Can We Separate the Art from the Artist?

Mel Gibson with former girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva

by Guest Contributor Brian Robinson

In 2010, I think it’s safe to say that Americans are obsessed with celebrity. We consume it in a feeding frenzy, as the Kardashians, Hiltons, Richies and Snookies parade in front of the camera. But true stars are still hard to come by, and our culture is happy to highlight those that we actually pay money to watch work. Which, when you think about it, is a strange thing to do. Can you imagine an audience of some kind watching you as you work throughout your day? And PAY you for the privilege? We bestow a special position for those in our society who entertain us and do it well. This is why we are fascinated when those to whom we have bestowed this “honor” turn out to be run of the mill, every day human beings. Guess what? They flounder, flail and falter like the rest of us. So, when it’s one of your favorite entertainers, do you continue to support them as artists?

Of course the latest person caught with his (figurative) pants down is Mel Gibson. Gibson forgot, as did many of the people I will mention, that we live in the instantaneous Digital Information age. You say it and it’s likely somebody recorded it. In Mel’s case it was his ex-girlfriend by whom he has a daughter. Unbeknown to the general public, all that intense craziness we saw him enacting on-screen in the ‘Lethal Weapon’ movies, ‘Braveheart’ and ‘Payback’ was maybe a bit more real than we would have guessed. The recordings of his conversations with his ex-girlfriend are vile, misogynistic, childish and scary. He not only insults blacks, women and Mexicans, but even her singing! OK, I haven’t heard her singing, so that part may be justified. One would think that after his well-publicized arrest drama (where he accused Jewish people of being the cause of all of the wars on the world) that he’d have learned his lesson. Although, that arrest was officially expunged, so perhaps he thought that reset some clock somewhere. Isn’t that just like us? But, here is my question to you: should his art be shunned?

Should we, the movie-going public, now solemnly swear to never sit through ‘Ransom,’ ‘Bird On a Wire’ or ‘Apocalypto’ again? Do we punish him by turning our backs whenever we see his face on cable? I am serious here. I want to get a read on how we as a group respond to his outrageous behavior. Other than blogging about it, listening to the talking heads go on about it, what do we really need to do in the way of reaction? You see, you and I have no real direct effect on whether he ever gets hired for another directing or acting job. We have a powerful indirect effect though, in that we can band together and never pay to see another one of his films. But, is that fair? And by fair, I don’t mean to the man, but to the art that he had a hand in creating.

It’s no surprise to anyone reading this blog that movies, TV shows, albums, and just about any other mass entertainment is made as part of a collaboration of many craftspeople and artists. Mel Gibson, for all of his talents, has never alone directed, acted, operated a camera, lit a set, made costumes and recorded the score to a major motion picture. There were hundreds behind the camera that you and I will never really know the names of (even though their names are listed at the end of every movie). Do they deserve to lose work based on his wingnuttery?

More specifically, what if he is really just that damn good of an actor?! What if in his next performance he leapfrogs Marlon Brando to become the best actor on the planet. (And yes, I know that Marlon is no longer ON the planet, but you get me). Should we shun the work, even if he is so transcendent that you don’t see Mel the actor on the screen, but a fully formed different human being altogether? Can we watch without getting hung up on his personal troubles?

Think of some other artists (let’s use that word for lack of a better one right now) who have transgressed in front of the American public; some illegally, some merely offensively:

Woody Allen – accused of molestation (never proven) by his ex-girlfriend, Mia Farrow, whose adopted daughter he eventually married and remains married to this day.

Alec Baldwin – recorded verbally slamming his daughter over being rude to him and disregarding his arrangements to see her according to visitation agreements with the ex (Kim Basinger) and the court.

Lindsay Lohan – arrested for multiple violations on drug offenses, reckless driving and parole violation.

Christian Bale – recorded on the set of ‘Terminator: Salvation’ going above and beyond in castigating the director of photography in front of the entire company.

Charlie Sheen – well-known for his drug addiction, chasing of prostitutes and, recently, choking his wife at knife-point while on vacation.

