Recent resurfacing of controversy surrounding Woody Allen has made us — and many others — consider whether an artist’s work can be separated from his or her personal life or public reputation. This subject has long been debated — from James Brown to Roman Polanski to Michael Jackson. It is difficult to untangle public perception of an artist from the meaning we, as hungry consumers, attach to a singular work of art. But if we have a hard time separating our own relationship and context from a work of art, then doesn’t it make sense to consider how that work is inherently influenced by the life experiences of its maker?
MICHELE CARLSON ON CHRIS BROWN, WOODY ALLEN AND R. KELLY
Artists and the work they make are in deep dialogue with one another, some more directly than others. Chris Brown’s album Graffiti directly addressed his troubled history with Rihanna. In 2009, Brown was charged with felony assault when he and then girlfriend, pop-princess Rihanna, got into a fight that escalated to violence followed by a very drawn-out public reconciliation.
Woody Allen’s films address the deep moral issues that haunt his public personification,especially in Manhattan. The depiction of relationships between young women and much older men in several of his films, while not damning in itself, reveals a preoccupation with the subject that lends credibility to the claims brought against him. These films, though produced over several decades, are no more evidence of an act than are the rumors and stories we read about in the news, but they do support a landscape of positioning both the artist and his work within a particular field of behavior.
Even R&B singer and producer R. Kelly named Aaliyah’s first album Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number — the two were married when she was 15 and he was 27. In these cases, autobiographical elements within the work itself suggest a connection between the artist and the artwork that is hard to ignore.
Most often, when scandals erupt in the lives of public figures, we do not know “what actually happened,” but we do know that powerful people have the ability to surpress rumors, get lighter sentences and fundamentally move on in ways that others do not. And in instances such as these, we as an audience are complicit in the creation of this power. Our job is not to persecute, defend or be public jury, but rather to acknowledge that we play a distinct role in perpetuating the unequal distribution of power and representation.
STEVE HOCHMAN ON SLY STONE
Different strokes for different folks.
So sang Sly and the Family Stone in the 1968 can’t-we-all-get-along anthem “Everyday People.” It was a boisterous expression of the Bay Area band’s cross-cultural, cross-gender, cross-genre extravaganza, as conceived, built and led by Sylvester Stewart, a.k.a. Sly Stone. And it was the first No. 1 hit in a catalog that stands as a singular, essential pop prism, gathering the energies and creativities of James Brown, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and so much more into something wholly its own. Sly and the Family Stone’s sound put out a rainbow that would stimulate and illuminate everything from Miles Davis’ rocked-up fusions through Prince at his purplest and beyond. Well, that’s how I see it.
A few years later, per the 2005 memoir by his then-girlfriend Deborah King (later Deborah Santana — she married guitar star Carlos in 1973), the everyday Sly was a drug-addled mess who regularly landed backhand strokes to her face. In My Space Between the Stars, King/Santana portrays Stone as a physically and verbally abusive monster, a picture that overshadows and invalidates his musical and cultural accomplishments. Well, that’s how my girlfriend sees it.
It’s been a subject of discussion between us various times of late, currently spurred by the Allen/Farrow donnybrook. Whatever Sly did to King doesn’t change a note of his music or its importance, I say. Music is entirely about the listener’s perception, she says. I can experience both, loathing him as a person while loving his music, I say. I can’t, she says. I don’t want to hear his good-time music knowing what I know, she says. Much of his music is not good-time at all, but very dark, I say. “There’s a Riot Going On” is a very bleak, powerful album. I still don’t want to hear it, she says. I get it. And yet, just writing about this makes me want to put on Stand — still one of my favorite albums of all time.
Different strokes. And so on and so on and scooby dooby dooby.
JON BROOKS ON J.D. SALINGER
My college roommate and I had an ongoing debate: which of us was more like Holden Caulfield? That Holden was fictional didn’t preclude us from counting him a friend, someone to validate our own renunciation of all that was designed to usher us into adulthood.
