Artistic License


Roman Polanski is a rapist. Roman Polanski is a very talented writer and director of films. (I, for one, much prefer his film version of The Ninth Gate to the original novel by Arturo Perez-Reverte, The Club Dumas.) But what do these two facts about Mr. Polanski have to do with each other? How do they bear upon each other at all? Some seem to think there is a relationship. To put it bluntly, the notion is this: extra credit obtained via esthetic achievement (or talent) atones for demerits earned by moral improprieties. He is a criminal and has hurt other people, but we can give him a pass because he is so darn talented. That seems to be what Woody Allen was thinking when he signed a petition urging leniency for Polanski. That seems to have been Norman Mailer’s thinking when he managed to fish convicted murderer Jack Henry Abbott, acclaimed author of The Belly of the Beast out of jail, only to have his protégé knife a waiter to death while Mailer was wining and dining the killer.

In his terrific morality play Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen posed the dilemma of whether one is to view the universe as possessing an inherent and objective moral structure or whether, since the universe lacks it, we must do our best to build one instead. I am guessing he has come down on the latter alternative, only he is not trying very hard to build it, like O.J. Simpson doing his darnedest to find his wife’s “real killer.” Allen has also expressed his ideology of moral evasion by famously declaring, “The heart wants what it wants,” and thus, when the wind changes, the mind and the conscience must give way to it. That would explain the dreadful business with his girlfriend’s adoptive daughter. (You remember the Soon-Yi mess.) My guess is that Woody Allen, Norman Mailer, and many like them have, as philosophers say, placed the ethical beneath the esthetic as a sub-classification. This is an error, I think. It defines the “good life” as the beautiful or enjoyable life, and when people go astray morally, what is said of them? “They live messy lives sometimes.” Like not cleaning up your room. Like not putting away the dishes.

This evasion is cousin to the cognitivist reduction of morality to misjudgments, like aiming to get the empty can into the garbage can across the room, and it falls short. Oops! Accordingly, politicians “confess” their corruptions and adulteries with the butt-covering mantra, “I made a mistake.” It reduces the ethical to the epistemic. “Mistakes” imply the crooked politician was unable, though doing his best, to ascertain what was right. He just goofed when he had sex with that staffer in his office with the door locked. He thought he was doing the good and noble thing, but he made a “mistake.” Happens to the best of us, I guess. We ought to look on his deed as Descartes or Shankara viewed the man who saw the rope and flinched at an imagined snake. Back to the drawing board!

Of course, sometimes we do our best to find the moral path and we do fail. But then we learn from the results and know better next time. We do not use it as a cherished all-purpose excuse.

It is one thing to say that we may mistake certain cases, certain choices, for ethical ones when they are not. That is the error of fundamentalist zealots who believe the truth of their creed is so self-evident that your seeming failure to grasp it really denotes your refusal to admit the truth, since, if you did, you would have no excuse for not repenting. A legitimate difference of opinion has been reassigned to the moral sphere, and you are culpable for “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness.” Or those Muslim barbarians (literally, as you will see) who gunned down men in Baghdad barbershops for daring to get Western-style haircuts! A matter of esthetic (stylish) preference became a matter of a capital crime. Or think of the poor Jehovah’s Witness kid who is told it is a sin to celebrate her birthday.

To reduce morality to something else is to seek to evade moral culpability, and it is therefore to eschew moral seriousness. Often such cowardice is transformed into a supposed virtue (an odd candidate for the status!) with the collectivist, field-leveling formula that we have witnessed “the death of heroes,” or that we ought to shy away from individualism and abdicate judgment to the “community.” Such a community will perforce be a community of evasion and denial, seeking warmth and strength in numbers, the numbers of branded cows in a herd. Seeking to bear the same brand as the other cows, no matter what it is, so long as it is the same as the brand one’s neighbor bears.

Naturally, it would be a ludicrous error to damn and boycott the esthetic works of artists who have failed morally. This is because of what Roland Barthes called “the death of the author.” A work of art speaks for itself and is in the most decisive sense its own author. It is finally self-referential. The human author whose name appears on it has, as he or she knows as well as I do, only been privileged to function as the expressive channel for artistic gifts given to him, to no credit of his own, by heredity and nurture. It doesn’t matter who wrote that “Woody Allen” or “Norman Mailer” or “Roman Polanski” piece. You don’t fingerprint the text or the film. But you do fingerprint the artist if he has committed rape or some other outrage. To do otherwise, as Woody wants to do, implies a sickening moral nihilism.


So says Zarathustra.

Robert M. Price
October 2009


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