Robert Downey, Jr. – was a long time drug addict with many misadventures to his name, and spent time in California State prison system for multiple parole violations.

Roman Polanski - famous director who infamously raped a thirteen year old girl in the seventies, served SOME time for the crime, but skipped the country before being sentenced to even more time. Recently was held in Switzerland for deportation to the US, but was freed upon appeal there.

Have you patronized any of the movies, shows or music (Downey and Lohan have recorded music) of any of the aforementioned people since their respective transgressions? I know I have, and more than once. But, not always with a crystal clear conscience.

In a way, I feel that I should join in on the punishment they seem to deserve, not just at the hands of the penal system in some cases, but also in the court of public opinion. But, when I really give it some thought, I can’t always justify that idea in my own head. I can’t stand what I (think) Woody Allen did to his ex-girlfriend or to his son (the molestation accusation never had enough merit to make it to court). And, don’t forget the impropriety of the way he married his wife. But, when I go to see ‘Match Point’ there is nothing in my actions that says, in my mind, that I support what he did. That’s his life, this is his movie. They are not the same thing. Because he wrote and directed a brilliant movie does not change my opinion of what I think I know about his private life.

Apparently there are millions of Americans who have forgiven Charlie Sheen because his sitcom ‘Two and a Half Men’ pulls them in by the droves (personally, I think the show is the biggest crime he ever perpetrated). Nobody thinks twice going to see ‘Iron Man’ or ‘Iron Man 2′ because Downey, Jr. is in it. Hell he, Allen, Baldwin and Polanski all get major awards for their work to this day. Is that the crazy Liberal Elite in Hollywood doing that? Well they must have a lot of recruits because those movies don’t get made if the public won’t pay to see them. I think most of us are willing to cluck our tongues and shake our heads until the next movie or TV show they are in just looks too good to miss.

Perhaps the great artists of the past (Picasso, Van Gogh, Hemingway, Williams, etc.) were all lucky to have been born before the Digital Information Age. We probably wouldn’t have dared to tolerate them otherwise. Or would we?

8 thoughts on “Can We Separate the Art from the Artist?

  1. Brian, you have some very interesting observations about this topic. I think whether people separate the art from the artist, the business from the businessman/woman, the politician from the sex scandal all depend on the feelings of individuals. I don’t think this is about what the group thinks about an actor, business, politician, etc., it’s how individuals FEEL when faced with a decision to support what one of these people or entities do.

    Frankly, when I see Mel Gibson’s face now, I have a visceral reaction – I don’t like him. I don’t care how good the movie is, I can’t get beyond what he’s done in real life…so I take that feeling with me, even if I’m sitting in a movie theater. My emotional hot button goes off and I can’t appreciate his art – period. I just want to smack that smirk off of his face! It’s just too distracting.

    I don’t go to Walmart for a similar reason – they piss me off. They take advantage of their workers, American tax payers and child laborers in other countries, so frankly, I would rather swallow poison than purchase from their store. I have a visceral reaction to the way they do business and I can’t support it.

    In the case of Robert Downey Jr., I will see his movies and I do support him. Why? He has a disease and has worked hard to keep it in check. I have respect for that, regardless of what his drug and alcohol abuse led him to do in the past. I have to say that I am emotionally touched by someone redeeming themselves after hard work and a good track record. When I see him on screen – I WANT to see him succeed, I like the guy AND his acting – I’ll buy the ticket and it may make me like the movie even more.

    Now, if Mel, Walmart, Newt Gingrich, BP, the RIAA & AIG want to do some major overhauling and prove over TIME they can be good citizens and make amends for what they’ve done – then my feelings might change. The ball is in their court as far as I’m concerned – they MADE me hate them.

    Until that time, they are on my shit list.

  2. Kris –

    Thanks for the response. I do agree that it’s about ‘individuals’, and in addition to that it seems in these situations, individuals tend to add up to the group response. People, through friendship, co-worker relationships, etc. tend to influence others in their sphere of influence and it multiplies exponentially, I think.

