Artistic tragedy

I have been devastated by the recent cinematic news.

Indeed, the movie world has been reeling this past week, stunned by the recurring revelations.


It’s especially unsettling as I have essentially ignored the alleged personal transgressions of this cinematic artist for about 20 years. In essence, there was a public disclosure in the early 1990s that was largely forgotten until this past week when it tragically surfaced again and has been widely discussed. In between, this artist has been widely praised for his work, having been nominated many times for Academy Awards and even having his name read when the envelope was torn open.

Sure I had a vague recollection of this past behavior that has again come to light given recent events, but I also have greatly enjoyed his work, happily seeing every release, generally touting every film in which he appeared and made. Selective memory loss (avoidance?) of these personal aspects has not interfered with my appreciation of the work.

Upon reflection, such blissful ignorance was not in any way a statement condoning the behavior. It simply allowed me the opportunity to confront the artist’s work on its own terms as a creation of a creative mind, a demonstration of an intriguing performer. Which begs the question: When does the behavior of the human being become so detracting, distracting or atrocious that it taints his artistic output so as to make it untenable as a creative endeavor and thereby unworthy of praise and enjoyment?

This is not an unprecedented quandary. There are many examples of artists who create great works but who also have exhibited bad — even appalling — behavior, beliefs and judgment. The point at which this rises to a level where one feels compelled to personally, or even publicly, censor or condemn such artist’s work may be like art itself — in the eye of the beholder. There doesn’t seem to be any clear lines, consensus or consistency for such reactions and responses.

There’s usually great reflection at times like these. People agonize over the situation and turn inward. There’s an outpouring of heartfelt stories where people share their personal experiences similar to those of the artist and his plight. Others identify with the artist and his situation. Still others use the opportunity to blast the weaknesses exhibited and harshly criticize those who would defend the artist, his behavior or those who come to his defense.

Then there’s the blizzard of soul- searching questions. Why did this happen? How come the people involved didn’t do anything to redress the problem long ago? What are the explanations for the recurrence and are there others to blame, motives to impinge, warning signs overlooked?

And what about forgiveness? Can someone who provided so many hours (years) of top-notch entertainment be excused for creating such turmoil? Will we ever really know what happened and why? Isn’t this an acutely personal matter for the artist and his family that we should give them space and let them sort out these issues and questions themselves?

Artists are not afforded the luxury of privacy. Every aspect of their lives is open for our commentary, evaluation and judgment. We expect them to be stellar role models, but we also know that they are still imperfect human beings subject to all of the desires, temptations, mistakes, fears and foibles as the rest of us. It takes situations like these recent events to expose this contradictory mindset. Maybe we shouldn’t build them up so largely so that we won’t be so devastated when they come back down to earth.

Admittedly that’s hard to do. Many of us are dazzled by artists’ creativity. Who has gazed at the Mona Lisa, the statue of David, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and wasn’t awestruck and profoundly humbled that such marvels were made by human hands? Of course, we all have talents. But then there are those whose are truly divinely inspired.

I’m not sure I would place this artist’s work in this exalted company, but he surely has talent that is worthy of high praise. While some would pooh-pooh the very notion that the cinematic arts are even “art” much less equal to the great works that everyone agrees are worthy of acclaim, movies can be artistic when they create impressive images and stories that cause one to react as one would to any amazingly crafted artifact.

The events of the past week engender such thoughts and discussions. Our impressions of an artist’s historic output may in fact be colored by our reminders of his personal struggles and demons. Can one now glimpse something in a past performance or creation that, upon reflection, provides an insight into the emotional or mental state of the artist? Is that performance or work somehow less impressive now when, at the time it was experienced, we did not know (or had forgotten) specific detailed information about the person who created it?

Is ignorance truly bliss — or at least essential to experience art for its pure essence? Clearly, there are times when knowing how a work was made or the strife and struggles endured to make it actually enhance the experience of appreciating it and the wonder of its creation. But what’s important is how it makes the individual observer feel. In other words, art, among other things, is supposed to create a transcendent (transformative?) experience of universal truths about existence and our place in it — of taking the self out of the picture even if that “self” is the artist-creator.

Still, it’s possible to complain about the artist and what he has done and how he lived his life while at the same time praising the work. That’s not always easy or possible, and it’s especially hard to disassociate the artist from the work when the work actually involves the physical presence of the artist himself as is the case with movies. That’s the actor himself right there in front of us as well as the character he is playing.

All this and more came to mind following the sad events of last week. It’s my way of saying that I still admire and enjoy the work of Woody Allen despite the recurring claims of child molestation.

What, were you assuming I was referring to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death by heroin overdose? Oh yeah, that too.

Doug Young is an award-winning film critic for The Colorado Statesman.