Skip to main content

Culture Creep: How and Why We Separate the Artist From the Art

Woody Allen married his stepdaughter, Coco Chanel slept with Nazis, and R. Kelly is a sexual predator, but our brains find a way to let us appreciate their art.
Woody Allen. (Photo: Colin Swan/Flickr)

Woody Allen. (Photo: Colin Swan/Flickr)

The first Woody Allen movie I ever saw was Manhattan. It was 2004, I was 14 years old, and less than a minute into the intro (a black-and-white cityscape of New York City set to “Rhapsody in Blue”) I found my purpose in life: to one day make it to New York and write. It wasn’t exactly the most original aspiration for a pale, skinny Midwestern kid, but it sustained me through four painfully mundane years of suburban high school existence. When I graduated from New York University this past May—the school Allen briefly attended in the 1950s—I could trace the previous eight years of my life back to that first minute of Manhattan: the 14-year-old me, totally enamored with this weird, bumbling, bespectacled filmmaker from Brooklyn.

At 14, I was only two years younger than Mariel Hemingway was in 1979—the year she played Allen’s nubile love interest in Manhattan. She was 16, her character 17; but to a barely pubescent film-geek standing at just over five feet, she looked 28. Allen was 44, his character, Isaac, 40. But, to me, it wasn’t unusual that a 40-year-old man might be romantically involved with a girl who looked 28. Both occupied that hazy realm of general maturity that was totally and forever incomprehensible to my young brain. Plus, it was wildly encouraging to think that such a beautiful woman would ever show interest in a guy so nerdy, short, skinny, and pale.

Between the ages of 14 and 18, I grew up fast. Psychologically and anatomically. But in regards to Woody, I remained steadfastly naïve. Around age 16, my mother, I think slightly concerned by my infatuation with the guy, hinted that he had done some not-so-cool things with his stepdaughter in the late '90s. Namely, marrying her. And although that felt uncomfortably reflective of his fictional relationship with Hemingway (potential case for quasi-incest aside), the issue remained abstract, vaguely transgressive, but not substantive enough to inspire a backyard bonfire of my DVD collection. So the guy liked younger women? So what? So did Charlie Sheen. So did Donald Trump. That was the smallest of criticisms lobbed at men like that—and at least Woody contributed something that mattered to the universe: Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, Husbands and Wives, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine—films that I love like an art-lover loves a Bruegel, or a foodie loves white truffle.

Just as a Christian is more likely to extract and cherish the ideals of Christianity, the enjoyer of art is compelled to perceive a distilled ideal of the artist: the twinkly-eyed Tom Hanks version of Walt Disney, not the Nazi-sympathizing, Red-hunting imperialist-patriarchist.

In an oddly appropriate juncture of events, I read Maureen Orth’s story in Vanity Fair a few short months after leaving New York—land of the Allenian romance I swore I’d never abandon—for my first job in Washington, D.C. The piece laid bare Mia Farrow’s tumultuous relationship with Allen, which stemmed from his alleged molestation of Dylan Farrow, the daughter jointly adopted by the couple, then only seven years old. It was a come-to-Jesus moment for me, if I’ve ever had one. Despite the fact that Allen was never formally convicted of the charges, seeing all the circumstances laid out in print flipped a switch deep in the folds of my brain. There was something categorically not right about the entire situation. At worst, Allen molested his adopted daughter; at best, he has a history of wildly inappropriate behavior toward underage or barely legal women. And how could I consider myself an ally to women if I so readily dismissed the claims of two—Mia and Dylan—who, quite frankly, had nothing to gain?

I won’t go any deeper into whether Allen is guilty or not. Dylan Farrow herself laid things out pretty clearly over the weekend. And Orth does a fine enough job of parsing out the facts and timeline of alleged events. The point is, I found myself in a position where an artist repulsed me, but his art enchanted me.

I STARTED NOTICING SIMILAR conflicts everywhere I looked. I was weaned on classic Disney movies: 101 Dalmatians, Robin Hood, The Jungle Book, Mary Poppins. And I’ve always had a soft spot for the mind behind the magic, Walt Disney. Meryl Streep shattered that illusion in a speech delivered at the National Board of Review gala earlier this month. The man made great movies that brought happiness to billions of people, myself included, but he was—inarguably—a racist, an anti-Semite, a misogynist, a corporatist, and a raging McCarthyist (which is pretty much a catch-all, with the added bonus of blacklisting your friends and colleagues).