    I do have one question for you about the ‘Big Box’ stores like Walmart. I also find their practices and effects on local communities to be corrosive (along with unfair competitive practices that doom local retailers wherever they land.) But I have a (maybe) provocative question for you.

    I want to make clear that IN NO WAY am I saying this is just as rotten as Walmart, because they have a history of their behavior, but how do you feel about the Target flap that’s been going on the last few weeks? I know you absolutely adore Target, and I wonder how far they would have to go for you to say they’re on your shit list?

    For those not in the know, Target is known as a very ‘gay friendly’ company, but they recently gave $150,000 to an organization that supports a vehemently anti-gay politician running for Governor in Minnesota. Now, one can say, that companies give money to both sides of a political campaign to cover their asses, but Target (and Best Buy, by the way) didn’t do that in this case. The majority of money went to this organization.

    A little background:

    Another article showing that this isn’t Target’s first time at the rodeo either (they were very active in opposing Al Franken’s run for the Senate as well):

    Now, the second article is quite a long piece, and certainly comes with its agenda out front, but it highlights that this is one of the landmines for corporations that let loose the purse strings after the Supreme Court’s decision to let them spend as much money as they want in advocating a candidate now. This does get us a bit off topic, but I would like to know how people with an opinion view company behavior as a comparison to how they view celebrity behavior.

  3. Brian let me start by saying I LOVED this post. I feel pretty strongly about this and LOVED reading your take on the subject.
    I, however, am on the side of the coin that can almost completely separate the art from the artist. I love Mel Gibson as an actor and do not live in his home, therefore only know the “media” side of the story and we all know how accurate that usually turns out to be. Now, if Mel Gibson came to my little house in Stanwood and physically assaulted me personally I might have something else to say on the subject. However when the only thing I have to go on is 2nd/3rd/4th hand information, I will be continuing to go to see each and every one of his movies.
    This may make me sound hard or may make some people thing that I support beating your wife, or molestation (Woody Allen), or drugs (Robert Downey Jr.) or…the list goes on. When in fact I do not support those things, I just choose not to judge a person, or a situation that I was not involved in at all.
    Here is an example for you. When I was little my Grandma learned from her Focus on the Family newsletter that Kmart supported pornography (as it was put to me…I’m sure it was much more indirect but that was the story I was told). This was BIG news in our house. We enjoyed Kmart more than most and went there at least a couple times a week for some discount clothes, tri flavor pack of popcorn, slurpee, you name it, we went there for it. My Grandma even claimed that her car had “Kmart-itis” which made it turn in to their parking lot with our her being able to control it. But, when we found out that they were “supporters” of something were very against we stopped shopping there. We didn’t set foot in a Kmart for a year (yep it was a long one).
    Did it affect Kmart? Nope. Did they miss the two to three thousand dollars we maybe spent there a year? Probably not. But we felt better for standing up for our beliefs.
    In the end, though, my Grandma’s “itis” got the better of her and we went back. When I asked her if they had stopped supporting pornography she stated that they had not, but as long as we knew what we believed we were okay to shop there.

    So, that long drawn out story to say that in the end I know what I believe and I don’t have to agree with them all to enjoy their talents.

    I’d also hate to see what they would have to talk about if the tables were turned and they shined that camera/media frenzy into my life. I’m sure some would boycott me.

  4. Good stuff Bri. I’m inconsistent in these cases. I’m not going to give up on Mel Gibson and Roman Polanski’s work because they’re amazing artists (Gibson more as a director but he’s a strong actor too). Although the way much of Hollywood excuses Polanski’s dodging of the law (“he’s suffered enough!” they say) makes me second guess my feelings there.

    Then it comes to Victor Salva- the director of the Jeepers Creepers movies who was convicted for EDIT: lewd behavior, sex with a young boy and child porn :END EDIT way back when. I like the Jeepers Creepers movies, but they make me feel more than a little ill the way his camera lingers on the teenage boy’s bare chests in those movies.

