Why Do We Demand Moral Absolutes In Art?: On Boycotts, Binary Thinking, and Finding the Middle Ground

Woody Allen Scarlett Johansson morality in art

On Monday, Lena Dunham was interviewed by Marc Maron for his WTF podcast (listen to the entire, excellent interview here), and the two spoke about the recent allegations against Woody Allen, and also about the larger issue of whether or not it’s possible to ever separate art from its creator. This interview comes directly on the heels of new accusations of sexual misconduct against photographer Terry Richardson, an Ethicist column in the New York Times about the propriety of boycotting Allen’s work, as well as no small about of Internet condemnation of Scarlett Johansson following a recent interview in which the actress (who has worked with Allen on multiple occasions and was specifically called out in Dylan Farrow’s Times editorial) commented that she found Farrow’s public accusations “irresponsible,” and also that any accusations against Allen are simply “guesswork” and “ridiculous.” All of which is to say that as the once personal decision of what type of art—and from what type of artist—we consume has become increasingly public, the demands we make on other people (not only those in our immediate social circles, but also celebrities and other artists, like Johansson) to decide things within a morally absolute code have increased. But in this attempt to fit the enjoyment of art into black-and-white terms, we risk losing one of the most important aspects of engaging with art in the first place, namely, art’s insistence on the critical engagement of its audience—art’s insistence on intelligence.

When speaking with Maron, Dunham was unequivocal, saying, “In the latest Woody Allen debate I’m decidedly pro-Dylan Farrow and decidedly disgusted with Woody Allen’s behavior.” But she goes on to say, “the thing is to look at the evidence that actually exists in the real word, which strongly suggests that Woody Allen is in the wrong;” however, Dunham’s “not comfortable living in a world where art is part of how we convict people of crimes.” She dismisses the many people who, in the wake of Dylan Farrow’s open letter, started examining Allen’s decades-old one-act plays for clues about his sexual proclivities (“look, he’s told us in 57 ways that he rapes kids”) and then defaulted to mentioning Tracy and Isaac’s relationship in Manhattan, saying, “I’m not going to indict someone based on their art.” Dunham says, “if someone makes work that’s sexual or makes works that’s angry, it doesn’t mean they’re sexual deviants or angry.” This statement seems like an obvious one, maybe, but even Joyce Carol Oates questioned whether or not it was contradictory to denounce Allen while still liking Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. (Which, no. Once and for all, it’s not contradictory to appreciate one of the greatest novels written in the English language just because the main character is a pedophile. Nabokov was not a pedophile. Lolita is fiction. The end.)

It’s understandable that with an artist like Allen or like Terry Richardson, whose work is overtly sexual and provocative, people seeking definitive answers about the serious accusations being leveled will look at the artist’s work for clues. But this type of search for understanding is misguided and futile at best, and—at worst—does a disservice to the victims by equating their very real situations with the plights of fictional characters. After all, what does it mean that Allen frequently wrote about and filmed extreme May-December relationships? It doesn’t mean anything more than that this was something he wanted to explore artistically. And, in fact, Allen’s supporters have frequently pointed out that being attracted to young women does not necessarily mean that Allen molested his seven-year-old daughter. (Allen’s supporters like to do things like that, patronizingly refute bad logic, but patently ignore the very real evidence that exists.) In the case of Richardson, many people have pointed to his frequently explicitly sexual work as evidence that he is exactly the type of person who would force a woman into performing sexual acts against her will. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is bullshit. Charlotte Waters, the latest model to come out against Richardson, spoke about the good experiences she had modeling for photographers like Richard Kern, whose work is easily as sexually provocative as Richardson’s.

Artists frequently explore morally questionable (and, at times, morally repugnant) ideas and the resulting art often makes viewers uncomfortable. As it should! One of the main purposes of art is to make us all question our own relationship to our humanity and our ideas of what “humanity” even means. It’s fine to be made uncomfortable or angry by art—it’s not infrequently what the artist wants! But it certainly doesn’t mean that the artist is a criminal, just like it doesn’t mean that someone who makes a rather innocuous work like, say, Manhattan Murder Mystery, isn’t a sexual predator. And yet many people seem to have a hard time separating the art from the artist, and so demand some kind of moral accountability across the board, even seeking permission from a New York Times advice columnist to stop watching certain movies. All of which speaks less to the idea of wanting people like Allen or Richardson to suffer for their actions, and more to the idea that people really need to see things—even art—in morally absolute terms. But that has nothing to do with art, which is an inherently complex, contradictory field that exists in order to push boundaries and spur conversation and cause discomfort. Just like the real world, the art world does not exist in black-and-white. There are no easy answers about what we should or should not like.

All of which is to say, watch Woody Allen’s movies if you want (Dunham doesn’t, saying they “got really bad”) or admire Richardson’s work (if you’re into image after image featuring a pretty heavy-handed use of flash photography), or, you know, don’t. It doesn’t really matter, because it’s fine to hold two opposing views in your mind, namely that someone can be a decent artist and a despicable person. Dunham rightly tells Maron, “You can know that someone’s made work that’s meaningful to you and also know that they have most likely molested their daughter… I was so unimpressed by people’s inability to think in less binary ways and to just experience the ambiguity that life is constantly offering up.” And it’s true. There are few, if any, moral absolutes anywhere in life, and there’s certainly no reason to expect that they should exist in art. So instead of searching out easy answers to complicated situations, we should appreciate the fact that there are no easy answers, and that is what makes life—and art—valuable.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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