Sympathy for the Devil by
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What I remember from my childhood was that my parents were adamant about boycotting all German products. This was not that long after the end of the war, so it was understandable. It came up primarily in the context of automobiles, and when my newly married sister and her husband decided to buy a Volkswagen Beetle in the mid-sixties, it was quite a crisis for my parents. (A decade later, my parents bought a Mercedes, so apparently they had come around by then.) What I don’t remember was whether that boycott also applied to German artists. Certainly Richard Wagner was famously anti-Semitic, and beloved by the Nazis although he was already long dead. We didn’t listen to his music, but I don’t know if that was the reason.

On the central question of this prompt: Can I separate the art from the artist? I guess my answer is "sometimes."

More recently I learned that Johann Sebastian Bach was also anti-Semitic, but while I can easily live without Wagner’s music, I can’t imagine giving up Bach.

Which brings me to the central question of this prompt: Can I separate the art from the artist? And I guess my answer is “sometimes.”

When I saw the movie Gallipoli in 1981, I loved it and its young star Mel Gibson. I was interested in following his career, and happily saw him in 1982’s Year of Living Dangerously, 1990’s Hamlet (directed by Franco Zeffirelli), and 1995’s Braveheart. But once the news got out of his anti-Semitic rant when he was arrested for drunk driving in 2006, that was it for me. I will never again see anything that he acts in, directs, or is in any way involved with. In his case, there is no way I can separate the art from the artist.

On the other hand, I can forgive Roman Polanski for whatever he may have done, because his movies are so incredible AND because he went through that horrible ordeal of the Manson family killing his wife and their about-to-be-born baby. I can’t even imagine how you get past something like that. Also, refreshing my memory about his 1977 arrest, I found that while he was charged with six counts of criminal behavior with a thirteen-year-old girl, he ended up pleading to one count of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, and was supposed to be sentenced to just the time he had already served. However, before the sentencing he learned that the judge was going to disregard the terms of the plea bargain and sentence him to fifty years in prison. No wonder he fled the country and never returned. I would have done the same. At this point, I think he has suffered enough, and his victim has said so too. Besides, I could never give up his movies, especially Chinatown, which was acclaimed as a “rewatchable movie” in our recent prompt on that topic.

I love Woody Allen’s movies and will happily go see any new one that comes out. However, I’m realizing as I write this that I don’t believe the allegations against him, so it’s not a case of separating the art from the artist. I don’t have a problem with the artist here. While I appreciate that the MeToo movement has made our society realize that women who accuse men of sexual wrongdoing should be listened to and, in general, believed, I don’t think that it is always true that the accusers are telling the truth. I don’t believe Dylan Farrow. There, I said it! And for those who were uncomfortable or shocked when Woody at age 56 got together with Soon-Yi Previn who was 21, this seems remarkably similar to Soon-Yi’s adoptive mother Mia Farrow getting together at 21 with 50-year-old Frank Sinatra. Mia and Frank’s marriage only lasted two years, but Woody and Soon-Yi have been married for 24 years and seem happy together.

When the first accuser of Bill Cosby went public, I couldn’t believe it was possible he had done such things. But as the number of women telling basically the same story continued to grow, I had to accept that it was true. I was disappointed and horrified. How could this man, a big star, stoop to this level? I would not want to watch anything he acted in or directed now, although since he is currently in prison, there is no chance of that happening any time soon. However, I think I would still watch re-runs of his old shows, especially I Spy, which I have just discovered is available on Amazon Prime.

So in the great tradition of Flannery O’Connor (“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say”) and Joan Didion (“I write to know what I think”), I was hoping that writing this story would help me figure out my views on separating the art from the artist. But the only artist I could come up with who I found so offensive that it causes me to boycott anything he does is Mel Gibson. In his case, I couldn’t make the separation. With Bill Cosby and to a lesser extent Roman Polanski, I am appalled at what they did, but I can separate that from their art. And in the case of Woody Allen, I don’t think he did anything objectionable, although there may be others on this site who disagree.

I am looking forward to reading the rest of this week’s stories, and figuring out how I feel about the artists they discuss.

 

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Characterizations: right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Suzy, thank you for this comprehensive analysis of artists you might or might not cancel. This is well-reasoned and I understand and agree with most of what you say. I, too, really enjoyed Mel Gibson in almost everything he did early in his career, but absolutely cannot watch him now. I didn’t know about Bach; am not surprised, but certainly won’t/can’t shut him out of my life now. I, of course, was aware of Wagner. Not being an opera singer, I don’t personally sing his music, but I don’t avoid it either. I remember listening to the Texaco broadcast of the Met on that clock radio in my bedroom with my mother when I was a kid. She adored Wagner, even if she hated all anti-Semites (she might not have fully realized Wagner’s predilections).

    Woody Allen is complicated and controversial. I saw the Ronan Farrow documentary about him recently. As someone pointed out to me, it was entirely from Mia’s point of view. But we also streamed his latest movie “Rainy Day in Paris”, which didn’t even get released here in the US. It just wasn’t very good. Do I think Mia might have planted the bad thoughts in Dylan’s mind? It is possible. No one will ever know.