    There is probably a point where I will no longer support an artist’s work for something the artist has done, but I either can’t think of it or it hasn’t happened yet.

    Corporations are easier for me to boycott.

  5. Tiffany – I am pleased that this post speaks to you! My guess is that your opinion about Gibson is on the minority these days and I like that you are not only vocal about it, but you have a philosophy behind it.

    Ian – I have to say that I also find the defenses of Polanski by some members of the Hollywood community to be nutty. Remember the list of directors (and others, I think) who signed a support letter that was published in the papers? I have NO idea how one’s talent could be used as a defense for one’s illegal actions. There may be reasons to defend the man, but his career isn’t one of them, in my opinion.

    As for Victor Salva, you reminded me about that guy. I had forgotten how disturbing his stuff is even without the knowledge of his conviction. Lucky for us his professional output has been very low…although I see he’s doing a third ‘Jeepers Creepers’.

    • Brian, I’m surprised at you, don’t you know that when it comes to retail…I’m ON it! Yes, I’m boycotting my favorite store in the world – next to Trader Joe’s – because of their political donation activities. They have apologized, but I’d like to see them pledge not give money to ANY political organization – that way, they can represent ALL of the people that shop & work there.

      For the Target apology:

      As for Walmart – they are still wandering down their pathetic path – check out articles from various sources & what you can do to help them see the light:

      But, as Tiffany and Ian are pointing out – they are making individual choices NOT to boycott Mel or other artists. Frankly, 1st hand audio tapes from the LAPD & Oksana are quite clear – that isn’t really second hand rage & prejudice – no one is screaming for him on those tapes.

      That said, if my boycott helps anything, great – but that’s not really the point, it’s about feeling good about where my $ goes. I don’t feel good giving money to people I have major problems with – period.

      Sort of like you won’t go to see any movies with Will Smith in them, Brian… ;) Ah Ha! Your Achilles heel – you won’t see any good film that Will is in, because you can’t stand him. What’s so different about me not seeing a Mel Gibson flick because I don’t like his attitude & hate-mongering?

      Obviously, you can’t boycott everything, that’s impossible and unrealistic. However, if something or someone particularly bad gets on my radar, I’m not afraid to quietly pull my money – mainly because I’LL know where it’s NOT going.

      • Kris I don’t quite follow your criteria on celebs. First of all- Gibson has not yet been charged in this most recent thing, his family supports him and his lawyers argue those tapes were doctored. I doubt those things will erase what’s been done on those tapes, but still it’s premature to say we know all the facts there.

        On Downey Jr. (who I admit is incredibly likable) what makes you so sure he’s done the work to reform himself to the standards which you have? My point is only that these celebs have a public image as filtered and skewed through publicists, agents, tabloids and puff pieces in People Magazine, so I highly doubt we a) know all there is to know about them nor can we b) trust what we hear as complete and authentic. Hollywood tells good stories of disgrace and redemption and I’m sure those stories of fiction are not just limited to what’s on screen. They ALWAYS come back and tell Diane Sawyer that they’ve changed for the better. It makes sense to me to keep our opinions of them based more on personal taste (I like them or not for whatever reason- ideally a creative one (or lack thereof)) without trying to establish standards to hold them to and then claim to know if they actually measure up.

  6. Well, I stopped supporting Mel when he was arrested and charged for drunk driving and then proceeded to say nasty things about Jewish people. I don’t really need another legal conviction to know that he has rage and hatred and a terrible drinking problem. So, in that sense, what you said is correct, I don’t like him and I won’t support him.

    It’s true that no one knows the “real” story behind celebrities – I’m sure there are a lot of idiots that are still getting my $. However, as I said above, if it gets on my radar (news, TV, etc.) and it makes me angry enough – I’ll withdraw my dollars. Audio tapes, arrest records, mean/offensive public displays on video, will generally catch my attention as generally reliable, unless proven otherwise.

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