music festival that’s dealing with blowback against the decision to book Kelly as a headliner, in reaction to the controversy reignited by Hopper and DeRogatis’ debate. It’s where people can learn how to better talk about the Farrow-Allen situation without falling into the traps of victim shaming or assumptive reporting.
And to the whole question on which this piece started, there are no more answers at the end than at the start. To even write a piece like this one is to play the game outlined in David Fincher’s Zodiac, where after a while anything that might have once resembled truth is lost in a fog of allegation and suspicion and little in the way of truly indisputable evidence. There is no easy answer for whether the Magic in the Moonlight ticket in somebody’s hand makes them an enabler, simply an appreciator of the arts, or somebody who’s had the dialogues of others imposed onto their pop culture preferences, or any other number of answers. It’s up to them, to us. The important thing is that we keep asking, whether or not we ever actually find answers.
Dominick Suzanne-Mayer is the co-editor of The Kelly Affair, and a staff writer at Consequence of Sound. He also hosts an open-mic at Uncharted Books in Chicago called Permanent Records, dedicated to the live sharing of embarrassing detritus from audience members’ younger selves.