I toted my Salinger reverence from city to city, failure to failure. His canon became my psychic first-aid kit; Franny and Zooey could salve certain indignities, Seymour others. The author had pulled off a famous disappearing act, and that only added to the books’ perceived efficacy. “Sleep tight, ya morons!” Holden had yelled, quitting his dorm in the middle of the night. Salinger, apparently, had done the same.
Then I bought At Home in the World, Joyce Maynard’s account of her seduction as an 18-year-old by the 53-year-old Salinger. The accounts of emotional abuse were not the worst thing I’d ever read about a famous person. But because Salinger’s work is so didactic, every word a prescription for correct living, my worship crumbled. I realized my fascination had flourished only in a biographical vacuum. And that I had made that most fundamental of reader errors: projecting the mythical qualities of the author’s characters onto the author himself, which in turn fed back into my attachment to the characters. That closed circuit had now been broken.
I still love the books. I just don’t think I can learn very much from them.
KRISTIN FARR ON CARL ANDRE
To me, minimalist sculptor Carl Andre will always be the guy who killed his wife, multidisciplinary artist Ana Mendieta. In 1985, the two were arguing in their 34th floor apartment. A doorman heard Mendieta screaming “No!” repeatedly just moments before she fell from the window to her death. Andre stood trial for murder, and was acquitted. He could only say that she’d “somehow gone out the window,” though many believe he is responsible for his wife’s death.
Violence against women is an international epidemic and it is for this reason that I feel sick when I see Andre’s work. I can’t separate the art from the rumors surrounding the person. There are other minimalist sculptors to enjoy besides him, and it seems much more justified to devote his wallspace to Ana Mendieta’s work instead.
I saw Andre’s name next to a piece at a local museum recently, and I don’t even remember what his art looked like. I just thought to myself, “Murderer.” Some might believe we should separate the artist from the output, but in this case, I can’t. Mendieta was making important work and I cannot help but blame Andre for not getting to see more of it.
ROULA SEIKALY ON ELIA KAZAN
It was March 1999 and the 71st Academy Awards presentation was underway when 89-year old Elia Kazan took the stage. The famed director, whose credits include On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Splendor in the Grass — in addition to co-founding the Actor’s Studio, was honored that night with the Lifetime Achievement Award. Amid the thunderous standing ovation that met Kazan when he stepped to the microphone were notable dissenters including actors Nick Nolte, Amy Madigan, and Ed Harris, who refused to acknowledge either the award or the man to whom it was given.
Elia Kazan was a traitor.
This was sentiment that followed Kazan through the latter decades of his storied career. In 1952, he appeared as a friendly witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), the cabal ordered by Senator Joseph McCarthy to root out communists who were hard at work undermining Hollywood’s collective patriotism. Along with the eight individuals named in his testimony, Kazan belonged to the American Communist Party in the 1930s, but shuffled off his association well before such ties threatened one’s life and livelihood. His testimony bore grim and long-lasting ramifications. The writers, directors, and actors whom he fingered were blacklisted, forced to work under aliases if at all, flee the country or, in tragic instances, compelled to commit suicide. Kazan later admitted that testifying was the easier of two difficult choices, but never apologized for his actions or for the loyalty he thought demonstrated.
Sixty-two years later, while watching through the magic of YouTube the spectacle of those who honored Kazan with applause and effluent praise, one wonders what celebrity infraction is too minor as to offend or so egregious that social shaming and shunning are enacted. Do we draw a hard line when his or her actions inflict damage on others, or retreat to platitudes about bygones being bygones? One also wonders how public persona helps keep an individual in the headlines regardless of behavior, and how deeply implicated the media machine is in driving the phoenix-like cycle of ascendance, success, failure, and rebirth?
If Dylan, Ronan, and mama Mia Farrow had kept their mouths shut, would dear Woody have slipped safely into celebrity history with only his cinematic successes and failures as the lasting mark of his existence? Of that, time will tell. Here’s to hoping that, amid the deafening media noise, those who have suffered will find peace and those responsible for the pain will not find shelter.