    So thank you for giving us such a comprehensive look with you own point of view.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, Betsy. How interesting that you listened to the Met broadcast on your clock radio – I didn’t learn about it until I was in my thirties. And with your mother, with whom you didn’t share that much. Also interesting that she adored Wagner, although, as you say, she might not have been aware of his views.

      Thanks for your comments about Woody too. I boycotted the documentary because I knew it was entirely one-sided and I didn’t want to hear only that side. Was there really a movie called “Rainy Day in Paris”? The only thing I get on google is “A Rainy Day in New York” which apparently played in Paris, but not in the US. It wasn’t released here because of “the moral issue.” That makes me angry, and now I want to see it!

      • Betsy Pfau says:

        I was wrong – the Woody movie WAS “Rainy Day in New York”, not Paris (thanks for the correction). It was that forgettable. It should have been a Whit Stillman film; it felt stilted, too forced and not funny for a Woody Allen film. We streamed it on Amazon at some point during the pandemic. I can’t even remember how long ago, but after watching the documentary, where Allen complained that he couldn’t get his film released here in the States.

  2. John Shutkin says:

    Excellent story, Suzy, not least of which because you absolutely nail my own “sometimes” ambivalence on this very tough issue. Plus, you highlight a number of the same problematic artists who trouble me.

    I wish there were some way to hit a universal principle here, or at least seem to be consistent in one’s choices, but you well illustrate just how difficult that is to do. So kudos to you on both a great prompt and a great story.

    And I also thought your title was, as always, just right.

  3. Let me not waste any time replying. This week. 😉
    Very well done, Suzy. You ably illustrate the complexity of this difficult question. And I subscribe to what I glean as the major points: it’s complicated, and it’s personal.

  4. Thanx Suzy, I had forgotten about my parents’ boycott of all things German! I remember a tearful episode in Macys over a Loden coat that “everybody had”, but my mother vetoed because of the “Made in Germany” label. And then I remember years later my folks rather upset when my husband and I bought a BMW!

    And like you I can forgive some of the artists who’ve misbehaved, or allegedly misbehaved – and nothing will keep me from a new Woody Allen flick. But I too draw the line at that bastard Mel Gibson.

    • Suzy says:

      Fascinating about the Loden coat! I remember when those were all the rage. I probably had a knock-off that wasn’t made in Germany. I wonder, though, if my mother even thought to look at clothing labels to see where they were made. If so, she didn’t discuss it with me. Glad you agree with me on Woody Allen (thumbs up) and Mel Gibson (thumbs way, way down).

  5. A further thought: the meme is “Cancel Culture” and “Cancellation”. But rarely, if ever, is someone or something truly cancelled. Our choice is abstention. Entirely different. Anodyne, even.

    • Suzy says:

      Unfortunately, a lot of artists HAVE been cancelled, i.e. their work is not shown, or they can’t even get jobs. Woody Allen’s last two movies have not been shown in the US. Other accused artists have also been shut out, so that we don’t even get the opportunity to attend or abstain. Very troubling, as I think about it.

  6. PS Suzy!
    Your song titles always great, but for this prompt – especially great!

  7. Laurie Levy says:

    I guess we disagree on some things, Suzy. Yes, I don’t watch Mel Gibson or Bill Cosby, but I do think Woody did what he was accused of doing, and Roman Polanski’s victim was 13, younger than my granddaughters. I understand why he fled and have great sympathy for the tragedies in his life, but I stopped watching his films when this happened. Which is too bad because I think he’s very talented. This is a very complicated issue and everyone I know has their own feelings about what is ok for them.

    • Suzy says:

      Laurie, I’m disappointed that we don’t agree on this, since I think we do on most things. But a debate would be pointless, so I will just agree that it is a complicated issue and everyone has their own feelings about it.

  8. Khati Hendry says:

    I have to admit that if I know an artist holds what I think are terrible political views, I don’t watch or enjoy their products. It becomes hard when you already like the art and then find out things you wish you hadn’t known. Thanks for your reflections.

    • Suzy says:

      Yes, I agree with you, Khati. However, I still have problems with the culture of cancelling someone, especially when it is based on allegations that haven’t been proven.

  9. Jeff Gerken says:

    I totally agree with your thoughts about Mel Gibson. I will never watch another of his movies. I feel the same way about Bill Cosby now as well.

  10. Marian says:

    You so well expressed what I’d been thinking about this prompt, Suzy, and it is really personal, and our choices might even evolve over time. Wagner was finally played in Israel after a long period of not being heard. It will be interesting to see what time will do to people’s attitudes. I agree with you that in most cases total cancellation is not appropriate and people should be able to make their own choices.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, Mare. You’re right that attitudes may change over time. Obviously if they played Wagner in Israel, anything can happen! Glad you agree that people should be able to make their own choices.

  11. Suzy, what strikes me about all of your examples is that the only one you absolutely cannot abide is Mel Gibson. I think that’s because you saw him with your own eyes and heard what he said. Many of us did…we watched the tape. There’s no question, no ambiguity. If you actually saw footage of Allen or Jackson engaging in sexual misconduct, you would probably feel the same way. I shouldn’t keep saying “you”…I’m speaking for myself. But I think I’m right. What do you think?

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