The Film Debate: Can great art justify the artist? (1)

Megan Harding 26 September 2017

cn: child sexual abuse, r*pe

Released to broad critical acclaim in 2002, The Pianist is a deeply moving cinema adaptation of the memoirs of Polish Jew Wladyslaw Szpilman. A piano virtuoso, he finds himself desperately fighting for his life, his dignity and his humanity amidst the abject horror of the Holocaust. It is, quite simply, a brilliant film; I fear the written word is too fickle a medium to do it justice.

It hence comes as a shock to some that the director, Roman Polanski, is a charged child rapist who has been on the run from American authorities for nearly four decades. Different people react to this in different ways – some find that their view of the film becomes irreparably tarnished, others find that their views hardly change, and yet others find themselves with a sort of vague cognitive dissonance. The intricate embroidery that is interlaced between the creation and the creator is a difficult one to unpick, but such a disentanglement is becoming increasingly important to attempt.

Before I press on further, let me be clear: Polanski’s past is horrendous, and the allegations against him are truly despicable. It is, and always has been the case, that he must face justice. I am not at all saying that making great films excuses such awful behaviour.

On the other hand, his past should by no means taint his excellent directorial output. It seems faintly absurd that the perceived quality of a film ought to be influenced by factors unrelated to the film itself. Ultimately, we must accept that bad people in questionable situations are capable of producing great art.

There is, I believe, much more nuance in the matter of prizegiving, and questions must be asked about what the receipts of his success are used for. It is worrying to think that without his cinematic earnings, he may never have been able to avoid the law as he has. But even if one had qualms about buying a cinema ticket – even then – this does not change the film. It remains as good as it ever was, and as such his films deserve recognition for their artistic prowess.

It can be almost inconvenient from the perspective of the critic that art must undergo the process of creation – it can give unfortunate connotations, problematic subtexts, and bastardised motivations that often both detract from and distract from the work itself. It can daub a vulgar picture over that which we seek to see.  When contemplating the rawest merits of art, one must strive to look beyond this, and allow the art to perform its function: ‘to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass’, in the words of Walter Pater.

This is not to say that context cannot aid our understanding of the ideas behind a work; however, there are certainly circumstances where it is helpful to focus on the essential character of an artwork. In Polanski’s case, one can dislike the man himself, to the point of finding him utterly reprehensible, while still unabashedly loving his work. In today’s ever more interconnected world, it is important to try to separate the art from the artist – and, to a certain extent, to separate the art from reality.