The renowned Zen practitioner and teacher Charlotte Joko Beck quotes the priest Anthony Demillo, who said that we should view all people as mean, vicious, untrustworthy, and manipulative. And innocent. And blameless.
We are all products of our cultural backgrounds. We learn behaviors and beliefs from our parents and they from their parents and so on. We are influenced by media, our education system, our peers, so many conveyors of various cultural expressions, some, as we know being racist, sexist, all kinds of ist.
We struggle on. We change, or at least try very hard to change.
Soon I’ll be talking with some children in a secular Jewish school about my personal story as a feminist, how I grew up in a religious environment that valued boys over girls, how I left that world to fight against the war in Viet Nam and ultimately to become part of the new wave of feminism in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Thinking about my own history, I remembered the newscasters on a particularly liberal news program on public television called Newsroom. The newscasters, all men, snickered about this new wave of feminism. It was a big joke to them. These same newscasters would never laugh now about feminism. Those now in their chairs have changed. Remembering this episode in my own history feeds my optimism.
What am I leading up to?
I love the creativity of Louis C.K. I love the films of Woody Allen. I love the writing of Leo Tolstoy and Norman Mailer and Philip Roth. I could go on. Claire Dederer recently wrote a piece in The Paris Review called “What Do We Do With the Art of Monstrous Men?” She included a long, though not comprehensive, list of famous men whose values in their actual life (as opposed to their art) were unacceptable.
Bill Cosby, Carravaggio, Ezra Pound, John Galliano, Lead Belly, Max Ernst, Miles Davis, Norman Mailer, Pablo Picasso, Phil Spector, Richard Wagner, Roman Polanski, Sid Vicious, S. Naipaul, William Burroughs, Woody Allen
These are just Twitter tags and certainly not a comprehensive list.
Will I never see a Woody Allen film again? Will I never listen to Miles Davis? Is Ezra Pound on the no-read list? Is Tolstoy? No. I would feel impoverished if I could no longer see “Annie Hall” or read War and Peace.
I, personally, am more comfortable separating the artist from the art. If there is something that I find objectionable in the art, I’ll be the first person to point this out. When Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” came out, I saw it. I felt comfortable critiquing his breaking of the criteria for the evaluation of dramatizations of the Passion that the National Conference of Catholic Bishops had drawn up. Whether or not Mel Gibson was or is an anti-Semite is irrelevant to me, except insofar as his anti-Semitism is conveyed in his films. In that film, I believe it was, and I was quite vocal about my objections. Should I not see “Braveheart?” “Mad Max?” I refuse to be confined to seeing the work of proven righteous people. How are we to know who is righteous enough to be allowed to express themselves artistically?
I am strongly disappointed in Louis C.K. and Woody Allen and all the flawed artists who have been accused of sexual misconduct. But I do not want to deprive myself or anyone of their genius. So I am also strongly disappointed in the call for boycotting all the work of these perpetrators. We are punishing ourselves for their misconduct, and this makes no sense to me.