As consumers of culture, we separate art from artist all the time. R. Kelly is a sexual predator, but “Bump ‘n’ Grind” is a great song! (Or, at least classic. It’s a classic song.) John Mayer’s penis is a racist, but Paradise Valley is an incredible album. Alec Baldwin is a little bit homophobic, but Jack Donaghy is one of the greatest sitcom characters of all time. Jonathan Franzen is a pretentious hypocrite, but he’s a beyond gifted and beloved novelist. And the phenomenon certainly isn’t limited to artists of this era. As Jay Parini wrote in The New York Times in 2009, “Nobody looks at a Picasso painting in a museum and says, ‘I should not take this work seriously because Picasso cheated on his many wives and was abusive to his son.’” The list goes on: Gore Vidal was a racist. Ezra Pound was an anti-Semite. Warren Beatty was a massive womanizer. Coco Chanel slept with Nazis. People are terrible. Even the famous and accomplished ones.

Whether separating art from artist is right or wrong is a question that provokes too many headaches to answer succinctly—but the ability and proclivity to do so is an inevitability of participating in modern culture. Yes it’s upsetting and disorienting to love something you should be loath to loathe, but it might be a small comfort to know why you’re doing it.

There are a few theories, the first being simple apotheosis. Early 20th-century Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank wrote a book called Art and Artist, in which he explained, “For this is the very essence of man, his soul, which the artist puts into his work and which is represented by it, is found again in the work by the enjoyer, just as the believer finds his soul in religion or in God, with whom he feels himself to be one.”

Basically, Rank suggests the psychology of artistic appreciation is not all that dissimilar from the psychology of faith. In the Christian Bible, for example, there are numerous examples of divine benevolence: the curing of lepers, the welcoming of prostitutes, etc. There are also numerous instances of cruelty: Leviticus, the slaying of firstborns, etc. Yet, when a Christian explains his or her reasons for believing, it’s not typically the acts of cruelty that are cited, are they? And although Picasso, among a long list of infidelities, maintained a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old mistress while he was married, art lovers around the world worship the man for his foundational impact on 20th-century art. His 1973 New York Times obituary read: “Pablo Picasso remains without doubt the most original, the most protean and the most forceful personality in the visual arts in the first three-quarters of this century.... He created his own universe, investing it with his own human beings and his own forms of beasts and myths.” He created his own universe. If that’s not deification, I don’t know what is.

In his extensive analysis of Otto Rank’s work, psychotherapist George Hagman, author of Aesthetic Experience: Beauty, Creativity, and the Search for the Ideal, writes: “Despite the feeling of oneness, Rank stressed that the ‘enjoyer’ does not lose his or her awareness of individuality in the appreciation of beauty. Nonetheless, the sense of beauty involves an experience in which the individual feels intimately related to an ideal other, and as a result feels whole.” Just as a Christian is more likely to extract and cherish the ideals of Christianity, the enjoyer of art is compelled to perceive a distilled ideal of the artist: the twinkly-eyed Tom Hanks version of Walt Disney, not the Nazi-sympathizing, Red-hunting imperialist-patriarchist.

The second theory is known as “splitting,” or “all-or-nothing thinking.” Splitting results from an individual’s failure to incorporate both positive and negative perceptions of the self or others into a more realistic composite. The term was coined by Scottish psychiatrist Ronald Fairbairn as a part of his greater “object relations theory.” It’s an incredibly common psychological defense mechanism, often appropriated by children to understand and rationalize parental behavior. At a young age, some children are psycho-emotionally incapable of perceiving their parents as flawed objects, so they simply choose to ignore the flaws, or eventually embrace them wholly. Splitting divides the world into a good-bad, black-and-white binary: those objects to be idealized, and those to be devalued. Because we don’t typically maintain personal relationships with the artist, the art suffices as representation of him or her. So if we hate the art, we devalue the artist. If we love the art, we idealize the artist.

Possibly the simplest psychological explanation for separating art and artist, though, is repression—an essential concept of both apotheosis and splitting. We consciously and unconsciously choose to forget the bad—the creepiness of Woody Allen, the pseudo-fascisms of Walt Disney, Picasso’s sleaziness, John Mayer’s racist member—and we elevate the good—the great films, beautiful paintings, and evocative lyrics. It’s the same thought process that drives thousands of young people, like me, to move to New York City. They (OK, we) forget the obscenely overpriced shoebox-sized apartments, the millions (billions?) of cockroaches, that vague smell of urine ubiquitous in hot summer months. We think of the quaint coffee shops, the jazz quartets in Washington Square Park, the Friends-style two-bedrooms perpetually out of our budgets. Just as Isaac says in the intro to Manhattan, we “romanticize it all out of proportion.”