The Art vs. the Artist

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Revelations of sexual misconduct have roiled the entertainment industry, among others, in recent months. The allegations of sexual harassment, assault, and intimidation against producer Harvey Weinstein seemed to have unloosed a dam in Hollywood, and numerous directors, actors, and other entertainers have been accused of using their positions to abuse women.

In light of the accusations, networks have been cancelling TV series and specials, and no doubt the fate of some feature films hangs in the balance. I’m heartened by the change in attitude towards sexual impropriety in the workplace; it’s long overdue. But I wonder how to balance our admiration for the talent and artistry of a person with the ugly reality of his behavior in real life.

For decades there has been debate about such figures as Roman Polanski and Woody Allen and the degree to which we should ostracize their work out of protest at their sexual misdeeds (although in the case of Allen, many people see nothing wrong with his dating and eventually marrying his ex-wife’s adopted daughter. I would not be one of those people.) Heavyweights in Hollywood have always stood up for these men, even though Polanski had to flee the country on a statutory rape charge. But the question is, should we not see Chinatown, The Pianist, or Rosemary’s Baby – or indeed even recognize their greatness as films?

Sometimes the rejection of an artist’s work is based on unambiguous factors. Leni Riefenstahl, for instance, used her directorial talents to create propaganda for Hitler and Nazi Germany. It also doesn’t take much hemming and hawing to denounce D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a film that glories in the creation of the Ku Klux Klan. But what about the well-known anti-Semite Richard Wagner? His Nineteenth Century operas and other classical music are renowned works of art. Should we protest any productions of his work today, knowing what we know about his bigotry and xenophobia?

Over the years people have boycotted entertainers for political reasons. In fact, it seems like the entire world of the arts is fraught with politics these days. In fact, recently I had to stop and consider whether someone might be offended if I gave their child a book written by Bill Nye, the Science Guy. But short of objecting to the content of a specific book, movie, or other work of art, I’m not sure I want to let my personal opinion of an artist affect my appreciation of their work.

I don’t have the answers here. It seems to me that works of art should be judged on their own merits. Yet I would be hard pressed to attend a Louis C.K. performance these days. And should I finish binge-watching House of Cards or shun the series in protest over Kevin Spacey’s lame excuses and rationalizations for preying upon young men? Do time and distance make an artist’s work more palatable? I just don’t know.

Still, I am glad to see the cult of celebrity being shattered a bit to allow victims the ability to confront abuse and intimidation. After all, actors, directors, comedians, musicians and other artists are only human. They should be held to the same laws and standards as other humans, famous or not.

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Whose Art Is It Anyway?

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The-2BBean-2B-1--1I’ve been seeing numerous articles about art in public spaces and the various controversies that go along with such visible displays. Coming from Chicago, a city rich in the arts, I grew up accustomed to iconic works of art on display throughout the downtown area.

As a Chicagoan, you might give directions referencing this art, such as, “Turn right at the Picasso and head south to the Chagall.” Or your point of reference might be Millennium Park’s iconic “Cloud Gate,” affectionately known to Windy City denizens and tourists as “The Bean.” Love them or hate them, these works of art have become part and parcel of our city landscape.

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Recently a famous Alexander Calder sculpture was removed from the former Sears Tower, now grudgingly known as the Willis Tower. Art lovers wondered what fate lay in store for such a well-known and beloved piece as this work titled “The Universe.” At the same time, there has been some talk of redeveloping a square designed by Mies van der Rohe that has been home to Calder’s bright red “Flamingo” sculpture since 1974. Such discussions and actions bring up the question, To what extent do public works of art belong to the people?

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Art has the power to inspire, invigorate, and sometimes divide people. Not long ago, the statue of “Fearless Girl” was planted directly across from “Charging Bull” in New York City’s financial district – with mixed reviews. Many women see “Fearless Girl” as a challenge to the largely male domain of Wall Street. The sculptor who created “Charging Bull,” however, sees it as an affront to the work he had installed there originally. He has tried unsuccessfully to have “Fearless Girl” removed.

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The controversy over these works shows that public art is so important that the artists who create it give up some control once their work becomes part of the public domain. I’ve read that Anish Kapoor, the creator of “Cloud Gate,” objected to the location of the sculpture and dislikes the “stupid” nickname given it. Likewise, it can seem trivializing to sit next to the exquisite “Four Seasons” mosaic by Marc Chagall and wolf down a hotdog. I remember having a strange feeling while visiting Beijing’s Forbidden City. These ancient relics looked so prosaic with people just lounging around on their steps and showing very little respect for or interest in them.

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At the same time, there can be no greater tribute to artists and to the power of art than in the passionate way the public embraces such works as “Flamingo,” “Fearless Girl,” and Cloud Gate.” That unnamed Picasso sculpture that has been vilified over the years has nevertheless become part and parcel of Chicago’s Daley Center Plaza, and without it, and other iconic works of art, our city and our world would be greatly diminished.