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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White Like Me

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Dear Black People,

After watching season one of the Netflix series Dear White People, I want to apologize for my ancestors having screwed up your lives for the past 200 hundred plus years and for making race relations so fraught to this day.

Watching Dear White People made me uncomfortable, as it is no doubt meant to do. Episode after episode, I squirmed as well-meaning (and some not so well-meaning) white students try to relate to their black counterparts at a fictional Ivy League school called Winchester. (The gun comes immediately to mind.) Whether getting called out for partying in blackface or learning that only blacks get to use the N word, the white kids at Winchester are alternately baffled and angered by their black classmates’ refusal to go easy on them.

The premise of Dear White People is that a mixed race student named Samantha White hosts a regular segment on the college radio station that starts “Dear white people” and  gives her a platform to air her exasperation, dismay, or outright disgust at the way people of color are treated at her school. Her show – and indeed the series – force whites to look at their privilege in a sometimes humorous, but always uncompromising, way.

What I love about the show is that each episode is told from the perspective of one student at the school. Even the black students at Winchester are not united in their views of how best to advance black causes at the school. Some are assimilators who want to find diplomatic solutions. Some are activists who wish to be confrontational. All have unique stories, and learning their stories is perhaps the most instructive part of the show for whites who might be tempted to paint all African-Americans with the same broad brush.

A twist in the show is that Sam, the radio personality/activist, is secretly dating a white grad student at the beginning of Episode 1. Once they are outed, Sam’s boyfriend Gabe tries to walk the tightrope of being sympathetic to the black students’ plight without being patronizing. But he learns that, as a white person, he just doesn’t get it, and probably never will. The same can be said for white audiences of Dear White People. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.

While the show has deadly serious moments, it’s also very funny. The repartee among the students is topical and witty.  And the characters totally won me over. There’s the shy gay student who has a crush on his roommate, his equally gay newspaper editor who is constantly yelling at him for not doing the story he was assigned, the Buffy-like girl who gets an Emotional Support Animal to handle the stress, the Kenyan who insists that his people are superior because “we did not get captured” in Africa.

Dear White People is a sly, witty, earnest, and well-acted comedy-drama and a must-see for anyone who wants to examine modern race relations in America. I can’t wait for season two!