Music Features

Can you separate The Art from The Artist?

I faced my first epicurean crisis when it was discovered that Woody Allen had been banging his girlfriend's daughter.  As a teenager, I idolized Allen intensely, identifying with his neurotic Jewish pose and his simultaneous courting and ridicule of the intellectuals that littered New York in the 70s and 80s.  I may not have known what a sensibility was, but Woody gave me one and by the time he started dabbling with Soon-Yi, it was too late for me to get a new one.  So now what was I supposed to think?  Manhattan, which centered around a forty-something man in love with a seventeen year old girl, was one of my favorite movies.  The strangeness of Isaac Davis' fascination with the young Tracy never occurred to me, such was the adeptness of the writing and the filmmaking.  But now, it was hard to ignore the whiff of, well, you don't want to call it pedophilia, but creepiness gets pretty close.  One couldn't help but reassess.  Subsequent events have provided ample opportunity for second thoughts.  Maybe we didn't need to revisit Towering Inferno in light of the O.J. Simpson trial, but Phil Spector's "amusing" eccentricities, like pulling a gun on The Ramones, became suddenly not so funny when he shot Lana Clarkson; and his legacy was nothing to laugh about.  How was it even possible to start squirming when Be My Baby or Then He Kissed Me came on the radio?  Here was music of such unadulterated joy and innocence that the idea it could come from the mind of a cold-blooded killer just doesn't compute.  For that matter, how do you reckon Pet Sounds when Brian Wilson is so clearly bonkers?  John Lennon wrote, "I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved", and he wasn't kidding.  From all accounts he was a shitty father, a lousy husband and an all-round cruel bastard when he wasn't shaking his mop-top with his buddies.  Sure, he was a wit nonpareil and he could be a refreshingly honest truth-teller, if at that moment he wasn't lying through his teeth or inventing details his drug-addled brain couldn't possibly recall, but that doesn't excuse the way he treated Cynthia, Julian and most of the other important people in his life.  But what does that tell you about the wistful perfection of In My Life or Strawberry Fields Forever?

For anyone serious enough about their passions, these contradictions inevitably have to be faced.  It's a lot easier when you happen to be Jewish, because pretty much everything you read prior to 1930 is tinged with varying degrees of anti-semitism.  Shakespeare's depiction of Shylock is ambivalant in the extreme compared with some of the things that came out of Dostoyevsky, Wagner or almost everyone else writing in the 19th century.  But just this afternoon I listened to the prelude to Tristan and Isolde and soaked up every blissful second of it.  In my opinion it pays to accept these absurdities, drop your natural defensiveness, and relax, otherwise you're likely to be consumed and blinded by your resentments.  If you're going to get hung up by Mickey Sabbath's misogyny in Philip Roth's brilliant novel, Sabbath's Theater, and tell me how it's some reflection of the way way Roth treated Claire Bloom, I just don't know what to say to you.  If anything, go complain about Deception, if only because that is the weaker book.

How typical.  Here I am, a Jewish writer given the task of separating the art from the artist and all I can talk about is Woody Allen, Philip Roth and anti-semitism.  I'll up the ante by telling you that I just re-watched Passion of the Christ in an effort to determine whether I'd been imagining Gibson's unflattering portrait of the Jews the first time I'd seen it.  I hadn't, but then again he was being somewhat true to his source.  The problem is, the one-dimensional nature of the high priests and their cartoonishly evil behavior detracts from an otherwise powerful, if unsettlingly sadistic, film.  It really is the art, not the artist, that should concern us.  Gibson strikes me as at least a bit unstable, but I'm more interested in what his films are saying and how they're saying it.  The sadism in Passion seems to share an affinity with scenes of brutality and torture in the Lethal Weapon series, and I find it disturbing in both contexts.  The idea that torture is some kind of path to enlightenment or vindication badly misses the point of the Gospels as well as the buddy cop movie.

Art is a form of communication, and just like when two people are talking, what really matters is what is being said and how they are saying it.  We weren't given the ability to read minds, so all we have to go on is what is presented to us.  Even a sociopath can learn to say, "I love you", persuasively enough to be convincing, and the chemical rush of oxytocin coursing through the lover's veins is an experience not easily expunged from the memory.  And that's a case where the lie is plain to see.  But is Be My Baby or In My Life a lie?  Maybe the flawed artist can still recognize truth and beauty when he sees it and capture its essence, even if he is unable to live up to its demands.