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Artists Transgressing Moral Boundaries

December 17, 2009

Tom Miller in Miller-McCune:

Do great artists live by a different moral code than the rest of us? Do their profound achievements make their personal failings forgivable?

These twin questions have regularly resurfaced over the past few months, most recently with the arrest of film director Roman Polanski. They also provided an undercurrent to the saturation coverage of Michael Jackson, following the pop star’s sudden death this summer.

And they improbably arose in Los Angeles, when a member of county board of supervisors belatedly discovered Richard Wagner was an anti-Semite and asked the Los Angeles Opera to cancel its long-planned production of his Ring Cycle. The troupe, noting that the cycle of four operas is generally considered one of the most monumental artistic achievements of all time, politely declined.

The Polanski and Jackson cases are particularly troubling, since both involve underage sex. Jackson was accused but not convicted of molesting 12- and 13-year-old boys; Polanski fled the United States after pleading guilty to drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl. These are offenses that, as the Washington Post‘s Eugene Robinson pointed out, can’t honestly be dismissed as inconsequential under any reasonable set of ethical guidelines.

And yet, a group of eminent filmmakers including Martin Scorsese, Pedro Almodovar and Woody Allen quickly came to his defense, signing a petition expressing “stupefaction” with the arrest. A number of European cultural leaders expressed outrage, suggesting a creative genius shouldn’t be treated in such a way. As French film critic Agnes Poirier told theGuardian of London: “We are prepared to forgive artists a lot more than we are prepared to forgive ordinary mortals.”

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One Comment leave one →
  1. December 17, 2009 12:35 PM

    We should hold and be held to higher standards and ethics. It doesn’t matter if your an elite at your profession or art. Tiger Woods has found this out lately, along with other famous sports figures, artist and politicians. Are any of us perfect… no, but we shouldn’t use that as an excuse to lower social or personal ethics and standards. A slow lowering of both has put us in a huge crater of crime, self pity, drug use, and laziness. But again, what do I know!

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