Thoughtful Revolution

The “Sanctity of Art”

I will not be writing a post about Roman Polanski. Everything I am fuming about has already been said (on the excellent, among other venues) — the utter obviousness of Polanski’s guilt, and the repulsive victim-blaming omnipresent in the case, have both been discussed ad nauseam.  Though it’s hard not to rage about the sheer prevalence of “she was a temptress/a whore/asking for it” rhetoric that’s been circulating, not to mention the constant trivialization of statutory rape to “not-actually-rape” status, I will do my best not to write a blog post on the subject.

What I would like to address, at least as a jumping-off point, is the seemingly popular idea that Polanski’s art exempts him from any sort of ethical obligation.  Consider the defensive, knee-jerk petition put forth by a number of prominent artists and intellectuals — the first sentence, with an almost unbelievable lack of subtlety, reads, “We have learned the astonishing news of Roman Polanski’s arrest by the Swiss police on September 26th, upon arrival in Zurich, while on his way to a film festival where he was due to receive an award for his career in filmmaking.” (emphasis mine) The rest of the petition reads similarly; points are raised that would be utterly inane without the qualifier “artist” or “filmmaker,” and the entire thing is rife with the implication that artistic criminals, unlike the hoi polloi of lawbreakers, must be able to define their own justice for the sake of their Art.  I could respect this point of view if Polanski had been arrested for political or artistic vandalism, for public disturbance, for public obscenity — but the drugging and rape of a 13-year-old?  In such a case, one’s relative artistic merit is thoroughly irrelevant.  Rape is not art, even when an artist does it; it is not immediately important that a rapist is an artist, but that he is a rapist.

Polanski’s actions, of course, are impossible to defend.  But I feel like the attempted defense is based in a fundamental — and fundamentally wrong — cultural assumption: that artists are given a free pass from ethical behavior because they are artists, and “art saves.”  The model of the dissolute, destructive, abusive artist has been a consistent fixture in Western literature and culture, and (astoundingly) that model has been more romanticized than censured.  More importantly, though, it has been perpetuated, not always to Byronic proportions but always to an unhealthy extent.

I must make it clear that I don’t object in the least to artists drinking, or smoking, or (as Michael Gerson would have it) “cohabiting.”  I applaud the latter as a sensible, healthy and ultimately beneficial choice, and remain fairly neutral on the former two.  No, my problem with the “sanctity of art”  lies in the minutia of ethical relationships with fellow human beings: both on a global or communal scale (volunteer work, outreach) and in the most deeply personal of arenas.

I have seen too many artists exempt themselves from meaningful social action beyond online petitions, arguing that their art takes up too much of their time, and that — astoundingly, this isn’t an uncommon thing to hear — it’s more important to the human race in the long run than a stint at a measly soup kitchen.  Yes, of course art is important to the human race.  Yes, of course society wouldn’t be nearly as emotionally or intellectually rich without it.  But it’s the worst kind of narcissism to claim that your art, piece by piece and hour by hour, can save more people’s lives than physical action would.  Not only is it (statistically speaking) highly unlikely, considering the level of exposure and popularity most artists achieve, but it’s as ethically lazy as cubicle-style workers turning down volunteer work for the boss’s next memo — we just don’t snap to the same judgment about artists, because the preexisting artistic model has assured us that no matter how time-consuming it might be, art is an Entirely Different pursuit.

This notion of “Entirely Different” similarly poisons personal dynamics under the existing artist model.  I have very little day-to-day connection with adult artists, but there is a certain mindset among teenage artists that someone who doesn’t create art is automatically an inferior human being.  I don’t need to say that this not only creates a devastating atmosphere of condescension in the “arty set,” but shuts off possibilities of new relationships (and, on a more community-wide scale, might be a hidden motive behind that soup-kitchen avoidance).  More disturbingly, the Byronic template — I find it interesting, incidentally, how often the term Byronic has been used to describe Polanski — allows for abuse of those pathetic non-artists close to you, including-but-not-limited-to friends, family, colleagues, and significant others.  I’m not saying that such disdainful abuse is a crime on the scale of statutory rape, but it is a pernicious element in the paradigm that Roman Polanski’s defenders use to defend him — and there is no doubt that a cultivated, societally approved superiority complex can escalate into morally reprehensible behavior.  When one believes that there is something inherent in him/herself setting him/her above others, it makes it all the easier for him/her to commit cruelties against those others; those cruelties can be horrific, or they can be the day-to-day wearing-down of a nasty word, a snarky remark, a condescending glance.  This is true of bigotry, this is true of misogyny, and this is true of the “sanctity of art” complex.

All that being said, art is wonderful, and so (for the most part) are its practitioners.  There are so many artists out there who manage to balance profound creative output and a genuine commitment to improving the world beyond a facile, narcissistic “my art is doing the work for me” mentality; I admire those artists more than I express, both for doing the incredible things they do and for surpassing the easy way out that is culturally provided for them.  But it’s important to remember that without an audience, art is diminished; an ethical life, both on the global and personal scale, will expand that audience.  The sort of condescension so prominent in the artistic community will cause it to shrink.  And that condescension can never, never become a viable excuse for the crime that Roman Polanski committed, and that too many artists continue to defend.


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